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So what is Bakelite ? ... The Facts


MY BAKELITE LECTURE/TALK is now available !!! Includes exhibits, slide show, handouts and much much more.. please contact me for full details, see below .. many people have already enjoyed the fun world of Bakelite... these include the Havering Antiques and Collectors Club, The Yorkshire Clarice Cliff Group and Ann Zierold Art Deco Fairs just to name a few !!!  BEING SO VERSATILE BAKELITE COVERS A WIDE SPECTRUM WHICH MIGHT BE JUST THE THING TO FILL ONE OF THE MEETING DATES IN YOUR CLUB'S CALENDAR OF EVENTS !!!

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A brief insight into the World of Bakelite:
The tea card shown below was issued by SUNBLEST TEA in 1960. Card was in a series entitled ' INVENTIONS & DISCOVERIES'..... shows a Bakelite radio, plus a picture of Mr Leo Baekeland as an inset....




reproduced by kind permission of the Union Carbide Corporation U.S.A.

Doctor of Chemistry, University of Pittsburgh 1916
Doctor of Science, Columbia University 1929
Doctor of Applied Science, University of Brussels 1934
Doctor of Laws, University of Edinburgh 1937
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Honorary Member, Royal Society of Edinburgh
Life Member, American Philosophical Society
Life Member, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Life Member, Franklin Institute
Life Member, Royal Society of Arts London
Life Member, Societe Chimique de France
Honorary Professor, Columbia University
Honorary Member, American Institute of Chemists
Honorary Member, Electrochemical Society, President 1909
Honorary Member, Societe Belge des Electriciens
Honorary Member, Societe de Chimie Industrielle Paris
Vice President, Society of Chemical Industry, London 1905
President, American Institute of Chemical Engineers 1912
President, American Chemical Society 1924
Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society 1909
John Scott Medal, Franklin Institute 1910
Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section American Chemical Society 1913
Chandler Medal,( first award ),Columbia University 1914
Perkin Medal, Society Chemical Industry 1916
Messel Medal, Society Chemical Industry, London 1938
Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute 1940
Grand Prize, Panama - Pacific Exposition 1915
Pioneer Trophy, Chemical Foundation 1936
Scroll of Honour, National Institute of Immigrant Welfare 1937
Sigma Xi
Phi Lambda Upsilon
Tau Beta Pi
Officer of the Legion of Honour, France
Officer of the Order of the Crown, Belgium
Commander of the Order of Leopold, Belgium


Bakelite, was discovered by accident in 1907 by a Belgian born chemist, Dr Leo Baekeland(1863-1944). Having moved to New York he inadvertently created the first completely man made liquid resin, which he named Bakelite

Baekeland had already made his fortune by developing a photographic paper(Velox),which he subsequently sold to the Eastman Kodak company. This made him a millionaire overnight.

Not having any financial constraints Baekeland developed an apparatus which he called a Bakeliser (SEE OPPOSITE >>>). This pot like apparatus developed a new liquid resin which rapidly hardened and took the shape of it's container. It would form an exact replica of any vessel which contained it.

This new material would not burn,boil,melt or dissolve in any common acid or solvent of the time. Once it was firmly set, it would never change. This type of plastic is called a thermo-set plastic.

Realising the importance of his discovery Baekeland patented Bakelite in 1909. In fact Baekeland beat a close rival by only one day with his heat and pressure patent. It was the first thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin. Eventually other companies produced similar phenolics, but nowadays unless marked it is impossible to identify individual pieces by their manufacturers (see my Trademarks page). Phenolics in general are commonly given a generic name, ie- Bakelite. Much as many vacuum cleaners are termed-"hoovers".

Bakelite was used normally for consumer goods and usually contained large amounts of wood flour or other fillers. Normally found in black, or other very dark colours. In the early days Ox's blood was even used as a natural pigmentation aid. Bakelite is a generic trade name for a substance called Phenol Formaldehyde. A later evolvement from Bakelite was Urea Formaldehyde (early 1930's). The development of Urea enabled manufacturers to obtain a wide variety of colours not previously available.

Bakelite was called the material of a thousand uses, it's amazing to actually realise what was achieved and moulded out of the product. Bakelite was waterproof,had a high resistance to electricity,was impervious and above all did not melt. It was widely used in both world wars.


1909 Original patent granted.

1910 Formation of the General Bakelite Company.

1910 Thomas Edison selected Bakelite for making his
gramaphone records.

1912 Bakelite was laminated with cloth,from this process
developed Micarta and the Formica company.
Most shellac was replaced by Bakelite.

1920's The first Bakelite radio cabinets made their
appearance in Britain.

1927 Baekeland's original patent expired,he moved swiftly
and re-established his rights in the American courts

1938 Production started on the largest plastic moulding
in the world at the time...A Bakelite coffin(see
further on for more details).

1939 The Bakelite Corporation as it was then known,was
incorporated into the Union Carbide of America Co.

1944 Doctor Leo Baekeland the "Father of Modern Plastic"

1945 The Atomic Bomb... an employee of the Bakelite
Corporation, Rupert Bidwell Lowe..participated in
essential work in the production of the Atomic
Bomb. A certificate from the United States of
America War Department was awarded to him for:
" his distinguished service on this project " which
according to the certificate " helped to bring World
War Two to an end ". I have a copy of this award,
dated 6th August 1945 (Kindly provided by Union
Carbide soon to appear on my page dedicated to this company).

1989 A revival in Bakelite interest - Sothebys held a large
auction of Bakelite objects in Amsterdam. Collectors
and enthusiasts from across Europe attended.

Union Carbide : inc.. The Atomic Bomb Certificate...


More BAKELITE Facts:

In the film Top Hat featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the floor was constructed out of Bakelite for the dance scenes. Evidently the most suitable material available at the time !!!

* * * * *

Bakelite formed part of the casing of the bouncing bombs used by the R.A.F.during their bombing raids on the Dutch dams. Made famous in the film The Dambusters.

* * * * *

One of the biggest collections of Bakelite jewellery ever
amassed belonged to Andy Warhol, and was stored in several bonded warehouses across the USA. You name it ...Andy probably had it !!!!!

* * * * *

Bakelite was used widely on many of the luxury liners crossing the Atlantic during the 1930's. The Queen Mary and the ill fated Normandie being two of the most famous and prestigious.

* * * * *
(The following information has been kindly provided by Elinor Vickers - Curator of Social and Industrial History Museums and Galleries Service Unit, Tameside ) ...

In 1938, the production began of a bakelite coffin, moulded in an electrically heated press. The coffin weighed 90lbs (41kg) and was the largest plastic moulding in the world at the time, manufactured from imitation walnut phenolic with a wood flour filler. There is only one other recorded example,which is in the Science Museum, London. Some mystery shrouds the history of this object.

The hydraulic press used for the mould was made by John Shaw and Sons,Wellington Street Works, Salford. They produced the press for the Ultralite Casket Co. Ltd, Eagle Works, Stalybridge, near Manchester. A special moulding powder was supplied by Bakelite Ltd; London. The inventor of the coffin was James Doleman. Very little else is known, except that very few appear to have been made.

Restrictions placed on manufacturing industry during the Second World War may have directed raw materials and labour to more essential military needs. But the anticipation of massive civilian casualties ought to have meant that cheap coffins like this would have been stockpiled. The coffins were also biodegradable, having a wood flour filler.

Several undertakers confirm that after the war they were offered plastic coffins for use as ' removal shells 'which could then be cleaned out and re-used. The lack of handles and lid fixings on the two existing coffins initially confirm this, but both coffins came into museum collections as manufacturer's examples and not fitted by undertakers.

So were those buried in Bury or re-used in Strood? If you have any information lease let me know.

I only know of two examples of this coffin,one was until recently on view at the Portland Basin Heritage Museum, Ashton under Lyne, Tameside, England, this has now been transferred to the Salford Museum and Art Gallery. The other evidently is at the Science Museum in London.

* * * * *

Below appears Baekeland's original apparatus for the production of Bakelite ...