Bakelite Beauties: Antiques Roadshow Expert Marc Allum Talks Plastic Fantastic

BBC Antiques Roadshow specialist Marc Allum on stress, passion and bean counters. Just another ordinary day in the world of antiques!In my early collecting days a fairly frugal student grant allowed me little room for extravagant buying. However, Bakelite items often proved to be within my budget and I quickly amassed an assortment of work-a-day objects, spurred on by a fascination for the almost endless variety of applications that had been found for the ‘material of a thousand uses’. 

Bakelite was invented by Dr. Leo Baekeland. Born in Belgium in 1863, he emigrated to America at the age of 26, where he primarily worked on chemical processes for the photographic industry. Often heralded as the ‘father of the plastics industry’, Baekeland had developed a photographic paper called Velox that could be used in artificial light. He later sold the patent to Kodak for $1 million. This gave him the freedom and financial security to work on different processes. Other chemists had been working on synthetic resins and Dr. Baekeland built upon this. In 1907 Bakelite was born, a product that was to eventually revolutionise the production of virtually every conceivable area of the market.

Due to the large investment required for the presses and moulds, its initial uses were mainly limited to smaller electrical objects and car components. By the late 1920’s the range of applications including furniture, packaging, telephones, toys, picnicsets, cocktail shakers, cameras and radio cabinets, had massively expanded. The suitability of Bakelite for mass-producing small items had built into an industrial coalescence of companies that pushed the boundaries forward, routinely producing larger articles such as radio cabinets. 

For the wireless industry it was an absolute miracle. They were no longer stifled by the expensive, labour intensive processes required to manufacture wooden cabinets. E. K. Cole were one of the first British radio manufactures to adopt the new Bakelite cabinets, selling under the brand name Ecko. Initially, the cabinets were imported from Germany but Cole soon purchased a moulding plant. Yet, some sectors of the market regarded Bakelite radios as poor imitations of the well-crafted wooden cabinets. There was also some resistance to the brighter colours, probably because the typical brown cabinets fitted in better with the Edwardian and even Victorian style interiors that still prevailed in this period. The company then took the bold step of bringing in designers who would exploit the versatility of Bakelite and the famous AD65 of 1934 was born. Its main elements are attributed to the architect Wells Coates and the circular design is now a ‘must have’ amongst radio and Art Deco collectors alike. Expect to pay between £700 and £1,000 at auctionfor a black andchrome example. Coloured examples areextremely rare as they were special order items. It’s rumoured that a green cabinet sold for £35,000! 

The joy of collecting Bakelite is still the same premise on which I acquisitively began –availability - and although the rare and more decorative items are naturally more expensive, there are plenty of fun objects that can be sourced from car boot sales, shop sand auctions. Advertising wares such as ashtrays are a good option, cameras too. There’s a piece of Bakelite to fit every budget! 

Bakelite Facts: 

Bakelite is made of phenol (Carbolic acid) and formaldehyde. With the addition of ‘fillers’ it is then formed in heat compression moulds to make a heat resistant material that does not soften. It comes under the category ‘thermosetting’, i.e. plastic which cannot be remoulded after production. 

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