The chances are you have heard of this type of plastic (if not any other).  The name bakelite is used these days to mean any type of phenolic resin plastic.  The only other plastic which seems to have made it through to the collective consciousness is Lucite.








The now famous Dr. Leo Heindrick Baekeland was the inventor of this plastic.  He was born in Belgium and became a professor of chemistry and physics.  In 1889 he emigrated to the USA. To support his family he worked with a photographic company.  He discovered a new type of photographic paper (which he patented) and then sold to the Kodak company.








Wealthy but unemployed he took up experimenting at his home in Yonkers, New York. Basing his research upon carbolic acid (phenol) and formaldehyde; he discovered the first phenolic resin and started producing this material in his garage in Yonkers in 1907.

In 1909 he moved the manufacturing plant to New Jersey and by 1930 he was making and selling thousands of pounds of bakelite from a factory of almost 130 acres in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  He also had successful manufacturing plants in England and Germany.








Phenolic resins can be cast or moulded.  Moulded phenolics came first and started being produced in large quantity about the beginning of World War 1 (July 1914).   The opaque marbled colours used in the early days of the discovery were made using ‘filler’ of saw dust (in America called ‘powdered wood’).  This caused the opaque or non-transparent look.








It is this type of Bakelite which was used in industry as electrical insulating material and also for telephones, hair brush backs, simple plastic boxes, condiment sets and early costume jewellery.








Other trade names of phenolic resin include ‘Catalin’, ‘Marblette’, ‘Agatine’,  ‘Durite’ and ‘Prystal’.  Catalin was probably the most popular trade-name in America as it was produced by the American Catalin Corporation of New York.








Cast phenolic stopped being produced by about 1945.  The manufacturing process was labour intensive because each item had to be individually cast in a lead mould and then carved, buffed and polished.








Bakelite changes colour with age.  Items which were colourless are now called ‘apple juice’ – being the same colour as the clear juice.  White bakelite develops into the colour called ‘creamed corn’.  Flick the possible item with a fingernail; it should sound hollow, rather like bamboo, instead of the high pitched ‘clack’ made by later plastics.  Europeans did not use bakelite in jewellery in the same way as the North Americans.  Rather than use the material alone and carve it into wonderful patterns, they tend to mix it with some other matieral, as seen in the two bakelite and metal European bangles shown above.