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What is Bakelite and how to spot it?

History of Bakelite

Bakelite, created by a Belgian-born American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, was the first synthetic plastic on the market. Its invention revolutionized the chemical industry and led to an explosion in consumer goods manufacturing. It ushered in “The Age of Plastics” which, in turn, led to Bakelite’s demise in the 1950s as new and improved plastics became available.

Bakelite sign with vintage Bakelite pins and vintage Bakelite bracelets in the background
All photos are of Atomic Antiques inventory

Bakelite Properties and Uses

Bakelite could be molded into any shape. It is also nonconductive and heat resistant. Because of this, it found immediate application in various industries. It was touted as “the material of a thousand uses,” and, indeed, could be found anywhere from electrical appliances and automobiles to billiard balls and jewelry.

Vintage black and yellow Bakelite salt and pepper shakers
All photos are of Atomic Antiques inventory

Vintage Bakelite Collectors

Today, items made of Bakelite (as well as Catalin, which began to be produced after Baekeland’s patent had expired in 1927 and, unlike original Bakelite, could be produced in a variety of colors) are highly sought by collectors. The appeal comes from both its rarity (the majority of items were produced in just three short decades from the 1920s to the 1940s) and its style (Bakelite was most popular during the Art Deco Period).

Vintage Bakelite bangles and bracelets
All photos are of Atomic Antiques inventory

How to Test Bakelite

But how does one tell if it’s Bakelite or run-o-the-mill plastic? Here are a few tips:


Because Bakelite was formed from phenol and formaldehyde, it releases a distinct formaldehyde smell when rubbed vigorously with a thumb. Alternatively, the piece can be dunked in a tub of hot water with the same result.


When two pieces of Bakelite are clanged together, they produce a particular sound. Comparing the sound made by clunking together two known pieces of Bakelite with the sound made by two pieces of non-Bakelite items will demonstrate the difference. This method will become more reliable with experience.

Bakelite cherry earrings
All photos are of Atomic Antiques inventory


Bakelite is considerably heavier than other plastics. Getting the feel for its weight will also take some time and experience, but can be a useful tool in identifying Bakelite.

Simichrome Polish

Using Simichrome Polish (a cream used to clean metals) or 409 household cleaner is probably the most accurate method. Dab a piece of cloth or a tissue with Simichrome or 409 and gently rub the item in question. If the cloth turns a shade of yellow, the item is Bakelite!

How to use simichrome to test Bakelite
All photos are of Atomic Antiques inventory

Hunting for Bakelite can be a fun and rewarding pastime, albeit (due to the latest surge in popularity) not an inexpensive one!

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