Bakelite and other vintage plastic collectables

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Plastic collectables

Collectors of vintage plastics really know their subject. Labelling any and every old plastic item as "Bakelite” and hoping for the best is a certain recipe for grief, angry buyers and heaps of negative feedback. Identifying your item correctly inspires confidence and attract bids.

Collectors use brand names like Bakelite, Catalin, Vulcanite, LingaLonga, Beatl and Celluloid as search terms when scouring the eBay listings. We also include common mis-spellings of Bakelite like “Bakerlite”, “Bakelight” and "Bakerlight".

If you can't determine - even after reading this guide - what material an item is actually made from consider including something like, “This lovely vintage plastic item will interest collectors of Bakelite…”  in the item's description to attract our attention rather than hazarding a guess. More often than not a fellow eBayer will e-mail you with the information you need.

In no particular order (but vaguely chronologically) the plastics that are of most interest to collectors are…

Bois Durci, Parkesine, Ebena and other dinosaur plastics…

Don’t worry about these, you’ll never see any :-)

Vulcanite

Popular around Victorian times and the early 20th century Vulcanite is "vulcanised" (heat treated and compressed - like tyres) rubber. It’s invariably** dark brown or black in colour and when rubbed with a thumb gives off a characteristically rubbery smell. Usually used to make mourning jewellery - lockets with a portrait of the Dear Departed and/or a lock of their hair - and match holders known as “Vestas”, bearing the image of the Monarch (Victoria or Edward VII).

[**Actually, pink Vulcanite was developed for use in the manufacture of false teeth, which must have tasted vile!]

Vulcanite vesta - Picture courtesy of ebayer Nostalgic Memories

Celluloid

Another turn of the century plastic. Items made from this are very light (think of table-tennis balls) and very flammable! A hot pin goes right through and you’re lucky if it doesn’t set the entire item on fire. Usually made in sheets and sliced to make jewellery boxes, especially the ones with silver script adornments like initials. Sometimes used for the covers of prayer books and hymnals.

Celluloid items often have an imitation tortoiseshell or ivory finish. Ladies' dressing table sets with "tortoiseshell" hair brush handles, candlesticks, trays and hand mirrors made from Celluloid are very easy to find. An early brand name for cream coloured Celluloid was “Ivorine” as the slicing process left convincing bone-like striations along its length. Real ivory feels rough against a tooth, plastic doesn't. Many moulded animal brooches have Celluloid Scottie dogs or elephants hanging from Bakelite horns or bars.

As any film buff knows Celluloid is very inflammable and it de-natures to a sticky goo-ey consistency when exposed to sunlight and fresh air. Worse still a disintegrating Celluloid piece gives off toxic acidic fumes that attack the next piece along the way! There is no way to restore a Celluloid item that’s started to break down. I don’t buy Celluloid items any more! 

Bakelite

The first “thermoset” (heat it and it won’t go out of shape) plastic, the stuff of legend (Leo Baekeland, famous Belgian, crazy family, race to patent yada yada yada). What you need to know is that Bakelite items are much heavier than other plastics - think of billiard balls rather than ping-pong! The material is a combination of phenol and formaldehyde, compressed at very high pressure.

The so-called “Material of 1000 Uses” was used to manufacture many more than a thousand different items making the most of its strength and electrical resistance. Collectors wax lyrical about the advances in radio cabinet design made possible by moulding Bakelite rather than steaming and sawing timber. We become dewy-eyed at the sight of a faded photograph of the enormous moulding presses in the E.K. Cole factory in Southend or the Phillips "Philite" production line in Eindhoven.

Most Bakelite items have a mottled appearance resulting from the addition of wooden filler to the brown phenol-formaldehyde resin to provide rigidity and lose a little weight. The material is strong yet brittle - drop an item and it's likely to shatter into several irregular pieces whereas a more modern plastic like those from the 1950s & 60s would crack or split.

The combined effect of gravity and a hard wooden floor on an London County Council Bakelite wall clock.
Picture courtesy of me, unfortunately!

Colours were either black, brown (a fair imitation of walnut), deep blues, greens and reds - as shown in this selection of Coronet "Midget" cameras.

 

With exposure to sunlight all these colours darken to brown, many’s the time I’ve opened a dingy brown Bakelite box and been dazzled by its bright green interior.

Two shots of the same camera - no retouching! Pictures courtesy of eBayer mrmoggy

 

This darkening forms the basis of one of the commoner tests to identify Bakelite - the 'Simachrome Test' . The test relies on the fact that Simachrome is mildly abrasive and when a Bakelite or other phenolic plastic item is rubbed with a Q-tip (cotton bud) dipped in the product a characteristic brown discolouration appears on the material. The abrasive action of the cleaner is actually removing the top surface of the plastic, which, as it has been exposed to sunlight has oxidised and darkened. There's nothing special about Simachrome by the way, any scratchy cleaner would do the same.

Taking this to extremes it is possible to restore the colour of a faded item by using fine grain wet and dry abrasive paper to remove the entire layer of oxidised plastic. The problem is restoring the original mirror like sheen to the item but given access to a band sander, a selection of fine grade papers and a car polisher it's possible to take larger items like radio cabinets back to their original shade.

Urea Formaldehyde

Brookes and Adams' "Bandalasta" brand of houseware came along in the 1920s. Light, bright and very funky – queues formed outside Harrods to admire orange and green marbelled LingaLonga and Beatlware picnic sets. Frankly, the tea-pots weren't such a success unless you liked your brew to taste like something from the chemistry lab. Napkin rings shaped like rabbits multiplied like, er, rabbits.

UF items were made using a clear rather than brown resin so the colours are brighter and aren't necessarily mottled. Most items of “Bakelite" jewellery are actually made from UF, but only the snottiest collector would argue the toss as the term "Bakelite Jewellery" is now ubiquitous.

UF articles are far less likely to oxidise and fade in sunlight so tests that depend on abrasives like Simachrome are less reliable. However, they share Bakelite's heavy weight and that "clunky" sound produced by tapping two items together. Again, think snooker ball...

Caesin

Derived from milk protein this lightweight and richly coloured plastic cornered the market in button production. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was its slightly opalescent finish and mother of pearl sheen. Its flexibility made it ideal for knitting needles too.

Catalin

Phenol formaldehyde resin without any filler, cast in slabs and carved to make exquisite desk sets (Carvacraft) or fantastically colourful radio cabinets in the USA (FADA and Emerson being the big names). Catalin was also used to make jewellery, napkin rings and picture frames. It’s heavy stuff with a lovely translucency. Once seen and held, not forgotten. The Carvacraft sets were originally available in 'white onyx', 'honey yellow' and bright green. As it's a phenolic plastic like Bakelite the whites have all been yellowed by sunlight and the greens are fading to brown. Catalin items test positive with Simachrome.

 

 

Carvacraft bookends in yellow

One famous piece – a cocktail bar set – consists of eight cocktail sticks, each topped off with a cute plastic penguin, embedded in a yellow iceberg. Yellow. As in, “Watch out where the Huskies go and don’t you eat the yellow snow”. On the day of purchase it surely would have been brilliant white. If anybody has one of these that hasn’t seen the light of day in seventy years and is still translucent mail me urgently. (Really, stop reading this now and do it. Please.)

Post War

Perspex is a brand name for a transparent acrylic plastic, Tupperware is flexible kitchenware made from polypropylene. These and the other post war plastics like cellulose acetate, polystyrene and PVC might become collectable one day. They’re much waxier to the touch than the pre-war plastics and less likely to shatter if dropped! A beach ball made from PVC would bounce (!) and transistor radio cases made from polystyrene were light enough to be truly portable and tough enough to survive the occasional knock. Maybe they’ll never get rare enough to acquire much in the way of value… not if they’re there for the taking at your local landfill.

Some items made from Bakelite before the war were produced from these lightweight plastics afterwards. For example the Bourjois "Evening in Paris" novelty perfume holder styled as a hotel room door with two pairs of shoes outside had two incarnations, a dark blue mottled Bakelite version from the 1930's and a light blue marbelled styrene version from the 1950's.

The pre-war version of the "Evening in Paris" Hotel Door in dark mottled Bakelite
Picture courtesy of Dimech @ Alfies Antique Market, London


Some modern design classics from the 1960's - typewriters, homewares and even furniture are appreciating quite nicely. Philippe Starck's "Joe Cactus"  ashtray, his desktop writing sets and radios produced in the 1980’s and 90’s for the French Thomson company are obvious future collectibles.

 

A walnut Linsden Ware "Smoker's Friend" cigarette box (1930's), alongside three Philippe Starck "Joe Cactus" ashtrays in modern Bakelite (1990's)
 

"French Bakelite" "Galalaith" or “Fakelite”

Making phenol formaldehyde plastic isn’t rocket science.

In fact rocket science isn't really rocket science - once you've grasped the concept, To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, you've cracked it. Brain surgery though, that's different. Don't get me started on brain surgery....

A number of manufacturers in the Mystic East are producing jewellery items in Bakelite. I’ve got some cracking reproduction “Philly Style” items in my jewellery cabinet. They look like new - essentially because they are brand new, with modern pins and fixings, no patina and not even a hint of wear and tear.

Bakelite jewellery - is it vintage or repro?

If you list an item as a “1930’s original” and it turns out to be a twenty-first century repro expect an initially polite request for a refund of all monies paid, eventually escalating to threats of nuclear retaliation. If you don’t know the provenance of an item, don’t invent one.

So, you’ve cleaned your item (a dip in some soapy water to remove the surface grime** and a gentle rub with some car paint restorer to restore a bit of colour and sheen) and identified the material. It’s definitely Bakelite and so it's probably worth a small fortune…

(**though not if it's a radio or TV set ,eh?)

Hang on!! Condition is everything!!

Plastics collectors really like to know what we're buying. Example – I have three Bakelite snuff boxes in my collection, all in perfect condition with a small thumbnail shaped lip on the lid to allow easy opening. Worth about £20 each on a good day. I also have another, a present from a girlfriend, where the lip has been broken off and the resulting sharp edge filed smooth. She paid, surprise surprise, £20. Actual value, maybe one quarter of that. If there’s even the merest hint of a nibble or a crack or a chip off your item it WILL affect the value and so potential buyers DO expect to be told.

eBayer Bakelite Kid has compiled a first class check list to help sellers describe their items... What a Bakelite Collector Wants To Know

Perfect snuff box with opening "thumbnail" intact

Some items have characteristic flaws. Linsden Ware "Smokers’ Friend" cigarette boxes almost always have some damage by the swivel hinge in the centre. Coronet Midget cameras are hard to find without at least a small nibble in the Bakelite case where the door either hinges or clips to the body. Bush DAC90 radio sets in ivory always have scorch marks at the top of the cabinet where the heat from the transformer has risen. These problems are all restorable, but if an item has been restored, we’d like to be told BEFORE we click on “Bid Now”

Pictures are incredibly helpful – with something for size reference if it’s not obvious (a coin or tape measure). If there’s a flaw, take a picture of it! Look for a trade mark – they are as important to us as a hallmark is to a silverware collector. If there’s an inscription of any kind (‘A Present from Blackpool’ or ‘A Stadium Product’) a picture of that would be good too!


and finally...

The author is a real Bakelite collector based in the UK. I used to be a front line medic in the National Health Service (and was rated B+ 'better than average' on completion of my brain surgery attachment).

As a writer I'm well used to having my prose chewed up, spat out and rewritten by Neanderthal sub-editors ;-)

In terms of the giants' shoulders on which I'm standing interested parties might want to hunt down books by Sylvia Katz, Patrick Cook, Philip Collins and Robert Hawes - some titles may be out of print but they appear fairly regularly on eBay. The Plastics Historical Society website is a mine of useful information. Patrick Cook's Bakelite Museum is worth a visit if you're within shooting distance of the North Somerset coast.

If you've read this far, please take the trouble to rate the guide, good or bad or mail me with suggestions for improvements. It's already had more rewrites than the average Hollywood romantic comedy.

 

 

 

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