Why should I be collecting Bakelite? What’s so special about it? Well, in its heyday, bakelite was known as the ‘material of a thousand uses’, beloved of jewellers, manufacturers and weapons makers.
It formed part of the casing for the bouncing bombs dropped on German dams by the RAF during the Second World War, but it had rather more domestic applications, too. These included being made into buttons, telephones and television sets. Now Bakelite, the precursor to modern plastics, has proved itself to be in demand for yet another reason – as a valuable collector’s item. Our article reveals how you can make a pretty penny from Bakelite.
A generic trade name for phenol formaldehyde, Bakelite was discovered by accident in 1907 by Dr Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born chemist working in New York, who patented the invention. It was a revolutionary product that would neither burn, boil, melt nor dissolve in any common acid or solvent of the time.
Bakelite was not only waterproof but had a high resistance to electricity and, once firmly set, would never change shape. With the addition of large amounts of wood flour or other fillers, it became the perfect material for household goods such as lamps, telephones, televisions and radios. It was even used to produce costume jewellery. (Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the artist Andy Warhol helped establish a market for Bakelite jewellery as one of its biggest collectors.)
Collector Jools Zauscinski recently picked up a 1930s bangle for £3 at a car boot sale. He expects it to sell for more than 15 times that price.
“My favourite Bakelite piece is the classic Bush TV22 television from about 1950,” he says. “I managed to get one on the internet for £130 – a real bargain. Normally, these change hands for more than £300.”
Versatile, durable and colourful, Bakelite once formed part of everyday life for millions of people, but collectable examples are now scarce. As a result, their value has shot up over the past two decades.
“Fifteen years ago, you used to be able to walk around the markets in Camden and Portobello Road in London, and find absolutely masses of it,” says Gad Sassower, a specialist dealer in plastics and Bakelite.
“Now it’s all gone and very hard to find – it’s disappearing into people’s homes, and much of what’s left is overpriced, even in the US.”
Many items made from Bakelite were beautifully coloured – in the early days, ox blood was sometimes used as a natural pigment – but since the pigmentation was quite fragile, these colours have tended to fade over the years.
“When you think of Bakelite you often think brown,” says Mr Sassower. “Early plastics had nothing in them to inhibit the harmful effects of ultraviolet light so that’s why you find a lot of faded Bakelite that has turned brown.”
In this age of plastics it is hard for us to imagine just how revolutionary Bakelite was when it burst on to the manufacturing scene. “It was probably the first man-made product you could mould into any shape your heart desired,” Mr Sassower adds.
“You had goods like round radios and spherical ashtrays. They weren’t mass-produced but they weren’t anything like as expensive as if they had been made out of wood. It released the ‘design of the hand’.”
Particularly colourful items tended to be made in the inter-war years in America. The US and the UK were the biggest manufacturers of Bakelite consumer goods, followed by France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Armed with some prior knowledge, Mr Zauscinski says, you can pick up the occasional Bakelite item at a car boot sale or flea market and on the auction website eBay.
A glance at the website DecoGirl reveals the weird and wonderful Bakelite items your money can buy, with prices starting at £28. Among those on sale is a £55 compact case and a snakeskin and Bakelite clutch bag for £18. You can also buy a French Bakelite bangle for £25.
Although it was produced in many countries, it’s becoming harder to find quality Bakelite, especially in good condition. Many pieces that do come on to the market are fragile and broken.
If, despite this, you’re determined to build up a collection, Mr Sassower advises picking pieces that look good and reflect the special malleability of Bakelite.
“Go for shape and colour – and if you can add the two together, that is a good start,” he says. “You won’t find a brown box interesting, and no one else will either. The more interesting the shape, the more valuable it becomes.”
As with most collectables, experts suggest you buy the best quality you can afford and research the subject thoroughly before handing over large amounts of cash. A number of reference books are available to help newer collectors know what they’re looking for and spot bargains, one of which you can pick up for just a few pounds.
You could earn anything from 50p for a Bakelite sock-darner to £1,000s for a nicely shaped, brightly-coloured radio in good condition.