Leo Baekeland was a Belgian-born scientist and inventor living in New York City. He was attempting to find a synthetic replacement for shellac—which to that point had been derived from beetle shells. Instead of solving that problem, Baekeland inadvertently invented a synthetic plastic which he called Bakelite—and, on this day in 1909, he announced his invention to the world.
Bakelite was an early plastic and amongst the first synthetics. It was heat-resistant, non-conductive to electricity, and could be cast with precise detail, thus making it suitable for high-tech applications (such as they were in 1909). When polished, it had a pleasant sheen and hand appeal; Baekeland marketed it as “the material of 1000 uses.” It was used for electrical insulators, lightbulb sockets, radio & phone casings, auto parts, kitchenware, buttons, jewelry, pipe stems, and toys. Its use was licensed abroad and factories were opened in England, Europe, and Asia. At the height of the Art Deco period, Bakelite was used for all manner of consumer products.
Today, early Bakelite objects are quite collectable and can command high prices, especially the costume jewelry. The dresser box, shown above, was made in England in the 1930’s.