Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bakelite in Lighting and Furniture Hardware

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Lighting and furniture hardware have been made from many materials including brass, glass, and porcelain for hundreds of years. Porcelain and glass were mainly used for electrical purposes including knob and tube electrical wiring as they made great insulators. Brass, another commonly used material for lighting and hardware can be found in everything from light fixtures to furniture drawer pulls. But there's another, lesser known material that has dominated the lighting and furniture hardware industry since the late 19th and early 20th centuries - plastic.

Bakelite plug available at Antique Lamp Supply.

Introduced by inventor Alexander Parkes in 1862 at the Great International Exhibition in London, Parkesine as it was dubbed, became the first trademarked man-made plastic in the world. The material was created using organic green plant cellulose, and was touted as an all-purpose alternative to rubber.

While Parkesine introduced the world to plastic, it wasn't nearly as successful as its successor, celluloid. Another man-made synthetic material, celluloid used camphor and cotton fiber to create objects that imitated the look of ivory and tortoise shells. Celluloid products included billiard balls, hair combs, and mirrors, among other things, and became widely available on the global market by the 1890s.
Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863 - 1944),
inventor of Bakelite
But one synthetic plastic stood apart from the others. Discovered in an experiment to find a substitute for shellac, Bakelite was created in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Made from coal tar, the Bakelite resin could be formed and hardened into many shapes without the possibility of melting in the heat. Both flexible and durable, Bakelite, became a widely used synthetic for everything from radios and dishware, to jewelry and even lamp and furniture hardware parts.

Light fixtures from as early as the 1910s utilized Bakelite for sockets, plugs, and switches. Furniture utilized the plastic in the form of drawer pulls and knobs as it came in a myriad of color options. Today, you can still find Bakelite replacement parts available through online lamp supply and furniture hardware supply companies including Antique Lamp Supply and Van Dyke's Restorers.

Bakelite drawer pull available at Van Dyke's Restorers.
Now, a popular collectible among hobbyists and restoration purists, Bakelite can be worth a lot of money in the right form. While a lot of lighting and furniture hardware may resemble Bakelite, there are many Bakelite impostors which can make it hard to tell what is original and what is not. Thankfully there's a tip to testing if your "Bakelite" is the real deal or an impostor. Simply place the suspected Bakelite item in hot water or rub the item using your finger until it warms, and smell. Because Bakelite is created using a form of formaldehyde, it will emit a very nasty odor when warmed. The sniff test could mean the difference between a $5 item and a $500 value.

Sources:
  ACS.org
  Antique Lamp Supply
  Antiques Roadshow
  History of Plastic
  PBS.org
  National Public Radio
  Van Dyke's Restorers

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