Questers Learn the Beauty of Bakelite

Sylvia Munsen with her Bakelite collection (photo by Sandi Newberry)

Sylvia Munsen and Sandi Newberry

The February meeting of the Catalina Timewalkers Chapter of Questers was held in the home of Sylvia Munsen. She was assisted by Leni Bowman, Alice Dahl, and Debbie Muise who prepared a delicious brunch using recipes popular in the 1930s.

The program was presented by hostess Sylvia, sharing her collection of Bakelite and telling its history. Bakelite was developed by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, in 1907 and became the first fire-resistant plastic. First, it was widely used for industrial purposes: non-conducting parts of telephones and radios beginning in 1908 and machine parts for planes during World War I. It became popular for jewelry in the 1920s—Coco Chanel utilized Bakelite in her costume jewelry, and Schiaparelli used it for jewelry and buttons.

Beginning in the 1930s, Bakelite was used for game pieces like chessmen, poker chips, dominoes, and Mah Jongg sets, as well as for kitchenware—especially canisters and silverware handles. The original color of Bakelite was a light mustard yellow, but through various chemical treatments, it was made into a variety of colors. Colorful Bakelite silverware handles were a perfect match with Fiesta dinnerware, the colorful dishes that were designed in 1935 and continue to be popular today. Sylvia has Bakelite in red, yellow, orange, light green, and a dark blue-black; however, most of the colors found today in antique stores are yellow and red.

Several members brought pieces of jewelry, which were authenticated by Sylvia. Factors in the authentication of Bakelite include: Bakelite is heavier than newer plastics. If rubbed vigorously, it has an odor similar to formaldehyde, and if rubbed gently with Simichrome cream on a soft cloth, the cloth will turn a shade of yellow, regardless of the color of the Bakelite item. Search your vintage jewelry and find out if you have authentic Bakelite jewelry!

Catalina Timewalkers always welcome new members. They meet the third Friday of the month, October through May. If you have interest in history, antiques or collections, or preserving and restoring the past, Questers may be for you. Please call Sandi Newberry at 520-818-0199 for more information.