WHAT IS BAKELITE?

Bakelite is the trade name for an early phenolic plastic, developed by a Belgian immigrant, Leo Baekeland, in New York in 1907.  It  is a hard, dense material made by applying heat and pressure to layers of material impregnated with synthetic resin.  These materials were typically cellulose, cotton,  glass fabrics, or a synthetic.  When heat and pressure are applied to the layers, a chemical reaction called polymerization transforms the mixture to plastic.  When rubbed or burnt, Bakelite has a distinctive, acrid and fishy odor.

Bakelite was used for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings, and such diverse products as: cameras,  kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, and children's toys.  The "retro" appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.

The Bakelite Corporation was formed in 1922, but merged into Union Carbide in 1939, which was in turn merged into Dow Chemical in 2001.  The trademark has expired; however, the process is still in use.

Phenolics are rarely used in general consumer products today, due to the cost and complexity of production and their brittle nature.  Nevertheless they are still used in some applications where their specific properties are required, such as small precision-shaped components, molded disc brake cylinders, saucepan handles, electrical plugs and switches and parts for electrical irons.