There is something seductive about the look and feel of Bakelite. This wonderful early plastic can usually be identified by its heft, depth, and shine. The quality in workmanship and design of Bakelite buttons sustains the interest of countless collectors.
The designers of Bakelite buttons were encouraged to let their imaginations flow. As a result, collectors are enchanted by the wonderful, whimsical creations of these realistically shaped buttons. From the animal world we find crabs, fish, elephants, birds, bugs, horses, dogs, cats, and butterflies. Fruits and vegetables are numerous, as are delightful inanimate objects such as clothespins, dice, shoes, hats, purses, vases, compasses, and anchors. People, boats, hearts, and stars are just a few of the other shapes found in Bakelite buttons.
Of course, not all Bakelite buttons are whimsical. Many are large, circular, black or brown coat buttons with lovely metal escutcheons fastened with pins to the bulky body of the button. The escutcheon designs were often pictorial: Buddhas, turtles, birds, lions, busts, crowns, dragons, and many others delight us.
Bakelite buttons are frequently embellished with other materials - glass, pearl, cork and wood - set into the base. Highly desirable are laminated buttons in which layers of different colors of Bakelite were bonded together, and then tumbled and polished as a single unit.
Similarly, combined Bakelite buttons marry opaque and transparent pieces set side by side. This type of button often features a combination of opaque black and transparent yellow Bakelite, sometimes with flecks of silver or gold glitter gleaming from within the transparent yellow pieces. Collectors also prize imitation tortoise shell examples.
Hues have colorful names
Some wonderfully descriptive color names have been attached to these buttons by collectors: licorice for black, chocolate for brown, applesauce for a blotchy translucent yellow, apple juice for a transparent pale yellow, and butterscotch for an opaque yellow/tan group. Apple green and cherry red are self-explanatory, and the term cookies describes a special construction featuring slices of Bakelite with a rod center inclusion.
The rods, tubes, and sheets from which buttons were manufactured came in more than 200 opaque, marbleized, translucent, and transparent colors. Produced under other brand names such as Catalin, Marblette, and Prystal and sharing very similar formulas, they are difficult to distinguish from one another, so collectors generally refer to all of them as Bakelite.
Baekeland made Bakelite
The history of Bakelite is an amazing American success story. Its name and origin are credited to Leo Hendrik Baekeland, born in 1863 in Ghent, Belgium. He earned his doctorate at the age of 21 and in 1899 emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Yonkers, N.Y. Working in a small laboratory, he invented the first thermoset plastic in 1907 and patented it under the name Bakelite.
Permanence is an asset
The term thermoset refers to an important property of this early plastic: Once molded, it could not be softened by heat and returned to a moldable state. This process gave Bakelite a competitive advantage over earlier plastics. It was also nonflammable, moisture resistant, and could be polished to a high luster.
Bakelite could also be sawed, sliced, threaded, drilled, sanded and carved into intricate shapes. It was inexpensive to produce. First valued for its industrial uses, Bakelite was quickly discovered by designers and manufacturers of kitchenware, smoking articles, desk and vanity sets, game pieces, jewelry and buttons.
The heyday of Bakelite is considered to be the years between 1933 and 1941- the years of the Great Depression which lead up to World War II. These were certainly times when the diversion of inexpensive fashion accessories might have served to distract from concern over larger issues. In 1937 alone, it is estimated that 5.5 million pounds of Bakelite were produced, with almost half of it used in the manufacture of buttons.
When World War II began, the thermoset property of Bakelite made it an invaluable material in defense manufacturing. Because of this, it was no longer made available for decorative use, which ended its reign as the first choice of decorative designers. Despite waning as a manufactured product, however, Bakelite buttons are still widely traded and treasured today.