Introduction
 

C
ast phenolic rods.
Courtesy Amsterdam Bakelite® Collection, © Reindert Groot 
 

Every day we come into contact with all kinds of synthetic materials that are so familiar to us that life without them would be hard to imagine. They all have mysterious chemical names and yet can be grouped under a single word: plastic. Bakelite is also a kind of plastic, and it was the first fully synthetic resin to become commercially successful.

 
   
 



Leo Baekeland in his Laboratory, 1909

Image Courtesy Amsterdam Bakelite® Collection

 

Bakelite was named by its inventor, Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland, who was born in Belgium in 1863. He graduated cum laude in the natural sciences, married, and then emigrated to the United States. Baekeland first invented a revolutionary photographic paper, Velox, selling its patent rights in 1899 to Eastman Kodak Company. Now a rich man, he was free to undertake research aimed at creating a substitute for shellac, a quest that eluded many chemists of the time. Through the use of a catalyst, Baekeland found that he could control the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde under heat and pressure to produce a new phenol polymer with remarkable characteristics: Bakelite. On July 13,1907, he filed his ‘heat and pressure patent’ in the United States.

 

 

First Semi-Commercial Still of the General Bakelite Company,
c. 1910-1917

8 x 10 in.
Hudson River Museum Collection
This steam pressure vessel is similar to the “Bakelizer,” which was used by Leo H. Baekeland to produce commercial quantities of the first totally synthetic plastic, Bakelite. Bakelite was produced by reacting phenol and formaldehyde under pressure at high temperatures.  It was dubbed "Old Faithful" by its early operator.
 


General Bakelite Company. c. 1917
5 5/8 x 8 5/8 in.
Hudson River Museum Collection

 

In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Leo Baekeland found the ideal place for his first commercial-scale plant to produce Bakelite.  On September 29,1910, the General Bakelite Company went into business under the ownership of Dr. Baekeland and Roseeler & Hasslacher, an importer of phenol and cresol, two ingredients in addition to formaldehyde essential to the production of plastic.  By 1917 this plant was abandoned for more modern facilities.

 

Drawing of Bakelite Plant, Bound Brook,NJ
B/W mounted 9 ½ x12 in.
Hudson River Museum Collection,
Gift of the Estate of Armour Smith
This illustration, taken from the Bakelite Review of 1935, shows the Bakelite Factory, which was built of concrete, steel and brick in 1932. Not a single piece of timber was used in the construction. Bakelite plants were eventually set up in Germany near Berlin, with others in Europe Japan, Australia, South Africa and South America.  By 1944, the year of Baekeland’s death, global production of phenoplastics exceeded 175,000 tons.
Bakelite: A New Material of a Thousand Uses
 


Image: Jason J. Weller
Eight Color Samples from
British Industrial Plastics Ltd
Great Britain, UF

 

“Wherever wheels whirr, wherever women preen themselves in the glitter of electric lights, wherever a ship plows the sea or an airplane floats in the blue – wherever people are living in the Twentieth Century sense of the word – there Bakelite will be found rendering its enduring service.”

- John Kimberly Mumford
in The Story of Bakelite, 1924

 
 
 
Phenolic Jewels
 
 


Image: Jason J. Weller

 

Four Bracelets, c.1940s-1950s
United States, cast phenolic resin, carved

 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
The Amber Colored Bracelets, c,1940s-1950s
United States, cast phenolic resin, carved
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Necklace, c.1950s
Dark jaded green cast phenolic resin
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Dice, 1940s-1950s
United States and European, various color cast phenolic resin
 
 
 
Home and Office
 
 


Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot

 

Kitchen Scale, “Magener”, c.1928
Germany, dark red PF, metal

 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Radio, “Tesla Talisman", mid 1950s
Czechoslovakia, maroon PF, glass metal
Manufactured by Tesla
 

Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot
 
Gio Ponti for Ducati Corporation
Desk Intercom, “dufono”, c. 1940s
Italy, black PF, metal, rubber, cotton, felt
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Duplicator, “Duplicard”, c. 1940
United States, black PF, metal, painted wood, flannel, rubber
Made by PAC Manufacturing Corporation, Terre Haute, Indiana, Designed by William B. Petzold.
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Weather Station, “Barometer and Thermometer” c.1930s
United States, black PF, metal, glass
Publicity article for Joy Chemical Co., Pawtucket, R.I.
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Typewriter, early 20th century
Germany, brown PF, metal, rubber
 
 
 
Children
 
 


Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot


 

Word  Game, c. 1930s
Austria, PF, carton box
80 black and red pieces with alphabet and original box.

 
 


Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot

 

Toy Racing Car, “Talbot”, 1950s
Czechoslovakia, dark red PF, metal and rubber

 
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 
Fire Truck, mid 20th c.
East Germany, red sprayed PF, metal, rubber
 
 

Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot
 
Time Teacher”, mid-20th c.
England, brown PF, metal, and original box
 
 

Image: Amsterdam Bakelite Collection,
© Reindert Groot
 
Toy Projector, c. 1960s
Bulgaria , baby blue UF with off white stripe and black lens mount,  metal circular holder
 
 
 
Fun and Flair
 
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 

Pool Table Balls
USA, cast phenolic resin

 
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 

Cigar Cutter, “Gibus”, c.1950s
Denmark, brown PF, metal

Place a cigar in the laughing clown's mouth, press the hat, and your cigar tip will be clipped.

 
 


Image: Jason J. Weller

 
Cigarette Box, c.1930s
France, black PF with silver inlay
Produced by G.O.P., Paris
 
 

Image: Jason J. Weller
 

Ashtray, Cigarette Box, Matchbox Holder, c.1930s-1940s
Czechoslovakia, black PF, metal, cord
Produced by Gummon-Werke, Bratislava

Art Deco-style, publicity ashtray produced for a cable manufacturer. A cable sample is held by the elephant in his trunk.

 

 

 



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