In our dining room we have a Bakelite telephone. Once upon a time this was connected to our extensive ‘two phone’ telephone system. The problem was because of a fault on the receiver we were forced to shout to be heard, resulting in conversations being somewhat stilted. Repair was always discussed but never enacted so a modern replacement now graces our dining area. The Bakelite telephone is still around though and the grandchildren love it.

Plastics and Bakelite really epitomise the energy of modern design between the wars. Their bright colours, exciting styling and new affordable materials caught people’s imagination at the time and now their appeal is being rediscovered because these early plastic items are an easy inexpensive way to achieve the Art Deco look.

Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, was developed in1907 by a Belgian, Dr Leo Baekeland. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it hit its peak in popularity and was known as the ‘material of a thousand uses’. Bakelite and its imitations ushered in a new age of colourful and stylish, yet inexpensive household goods.

Bakelite can be identified by the strong carbolic smell it gives off when rubbed. It was made in mottled and plain browns, black, green, red and blue. Colours other than brown and black make any plastic object more desirable and larger objects, particularly in Bakelite, are rare and so more valuable.

Styling is also very important and pieces that reflect the Art Deco style of the 1930’s – typified by stepped forms, streamlining and clean lines- are especially collectable. Plastics from the 1950’s onwards tend to be less desirable and so less valuable as styling is not as strong and the quality is generally poorer than the early plastics made between 1910 and 1930.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

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