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Bakelite in Yonkers: Pioneering the Age of Plastics

Hudson River Museum    February 6 – June 6, 2010

The word Bakelite® conjures images from a glamorous Art Deco bracelet to hardworking handles on pots and pans. It is the “Material of a Thousand Uses.” Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the plastic called Bakelite in his Yonkers laboratory in 1907.  Beginning February 6, the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, will bring, for the first time, more than 300 rare objects made from Bakelite and the more modern melamine.  The exhibition, Bakelite in Yonkers: Pioneering the Age of Plastics, will be on view through June 6.

This first plastic, or as its inventor coined it “artificial resinoid,” was molded or cast into toy trains, bangles, radios, typewriters, lamps, chip-and dip-bowls, coffee grinders, and thermoses. First an inexpensive alternative to precious materials such as ivory for billiard balls, Bakelite became the favorite of designers from Mid-modernists Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy to contemporary Philippe Starck.  Bakelite’s enormous influence on the lives of nearly everyone in the twentieth century continues today, as it finds a place in computers and cars and equipment for space exploration.

Bakelite in Yonkers includes the promotion of plastic products in vintage advertisements, 1930s film footage illustrating the Bakelite process and Art Deco and contemporary jewelry. The exhibition is drawn from the holdings of the Amsterdam Bakelite® Collection which includes some 4,000 objects owned by Reindert Groot, a Netherlands producer and director, as well as that of Hugh Karraker, a great grandson of Leo Baekeland; the Yonkers Historical Society; and other private collections.

Bakelite’s inventor, Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland, was born in Belgium in 1863. A brilliant chemistry student at the University of Ghent, he was offered, at age 23, an assistant professorship. Instead, he married his professor’s beautiful daughter Celine Swarts and that same year, 1889, took her to America to settle in Yonkers and begin work there in his home-based laboratory. Baekeland sold the patent for one of his first inventions Velox, a revolutionary photographic paper, to the Eastman Kodak Company. The sale made him a rich man and an independent researcher, free to find a substitute for shellac, a quest eluding many chemists of the time.

Baekeland invented Bakelite by combining phenol (carbolic acid) and formaldehyde under specific conditions of heat and pressure to produce a “magical” substance that cooled could not be affected by solvents or reheating.  He applied for a patent and in 1909 announced his discovery to the American Chemical Society. Bakelite plants set up in Germany, near Berlin, and in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, were soon followed by 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. The rest is the history of color, use, impermeability, and adaptability.
Bakelite in Yonkers: Pioneering the Age of Plastics is organized by Reindert Groot for the Amsterdam Bakelite® Collection, and Hugh Karraker in partnership with the Hudson River Museum. Bakelite is a registered trade name of Hexion Specialty Chemicals, Inc., Columbus, Ohio.

More information on Bakelite at: /

Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, NY. Wed – Sun, 12-5 pm. Friday, 12-7:30 pm. Museum: $5 adults, $3 seniors & youth 5-16. Children under 5, free. Members Free. Fridays 5-7:30 pm Museum and  Planetarium  admission FREE. Exit 9 (Executive Blvd). Saw Mill River Pkwy (north or south). Info & Dir: 914.963.4550;

The largest cultural institution in Westchester County, the Hudson River Museum is a multi-disciplinary complex that draws its identity from its site on the banks of the Hudson River, and seeks to broaden the cultural horizons of all its visitors. It engages in the presentation of exhibitions, programs, teaching initiatives, research, collection, preservation, and conservation – a wide range of activities that interpret its collections, interests and communities.




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