Bakelite in Bookmarks
With Earth Day only a month past, it feels weird to be writing about plastic. But the fact is that our modern lives are filled with it—and have been for a long time.
Plastics have been around for much longer than one might think. As an adjective, the substance called “plastic” refers to its ability to flow and to be molded. But defining plastics is trickier, and must necessarily use some scientific terms, starting with this: plastics are all polymers (poly = many). A polymer is simply a very large molecule made up of many smaller units joined together, generally end to end, to create a long chain. Polymers include both natural and synthetic. Natural polymers include amber, gum, shellac, tortoiseshell, horn, and a number of resinous tree saps. Synthetic ones are fairly recent, traceable only back as far as the International Exhibition of London in 1862. But whether natural or synthetic, these have for centuries been made into decorative items such as jewelry and hair combs as well as useful and decorative objects.
Polymers are divided into two groups: thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics have the ability to be heated and reformed repeatedly without chemical change; it is also not resistant to solvents. Thermosets, on the other hand cannot be reshaped; once given a shape it stays that shape forever. Bakelite is a thermoset.
Bakelite is the invention of Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland. Born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1863 in modest circumstances. At the age of seventeen, he entered Ghent University on a scholarship, and emerged four years later with a doctoral degree in the natural sciences.
He married his professor’s daughter, then left for the United States on a traveling fellowship. He set up his own photographic factory near New York and also developed a light-sensitive photographic paper called Velox that was so successful it attracted the notice of George Eastman who purchased the patent rights and the company for the then-huge sum of $750,000 in 1899. Besides the money, Baekeland promised to refrain from further involvement in the business of photography for twenty years.
The sudden wealth gave Baekeland the freedom to pursue his own interests, which, around 1905 began to center on a study he had begun earlier, exploring synthetic resins. The growing use of electricity meant a growing demand for insulating materials. Baekeland experimented until he was able to control the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde under heat and pressure, which enabled him to produce a new phenolic polymer: Bakelite.
He filed his now-famous “heat and pressure” patent on July 13, 1907, noting “This invention relates to an improved method of reacting with formaldehyde upon phenol or a phenolic body, and the improved product resulting from such reaction. On February 5, 1909, he introduced his invention to the public at the “Chemist’s Club” in New York.
In 1910, Baekeland joined forces with a German phenol supplier to establish the first factory specifically to produce Bakelite. It was located near Berlin. A second factory in the U.S. followed a mere five months later: the General Bakelite Company of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Bakelite offered immense possibilities. Its raw materials—phenol and formaldehyde—were readily available in quantity, and the molding powder made mechanized production possible on a large scale. Adding filters and coloring agents further increased commercial possibilities, and Baekeland began to offer existing industries licenses to produce their own in-house Bakelite.
During World War I, the defense industry used Bakelite in the production of ignition facilities, shell cases, and airplane propellers, and shortly after the war ended more factories were set up throughout the world including Canada, England, Japan, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and South America.
So popular had Bakelite become that Baekeland was forced to court repeatedly to defend his rights. Despite the fact that he had originally registered both his patents and the trademark in a number of countries throughout the world, they were abused so widely and so often that they became generic, even appearing in leading dictionaries with a small “b.” And the eventual result was a merger of several sued companies and General Bakelite Company into the Bakelite Corporation.
In its September 22, 1924 issue, Time magazine put Baekeland on its cover. The accompanying article described the plastic this way:
Specifically, it is a composition, born of fire and mystery, having the rigor and brilliance of glass, and luster of amber from the Isles. Poetically, it is a resin formed from equal parts of phenol and formaldehyde, in the presence of a base, by the application of heat. It will not burn. It will not melt. It is used in pipe stems, fountain pens, billiard balls, telephone fixtures, castanets, radiator caps, etc. In liquid form it is a varnish. Jellied, it is glue. Those familiar with its possibilities claim that in a few years it will be embodied in every mechanical facility of modern civilization. From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a bakelite handled toothbrush, until the moment he falls back upon his bakelite bed (in the evening), all that he touches, sees, uses, will be made of this material of a thousand uses.
Promotional efforts encompassed the range of consumer products. One of the most memorable was by Parker Pen Company who filmed its “Duofold” Bakelite pencil case being flung from the twenty-third floor of a Fifth Avenue building. It was retrieved, unharmed and unbroken. In 1936, Fortune magazine proclaimed Bakelite the king of plastics, noting, “Your fountain pen, your light switch your lampshades and spectacle frames, electrical insulators of all kinds and your telephone receiver—everything is almost entirely consisting of bakelite plastic.”
In 1939, Baekeland sold Bakelite Corporation to Union Carbide and retired. By the time of his death in 1944, the world production of phenoplastics was approximately 175,000 tons encompassing industries from automobiles, air, space and sea travel, telecommunications and more. Even the heat shield of the Jupiter probe that extracted information from our gigantic galactic neighbor was made of phenolic resin.
Today Bakelite is very collectible. One of the biggest collectors of Bakelite jewelry during his lifetime was Andy Warhol, who had several bonded warehouses full of it. The sale at Sotheby’s in 1988 achieved record sales. However, for the collector who doesn’t know how to determine if an article is genuine Bakelite there are dangers. The name is often used indiscriminately by ill-informed or deceptive dealers to describe any thermosetting plastic material.
I cannot be sure these bookmarks are genuine Bakelite. However, I believe them to be; the silver material is marked as sterling, which indicates to me that the material upon which it has been placed has some value. And there are ways to test for Bakelite so if I ever want to be sure I probably can. In the meantime, I can enjoy these bookmarks, not as bookmarks for even as thin as they are they are far too thick to use in any book without inflicting visual stigmata upon the pages. For now they remain as reminders of the “forever-ness” of Bakelite, items of collectible interest that will last far longer than the oldest living things on our planet, the giant redwood trees, or even our sun. That’s some heritage.
Bookmark specifications: Bakelite bookmarks (red and green)
Dimensions: 4 1/2" x 2/3"
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,300 bookmarks and approximately the same number of books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.