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Bakelite – Not Your Average Plastic

2011 July 27

Culinary master, Fukasawa uses his Alessi Shiba pots and pans

I come across lots of fascinating facts and learn tons of cool stuff about the history of design in my job, and Bakelite (bake-ah-light) is one of those examples. I was writing about culinary master and design pro, Fukasawa (an Alessi designer), and the pots and pans he’s introduced to the modern kitchen when I came across Bakelite. The handles for the Shiba collection are offered in Bakelite, and being a child of the ‘80s, I had absolutely no idea what that was and had to ask one of our respected antique pros about the material. She gave me a ton of great info regarding what is considered America’s first plastic, which is quickly coming back into vogue.

Leo H. Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite

Bakelite’s inventor, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, was a natural entrepreneur. He immigrated to the United States in 1889 from Ghent, Belgium, and sold his first invention (Velox – a photographic printing paper that could be developed under artificial light) to Kodak in 1899 for – get this – one million dollars. He then started his own laboratory in Yonkers, New York, where he invented Bakelite in 1907. By mixing two chemicals – formaldehyde and phenol – and subjecting them to heat and pressure, a sticky resin was created and Baekeland named the invention after himself (wouldn’t you?). Baekeland introduced his invention to the public at a chemical conference in 1909 and promptly founded the General Bakelite Corp., making tons of money and becoming world famous in the early 1920s.

Antique Bakelite bracelets

But it’s just a plastic, right? Right. It’s the plastic – the original plastic that first spurred on the plastics compression-molding industry. Once hardened, the plastic can’t be reformed and back in the day was typically used in casings for electronic items like radios and rotary-dial telephones. Bakelite was also used widely in costume jewelry and still holds a steady price for antique bracelets and pins.

How to test if it's real Bakelite

Probably the most fascinating thing about Bakelite is how to tell if it’s genuine. Some people suggest taking a hot needle and actually melting into the plastic to release its distinctive formaldehyde scent (not recommended!), but if you simply rub the plastic with your fingers or run it under hot water, the heat causes the same telling smell without damaging the piece. Cool! Check out Barn House Antiques for some really great info on other ways to test your Bakelite piece (like using Simichrome polish).

Fukasawa using a Shiba pot with a black Bakelite handle

Needless to say, I’m now on the hunt for some genuine Bakelite, like the handles in Fukasawa’s Shiba kitchen collection. Also check out the all new AddColour Cylinda Line jugs and coffee pots by Paul Smith for Stelton, featuring fun and funky Bauhaus Bakelite handles that look great in the modern home.

AddColour Cylinda Line

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