It was developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907.
One of the first plastics made from synthetic components, Bakelite was used for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewellery, pipe stems, children's toys, firearms and ashtrays. The "retro" appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.
Baekeland produced a hard mouldable material which he named "Bakelite" It was the first synthetic thermosetting plastic ever produced, and Baekeland speculated on "the thousand and one... articles" that it could be used to make. Baekeland considered the possibilities of using a wide variety of filling materials, including cotton, powdered bronze, and slate dust, but was most successful with wood and asbestos fibers.
Baekeland filed a substantial number of patents in the area. His "Method of making insoluble products of phenol and formaldehyde" was filed on July 13, 1907 and granted on December 7, 1909.
Baekeland started semi-commercial production of his new material in his home laboratory, marketing it as a material for electrical insulators. By 1910, he was producing enough material to justify expansion. He formed the General Bakelite Company as a U.S. company to manufacture and market his new industrial material. He also made overseas connections to produce materials in other countries.
The Bakelite Corporation was formed in 1922. Bakelite was aggressively marketed as "The Material of A Thousand Uses."
The first issue of Plastics magazine, October 1925, featured Bakelite on its cover, and included the article "Bakelite – What It Is" by Allan Brown. The range of colours available included "black, brown, red, yellow, green, grey, blue, and blends of two or more of these". The article emphasized that Bakelite came in various forms.
In England Bakelite Limited, a merger of three British phenol formaldehyde resin suppliers (Damard Lacquer Company Limited of Birmingham, Mouldensite Limited of Darley Dale and Redmanol Chemical Products Company of London) was formed in 1926. A new Bakelite factory opened in Tyseley, Birmingham, England around 1928. It was demolished in 1998.
Once Baekeland's heat and pressure patents expired in 1927, Bakelite Corporation faced serious competition from other companies. Because moulded Bakelite incorporated fillers to give it strength, it tended to be made in concealing dark colours. In 1927, beads, bangles and earrings were produced by the Catalin Company, through a different process which enabled them to introduce 15 new colours. Translucent jewellery, poker chips and other items made of phenolic resins were introduced in the 1930s or 1940s by the Catalin Company under the Prystal name.
The creation of marbled phenolic resins may also be attributable to the Catalin Company.
The British children's construction toy Bayko, launched in 1933, originally used Bakelite for many of its parts, and took its name from the material.
By the late 1940s, newer materials were superseding Bakelite in many areas. components, and industrial electrical-related applications. Bakelite stock is still manufactured and produced in sheet, rod and tube form for industrial applications in the electronics, power generation and aerospace industries, and under a variety of commercial brand names.
Today, only one or two firms now make phenolic resins, but Baekeland's creation set the mould for the modern plastics industry.
In terms of ashtrays made using Bakelite there follows examples, from my collection, of such items. Where I can I have dated them and similar items by comparison.
If you have other examples please let me have a photo and any relevant info.
Above Wills's CAPSTAN, ITC 6068, from 1929. Below Wills's GOLDFLAKE, ITC 6067 from 1929 also.
The GREYS ashtray also has the trade mark of an 'S' inside a circle. Is this an early trademark for 'Stadium'?
I expect none are later than 1950 as the outbreak of WWII, in 1939, would have seen the output of Bakelite factories concentrate on more military products. Post WWII other types of plastics started to emerge and allowed brighter colours to be made replacing the dull colours of the Bakelite products..