Bakelite: The "Material of a Thousand Uses"
Marketed as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, Bakelite was the first truly synthetic plastic, patented by the American inventor Leo Hendrik Baekland in 1907. Very soon, dozens of household and technical uses were found for it from fountain pens and ashtrays to electrical and communications equipment, including radios and radio equipment. It’s no surprise that conservators working on the IMLS communications grant encounter it so often.
Leo Baekland had already achieved commercial success with the invention of Velox photographic paper, and was able to maintain a home laboratory in New York State.
At the time of Bakelite’s discovery Mr. Baekland, like many other chemists, had been working with resins in an attempt to find an alternative to shellac but failed to make a commercially successful material. While Bakelite was in no way a replacement for shellac, it was a happy accident for Baekland who had heated phenol and formaldehyde together with catalysts creating a resin. This resin was then cast into lead molds and cured in heated ovens. Over time production and was improved by adding wood flour to create a powder that could be heat molded more quickly. It is hard, heat resistant, and resistant to acids. Although this material could have been pigmented any color, only the darker pigments, such as black, brown, and deep red, covered the fillers that were used in Bakelite until the late 1920s.
Bakelite brand dominated the market until 1927 when the patent expired, afterwards other trade names appear.
Conservators can often identify Bakelite based on its smooth polished surface, dark intense colors, and odor. Phenol-formaldehyde, the main component of Bakelite has the odor of antiseptic soap, especially when warmed slightly. Bakelite and similar phenol-formaldehyde plastics are some of the most stable. The Bakelite component of an object is usually found in good condition, but when deteriorated (due to poor manufacturing, heat or extreme exposure) it may lose its luster or crack.
This post is part of an ongoing series documenting recent conservation work completed thanks to an Institute of Museums and Library Sciences grant,#MA-30-13-0568-13.
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