The recent reemergence of Bakelite as an elegant accessory to furniture and cabinets has left a lot of people wondering, what exactly is Bakelite?
Dr Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian scientist, immigrated to America in 1889. In the early twentieth century he first invented Velox photographic printing paper and sold the process to Eastman Kodak. Then he experimented with various combinations of formaldehyde, camphor and phenol under pressure until he came up with Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic.
This material would be incorporated into the manufacture of Machine Ageventions such as telephones, radios, buttons, ladies' bracelets and brooches, toys, household appliances and cabinet hardware.
Some of the original hardware can be found today on "Waterfall" bedroom furniture- the typical styles of the 1930 'and 40's.
Bakelite hardware was produced in a wide spectrum of colors, reds, whites, oranges and browns with a distinctive pattern of color variation within each piece. Many of the original creamy white pieces will have yellowed with age. Eastman Kodak used Bakelite for the outer case of the famous Brownie 127 camera.
Initially the name "Bakelite" referred to the particular form of plastic used in those early days but, as synthetic materials developed, the name was applied to any form of plastic resembling the density, opaque yet lightweight material. Today reproductions of Bakelite are available and they often come very close to the original look of the early examples but are more durable and lighter in weight, not to mention much less expensive to obtain and easier to care for than original Bakelite process pieces would be.