I cannot imagine life without modern plastics. And that’s not just because I’m Professor Plastic.
I wake up in the morning, turn off the alarm clock, use my toothbrush and hair brush, start the coffee maker, stretch out on my yoga mat—all of these are made with plastics. Then there are the plastics in my car, my office furniture, my campus telephone … the list goes on.
But it wasn’t always this way. For much of human history, everyday tools and products were made mostly from animal skins, bone, ivory, wood, metals, plant fibers, animal hair, and the like.
The common use of natural “plastic” substances—such as rubber latex from plants and shellac from secretions of the lac beetle—began in earnest about three centuries ago, although some had been used off and on over a very long time. (For example, civilizations in Central America have played games with rubber balls for nearly 3,600 years.)
The problem was these natural plastics were difficult and expensive to obtain. As the industrial revolution created huge demand for materials, chemists began seriously searching for new sources of materials—and new materials.
A few partially synthetic plastics were invented in the 1800s. Celluloid—made primarily from plant cellulose and camphor—was created in the 1850s and still is in wide use. Galalith—made primarily from milk protein and formaldehyde—was invented in the 1890s and enabled the huge growth in costume jewelry (but eventually was eclipsed by other plastics).
Then in 1909, a Belgian chemist named Leo Baekeland created the first entirely synthetic plastic—and it would revolutionize the way many consumer goods were manufactured. Baekeland called his plastic “Bakelite.” (I guess that sounded better than “Leolite.”) Its properties made it suited for a much wider variety of purposes than its predecessors. For example, it was resistant to heat and would not conduct electricity, so it was a really good insulator—which made it particularly useful in the automotive and electrical industries emerging in the early 1900s.
Like many modern plastics, Bakelite was lightweight and durable, and it could be molded into nearly infinite shapes, so its use quickly expanded as manufacturers realized its potential. Consumers primarily were attracted to its aesthetic qualities: a sleek, stylish look coupled with a substantial, high-end feel. People bought Bakelite jewelry boxes, lamps, desk sets, clocks, radios, telephones, kitchenware, tableware, and a variety of game pieces such as chess sets, billiard balls, and poker chips. Bakelite ushered in a new era of attractive, affordable, convenient consumer goods, making it possible for a broad range of consumers to enjoy products that previously had been inaccessible.
Bakelite made perhaps its largest stamp on the world of fashion. Bakelite jewelry became immensely popular in the 1920s as an affordable and attractive replacement for other materials. It came in several colors, including translucent and marbled shades by the 1950s. Bakelite jewelry from this era often had striking patterns, such as polka dots and chevrons, and it could be carved into intricate shapes. Bakelite (and Galalith before it) introduced plastics to the fashion world, to be followed by nylon, polyester, spandex, and more. These plastics have inspired fashion designers to do more with less: more fabric choices, more creativity, and more durability, coupled often with less material, less weight, fewer wrinkles, and less expense.
Antique Bakelite items—from household appliances to jewelry—today are displayed in museums and sold for large sums. Their appeal to contemporary collectors may lie in Bakelite’s distinctive look, as well as the way they represent a particular era: a time when more and more consumers were able to take advantage of previously out-of-reach fashions and consumer goods.
After the 1950s, a large variety of plastics appeared in the marketplace and edged out Bakelite in all but a few specialized (mostly electrical) uses. But to me, Bakelite will always have a special place in history as the first truly modern plastic, one that people prized for its beauty, versatility, and durability. It ushered in the rapid growth of plastics that we now use every day in so many ways to improve our lives: medical devices that help save lives … athletic gear that enables peak performance … packaging that helps keep our food safer and fresher … clothing that keeps us cool or warm …
A 1924 article in Time magazine predicted that Bakelite, a “material of a thousand uses,” would one day make up nearly everything we touch, see, and use. A bit of hyperbole, of course—but prescient nonetheless.