NEW YORK, 1907- Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland stumbled serendipitously into an invention that hit gold mine. Originally, he set out to find a replacement for shellac. But in the process of controlling the amount of heat and pressure applied to phenol and formaldehyde, he was able to create the world’s first durable and aesthetically-pleasing plastic he named “Bakelite”.
Dubbed by TIME magazine as the “material of a thousand uses”, Bakelite – due to its extraordinary high resistance to heat and chemical action – was first used as parts of radios and other electrical devices. At one point, the U.S. Treasury even considered minting coins out of Bakelite due to a shortage of the traditional material. After World War II, Bakelite production became more efficient and its application extended to other materials such as clocks, radios, poker chips, billiard balls, and Mah Jong sets. Bakelite was also molded into shiny, candy-colored pieces of jewelry and became subjects of the art collections of design icons like Coco Chanel and Andy Warhol.
The production of canisters and tableware made of Bakelite dawned upon 1950’s America where images of an efficient, sleek kitchen bombarded advertisements. Bakelite made it possible for utensils to become “kitchen jewelry” and the object of appreciation and fascination of the common folk. It has a certain type of beauty, devoid of esotericism, which speaks to the modern man. And indeed, people today associate Bakelite flatware and its introduction into thousands of homes as the presage of the era of the plastic.
Bakelite fell out of production throughout the years because of the introduction of more durable plastics. Although sources say that some parts of the world still manufacture Bakelite products, most items exist as vintage pieces that are collectibles. Aside from being a remnant of glory years, the appeal of Bakelite flatware lies in the fact that the colors mellow as they age making it kitschy and high-end at the same time.
Looking for Bakelite Flatware: What to Expect
When searching for vintage Bakelite Flatware, it is important to keep in mind these tips to get the most bang for your buck:
- The handles of Bakelite Flatware are typically yellow, red, or orange in color. You will also find, though rarely, some which have polka-dotted, striped, or “V-shaped” designs.
- Most sell for $4 or more dollars per piece although those that come in sets, are hard to find, and sell higher.
- To test if your Bakelite Flatware find is a genuine, you could use the “sound test” or the “rubbing test”. When you strike one handle with another, the sound you are looking for should be a “clang” and unlike the dead sound antique wood makes. The “rubbing test”, on the other hand, requires you to rub the handles with your thumb until you feel you have created enough heat or friction. If you bring your thumb under your nose, you should be able to smell formaldehyde (even if faintly).
- Avoid flatware with mold lines or cracked seams.
Check out our Kitchenware collection at The Escape Place Ebay Store