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Bakelite, Lucite, and the allure of early plastics

Lucite makes a great handle for this vinyl Markay handbag from the 1960s. Vinyl, too, is a type of plastic.
Lucite makes a great handle for this vinyl Markay handbag from the 1960s. Vinyl, too, is a type of plastic.
Pamela Sweet

Sales of Bakelite bangles are brisk, and consumers are offered tips on how to identify the genuine article and what colors to look for when making a purchase. But there are other items made of early plastic that are fashionable to collectors. Radios, dresser sets, dice and poker chips have found their way into antique malls and internet auctions and frequently garner significant prices.

The earliest plastic was called Parkesine, created in 1862 by Alexander Parkes. It was a moldable organic material made of cellulose. A few years later in 1868 John Wesley Hiatt invented celluloid, a substance first used as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls and subsequently as the basic material in motion picture film.

Bakelite arrived on the scene in Belgium in 1907. Leo Hendrik Baekeland is credited with creating this first fully synthetic resin. In 1927 a similar material was developed by the Catalin Company. Catalin was used in the production of many of the same types of products as Bakelite, but employed a broader range of brighter-colored dyes. Both Bakelite and Catalin are highly collectible today.

Shellac can also be considered a natural plastic, as it is made from the secretions of an insect native to India and Thailand. Up until the 1950s phonographic records were made from a brittle, breakable compound containing shellac. Thousands of the 78 rpm discs can be found in second hand stores, flea markets, and basements and attics all over the country. Only the rarest, however, are of much interest or value to collectors.

Another interesting polymer is Lucite, manufactured by DuPont and popular as a material in costume jewelry through the mid-century period. As a less-breakable substitute for glass (also known as acrylic glass), Lucite shares many of the same qualities as Plexiglas, invented in 1933 by the Rohm & Haas Company. In the 1960s and 1970s designers actually created furniture out of these materials.

Though today it is a ubiquitous substance polluting oceans and streams and piling up in massive landfills, plastic in its earlier forms is now prized for its solidity, texture, and color. The beautiful art-deco Bakelite/Catalin radios manufactured by the Crosley Company in Cincinnati helped usher in the age of radio and can add a pop of color and style to any contemporary home.


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