The Great Depression was a painful time in American history, but it was the era in which a versatile plastic called Bakelite starred.
The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite was created by a Belgian-born chemist named Leo Baekeland in 1907. Baekeland had been trying to create a fire-resistant shellac for use in the electrical trade; instead, he created a heat-resistant form of plastic.
Because Bakelite was inexpensive to produce, it soon became one of the most prevalent products of the Depression. Most people are familiar with Bakelite jewelry, such as pins, bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings, but Bakelite was also used to make radio and camera casings, flatware handles, medical equipment, game pieces (such as dominoes, dice and poker chips), toys, telephones, and more. Jewelry was produced until 1942, at which point Bakelite was conserved for the war effort.
Bakelite is one of the most colorful collectibles on the market, but the colors we are so fond of today were not the original hues of the 1930s. For example, an amber-toned piece that dates to the '30s started out as clear. Over the years, however, exposure to light turned Bakelite a different color. If you gently buff the surface of a piece of Bakelite, its original shade will be revealed. It is amazing to discover a lovely shade of lavender within a piece of brown Bakelite.
For those seeking to start a collection, you've made a good choice. Though wildly popular these days due to its retro appeal, Bakelite is affordable. You can begin a jewelry collection by buying a narrow bracelet for as little as $15. If you are after less feminine wares, you may want to begin by collecting Bakelite radios. As with most collectibles, there are a wide range of prices and styles to choose from. You may pay less than $50 for a vintage Admiral Table or $500 for a nonworking Butterscotch Catalin. Many pre-World War I items have attractive casings, and art deco radios are in high demand. You can also find Bakelite radios on the Internet.
Perhaps you'd prefer to purchase some vintage Bakelite gaming equipment, but you're wary of buying fakes. The price seems fair, but you're not sure if the material is Bakelite or not. To tell if it's real Bakelite, rub the item with your fingertips until it is warm. You should notice a formaldehyde smell. It may be only a subtle scent, but if you smell absolutely nothing, then the material is probably not Bakelite.
Because you cannot conduct this test in cyberspace, keep this rule in mind to avoid buying a fake online: The more elaborate the piece of genuine Bakelite, the more expensive it should be. If you see an auction ending in which there is a charming set of flatware with Bakelite handles selling for $5, then you are probably looking at a different plastic such as celluloid.
Judy Splawn, co-manager of West End Antiques Mall, has been collecting Bakelite for 15 years. She suggests that new collectors arm themselves with some reference books before buying. Two of her favorites are Shultz Bakelite Jewelry by Karima Parmy and Bakelite Jewelry – Good, Better, Best by Donna Wassertrom and Leslie Pia. Splawn began collecting jewelry because she was drawn to its color and warmth. "It's a fascinating material," she says, "because it's both durable and fragile. It's a plastic, but if you drop it on a hard surface, it will break. It can also get scratched." Splawn takes care of her collection by cleaning the pieces with warm water and a terry cloth.
"Check out estate sales and antiques shops, Splawn suggests. "You'll never forget the first time you buy a piece that is in one of your reference books. Collecting is an exciting adventure!"
For tips on collecting, repair, and purchasing Bakelite radios, an invaluable tool is www.antiqueradios.com.