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Antique Plastics

An earlier cousin to Bakelite and Lucite is Celluloid which was developed in England in the 1850s and commercially used in the late 1860s. Jewelry made from celluloid dates back to 1900 and was popular in the art deco movement. Of course, the most popular memories of celluloid are from the film industry, the only problem being the relatively easy deterioration of the material. Celluloid items are thinner and lighter than other plastics and can be bent and twisted. It is more brittle and can crack when its temperature is raised and can even burst into flame. The substance can be affected or destroyed by moisture, extremes of temperature, chemical cleaners and long periods of enclosed storage. In recent years, the discovery of old movies that had reached the end of their distribution cycle by being buried in the frozen northlands, allowed the recovery of films and artists thought to have been lost due to the natural deterioration of the material.

The process to create Bakelite plastic was patented in 1909 by Dr. Leo Baekeland. The material was in great demand for radios as well as kitchen utensils, dinnerware (plates and cups), and was also used in jewelry. Bakelite is a very strong, flexible plastic that can be made in any color of the rainbow and can be poured into molds, carved, inlaid, and laminated. It is created under high heat. Its disadvantage is that it cannot be recycled. It can be opaque or transparent, and is a heavy, sturdy plastic. It usually gives off an acid smell when placed under hot water. Over time, it can change color, darkening slightly, and sometimes with a patina forming on the surface. This is a popular and highly collected vintage plastic. To test for Bakelite, polish it with Simichrome, an expensive product that you can purchase at some hardware stores. No matter what color the Bakelite is, it will leave a yellow residue on the cloth. This only works if the plastic is natural and has not otherwise been coated with a protective sealant. You can also hold it under hot water for 30 seconds and see if it produces a strong Shellac-like smell. Other chemicals such as bathroom cleaners can be used to test for plastics, but they can irreversibly harm the surfaces and are not recommended

A popular cousin to Bakelite is Lucite which was created in 1937 by DuPont from a resin. It was very cheap to produce and easy to work with, especially in carvings and inlays. It can be made in any color from opaque to transparent, but perhaps its most popular use today is as a protective display case for collectible cards which can be sandwiched between two blocks of transparent lucite. They protect the card from being handled, yet allow the viewer to see every side and corner of the object. Lucite was popular during the 1940s and early 1950s with lucite products imbedded with sea shells, rhinestones and other materials.


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