Before the super-stretch powers of Plastic Man…was there Bakeliteman? He couldn’t stretch himself around the block, but he could be carved into any shape, and he sure made a great bracelet!
The first synthetic plastic material, bakelite was developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, transforming the idea of modern convenience for the 20th century. Before the advent of plastic, household items and jewelry were made from heavy and expensive metals and glass. Baekeland was a chemist who worked in phenolics—phenol being a chemical that interacts with secondary chemicals such as formaldehyde to produce a liquid resin, which would then harden in a predisposed shape. This cataclysmic chemical concoction created the first plastic.
This new liquid resin that hardened into a solid form was unique in that colored dyes could be added to the liquid state to color the material. Fashion designer Coco Chanel helped to popularize the new material when she made ‘costume’ jewelry acceptable and affordable by using bakelite. Prior to Chanel, genuine gemstone, pearl and metal jewelry wasn’t affordable for the average woman, and jewelry was strictly a special occasion accessory. The vogue for synthetic accessories helped to create a mass commercial market for bakelite, propelling further studies into the science of plastics.
Bakelite was everywhere: belt buckles, buttons, handbag handles, umbrella handles, brooches, bracelets, pins, earrings, and charm bracelets. The stuff was made into blocks or tubes, from which individual pieces were cut and carved. Bangle bracelets were cut from the tube, then tumbled in a polisher to sand down the rough edges with coarse silica (sand). Other items were carved, like broach pins, belt buckles and various handles for items.
Bakelite was fully embraced when precious metals and glass were sacrificed for the war effort. For a while, the material was king, but when modern plastics were developed in the 1950’s, bakelite became nothing but a fond memory.
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