The rise of Bakelite and other plastics
in the USA during the 1930s

by Louis Bloedbeld

view another Bakelite article
view the Bakelite Cleaning article

Editor's Note: Bakelite was used in the Mercedes-Benz Ponton Types 180, 190 and 219 for the dashboard and radio fascia, as well as the window surrounds.  It was also used in limited quantities on other Mercedes-Benz Ponton models (Types 220a, 220S, 220SE and 190SL) for such items as fuse box covers.

Introduction: Who invented Bakelite?

Bakelite is a sort of plastic material which was invented by the Belgian Leo Baekeland (1863 - 1944).  Leo Baekeland went to the USA as an immigrant in 1889.  He understood that the USA was a better country to make a career than Belgium. Baekeland also invented photographic printing paper, called Velox, which could be developed under artificial light.  Baekeland sold his invention to the Eastman Kodak Company. With the money he earned with the selling of his invention to Kodak, he bought a laboratory in the neighbourhood of New York in Yonkers. In this laboratory Baekeland invented his new revolutionary product 'Bakelite' in 1907. Bakelite was the first synthetic plastic. This new invention of Baekeland would conquer the world in less than 15 years after 1907. Because of this invention Baekeland is seen as the father of the present plastics and plastic industry. Baekeland's own factory was taken over by Union Carbide Corp.  Bakelite was a very popular trade name, just as popular as Hoover or Sellotape in the USA, but also in the rest of the world. After the invention in 1907, Bakelite was, and still is, used in thousands of products like cars, household products, radios, electricity products and so on (1).

Short history of different major Bakelite products invented before 1930

What is Bakelite?

Bakelite is the trade name for plastics produced by Bakelite Ltd. in England and Bakelite Corp. in America. It still refers to these materials but is frequently used as a generic name for phenol formaldehyde (Phenolic). Phenolic is usually reinforced with a filler (inert) material added to a polymer to improve its properties. Usually in powder or fibre form such as wood, pulp, cotton flock and talc) but cast phenolic has no filler and can be translucent.  It can be easily coloured and was used decoratively for jewelry, radio cabinets and all kinds of ornaments (3).

Bakelite and other plastics during the 1930s have a great effect on most of today's products.  We can no longer work and live without plastics.  But why was the era of the depression the best time to conquer the USA and the rest of the world with Bakelite and other kinds of plastics?  The plastics that were appearing more widely during the 1930s, from steering wheels and tableware to dice, reflected organized research efforts within a commercial framework. Modern technology and its products needed to be "sold," as they were in part through design. The Du Pont Company developed the most important of the new multiple-use-plastics - nylon, number 66 of nearly 100 "superpolymers" produced by a special research team.  Nylon soon replaced silk in women's stockings; catgut in tennis rackets, musical instruments, and surgery; steel in machine bearings; and varying materials in wire insulation, umbrellas, and parachutes (4).

During the 1930s the USA was one of the leading nations with the development of plastics.  Nylon opened as a new plastic product a wide range of possibilities for new products.  But Bakelite was also a product, even older than nylon, which still conquered new parts of the market after twenty years after its invention.   During the 1920s and specially during the 1930s, Americans viewed plastics as miracle materials from which to shape contours of a desired future. Such early plastics as celluloid and Bakelite shared in a mystique generated by the chemical industry (5).

Lots of Americans had the feeling that chemists would indeed "make a new world by creating new substances out of anything."  Popular magazines and books mostly described plastic during the 1920s and 1930s as a product of utopian magic, creating an artificial world of transcendent beauty and perfection from earth's commonest elements. Even "Fortune", the nation's most intellectual business journal, entitled a 1936 review of the plastics industry with a biblically resonant phrase: "What Man Has Joined Together..." (6).

The magic of the plastics such as Bakelite was, in fact, the beginning of a new era. Plastic material, and Bakelite as well, made a lot possible in producing new products.  Bakelite was also known as "the material of the thousand uses" (7).

1927 was, in fact, the turning point in the use of Bakelite, this because of the fact that real competition with the Bakelite material was now possible, since the Bakelite patent on phenol-formaldehyde resin expired. So, after 1927 the competition with Bakelite products began. The end on the patent on Bakelite was only one of the factors which contributed to the success of Bakelite and other plastics in consumer goods during the 1920s and 1930s. The increased competition between Bakelite material suppliers, the development of other plastics, but also the design (streamlining) made Bakelite more cheaper than ever before. Bakelite became one of the best substitutes for traditional materials. It was also cheaper than traditional materials like wood and steel and in various situations just as strong. On the other hand, Bakelite and all the other plastics did not require much hand labour for assembling and the finishing touch of the end product. Every Bakelite product could be given the colour of your choice, which was not the case with wood and steel. But black and brown Bakelite were the most commonly used colours during the 1930s. Furthermore, the machines that were used to produce Bakelite products could be equipped with standard equipment, this also made a Bakelite product cheaper. By using the standard equipment of Bakelite machines you could make an endless variety of Bakelite forms, for instance, various Bakelite radio cases.  Bakelite was often used to imitate wooden materials and products, for instance, radio cases, cigarette boxes, lamp cases, and so on. In the wealthy part of the American society there was some resistance against Bakelite, for it was seen as cheap and nasty.  This vision and reputation of Bakelite was made possible because other plastics were not well-used in products before. So, in fact, Bakelite had an unfair reputation in the more wealthy parts of American society. The Bakelite Corporation led the way in convincing manufactures to beautify products with plastic (8).

In the case of the radio, Bakelite was seen as a good substitute for wood. Wood was often used by the wealthy part of American society.  But the imitation of wood by Bakelite was almost perfect. The best thing of all was that a Bakelite radio was much cheaper than a radio with a wooden case. Mostly during the depression of the 1930s, Bakelite material made it possible for everyone to buy a radio for just $10 instead of hundreds of dollars for a radio with a wooden case (9).

During 1933 an 1934 "Modern Plastics and Sales Management" ran a series of advertisements focusing on individual designers and their Bakelite products. Each ad featured a single product, each contained a small photograph and capsule biography touting the designer as a celebrity, and each quoted the great man himself on the virtues of modern design (10).

Bakelite and other plastics could do more than only to be cheap. Design, styling and colouring was very easy with Bakelite and other plastics.  In fact, the relationship between the plastics industry and design was symbiotic. As "Business Week" awkwardly phrased it in 1935, "modernistic trends have greatly boosted the use of plastics in buildings, furniture and decoration, and contrariwise, plastics by their beauty have boosted modernism" (11).

Bakelite and plastics were and still are a very good material for streamlined design and styling. The 1930s were struck by streamlined design and styling.  Low, sculptural, and flowing, streamlined design reflected the American desire for a frictionless flight into a future whose rounded forms would provide a protective, harmonious environment (12).

Rounded contours also brought out the reflective beauty of glossy plastic.  In fact, plastics and streamlining reinforced each other (13).

Art Deco, on the other hand, influenced many Bakelite products by design.  Because of the depression a lot of people began thinking of new ideas to bring the economy back to life.  In fact, Bakelite and other plastics were "made" for the depression.  Many people thought that the design of products was one of the things that could make products more attractive to people so they could buy them.  Bakelite and other plastics were very good materials for using it with design and styling. But not only design and styling of products could attract people starting to buy new goods. Products had to be made affordable. Bakelite and other kinds of plastics were made for this task, they were cheap, became attractive substitutes for traditional materials, needed less hand labour than other materials and were beautiful as well. For instance, Bakelite cases of radios popped out of the machine, coloured and well, as one single unit. In other words, Bakelite and other plastics became materials with a very strong competitive character. It was possible during the 1930s with different kinds of plastics and Bakelite material to compete with the traditional materials like wood and steel. Bakelite material was and still is very strong and durable. During the 1930s there were a lot of individual designers who designed Bakelite products. A lot of these Bakelite products (radios, pens, fans, coffee grinders, shavers, lamps, etc.) were sold in support of huge advertisement campaigns. The radio was, in fact, the biggest advertisement of Bakelite and plastics in general in the USA during the 1930s.  At the end of the 1930s in the USA, radios became a real fashion item. Thousands of small radio cabinets were made of decorative unfilled cast phenolic (Catalin or Marblette). The choice of colours was endless: onyx, marble, jade, coral, rose quartz. The size of these radios reflected the development of smaller components, and the material, unsuitable for larger mouldings was easy to work on standard equipment into an endless variety of forms (14).

The radio was also made very important by US president F.D. Roosevelt.  He used the radio frequently, by sending messages via this medium to the American people.  Although there was a depression, many Americans could afford a radio at their home because Bakelite was cheap and very competitive with other traditional materials like wood and steel.  Bakelite and other plastics changed a lifestyle during the 1930s.  Bakelite and other plastic products, just as today, were and still are very useful.  At that time it was very certain the era after the "Machine Age" could bare only one name: "The Plastic Age."


  1. Patrick Cook & Catherine Slessor, Bakeliet: Een geïllustreerde gids voor verzamelobjecten van Bakeliet, (Helmond: 1993), p. 6-7.
  2. Marjan Boot, ed., Massacultuur: De eerste plastic eeuw, kunststoffen in het dagelijkse leven, (Den Haag: 1981), p. 10-12.
  3. Sylvia Katz, Plastics: common objects, classic design, (London: 1984), p. 149-150.
  4. Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s, (New York: 1995), p. 26-27.
  5. Penny Sparke, The plastic age: From modernity to post modernity, (London: 1990), p. 41.
  6. Ibid., p. 43.
  7. Robert Hawes, Bakelite radios: A fully illustrated guide for the Bakelite radio enthusiast, (London: 1990), p. 46.
  8. Penny Sparke, The plastic age: From modernity to post modernity, (London: 1990), p. 48.
  9. Patrick Cook & Catherine Slessor, Bakeliet: Een geïllustreerde gids voor verzamelobjecten van bakeliet, (Helmond: 1993), p. 57.
  10. Penny Sparke, The plastic age: From modernity to post modernity, (London: 1990), p. 48.
  11. Ibid., p. 48.
  12. Ibid., p. 49.
  13. Ibid., p. 49.
  14. Sylvia Katz, Plastics: common objects, classic designs, (London: 1984), p. 60.

Return to the Ponton Workshop page