Coxsackie Antique Center

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Elephants, Industry, And Deco Art:
The Wild World Of Collectible Plastics

Those of us who grew up with broken plastic toys and stained Melmac dishes find it hard to believe that plastics have become a HOT area of collecting. But it's true! It is also a very misunderstood and confused field. In popular parlance, plastic is plastic, but if you ask a chemical engineer, they'll tell you that the various types of plastics are as different from each other as copper, iron, silver, gold or brass. Collectors tend to specialize in one type or another.

Antique dealers, tend to be totally clueless about what they have. Here are a few pointers on the various types of plastic.


Celluloid was discovered in 1869 in Albany NY by John Hyatt in an attempt to win a contest for a developing a material that could be used to replace ivory billiard balls. Soon many objects that had been produced from expensive ivory where being made from celluloid, often called "Ivorette" or "French Ivory." In fact, celluloid was so successful as an artificial ivory that it is credited with saving the elephant from extinction.

Celluloid is produced from cotton fiber, nitric acid, and camphor. These materials can be highly explosive. The material is produced in flexible sheets and sold to manufacturers who work the material into shapes using manual labor and hand tools. Thus, it is an expensive material (but cheaper than ivory.) It was widely used as a covering for photo albums, jewelry boxes, and dresser sets. It was used to print on and produced celluloid advertising such as book marks, mirrors, and beginning in 1896, the celluloid pinback political and advertising buttons. After about 1900, it provided the flexible material used to record the movies. It was also produced in extremely thin sheets and then "blown" into a mold to form figural objects such as dolls or animals. They are very thin and fragile and were popular from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Although considered a plastic, celluloid is not a totally artificial and manufactured material since it is produced from natural cotton fibers and camphor, both natural substances.

Celluloid is flexible but can be torn or dented. It is very easily damaged by heat, often softening and distorting in shape. It will burn. It is usually ivory colored.


Bakelite is considered the first true plastic - a totally artificial material. It was developed by Leo Baekeland in 1907 in Westchester County, NY.

The material found immediate acceptance in industry. It's ability to be molded into almost any shape, its non-electrical conductivity, it's heat resistance, and the fact that it did not react with most chemicals made it extremely useful in the emerging electrical and chemical economy.

It was widely used in lamps, radios, kitchen appliances, and industrial products. Electric plugs, kitchen pan handles, radio knobs, telephones, etc are common uses.

Because of the chemical processes involved, Bakelite is brittle, has a matte surface, and can be produced only in dark colors - it is almost always black, occasionally dark brown or dark red. During the 1930s, The Bakelite Corporation attempted to expand the market for Bakelite by encouraging its use in decorative items. The effort was not very successful, but some very nice items were produced.

One area where Bakelite was never used was in the production of jewelry.


Catalin was developed to meet the demand for bright decorative plastics that bakelite could not meet. It was developed in Europe in the 1920s and introduced in this country in the 1930s by the American Catalin Corporation. It can be produced in bright colors, can be molded or shaped by hand, can be polished to a high gloss, and is not brittle. Thus, it is an excellent decorative material for use in Jewelry, kitchen accessories, clothing buttons, radio cases, and many other decorative objects.

The Bakelite company soon found that it could not compete with the brighter colors of Catalin. Therefore, it purchased a license to produce Catalin plastics. Thus there are Catalin items produced by the Bakelite corporation. But the items are not made of Bakelite - they are made by the Bakelite Corporation.

There is great confusion about these two plastics. Most books on the wonderful brightly colored jewelry of the 1930s do not understand this distinction. At least one didn't even get the title right, calling itself Bakelite. It's often said that you can identify bakelite by rubbing it vigorously and then smelling your fingers. If you get a sharp pungent odor, it's bakelite.

WRONG! If you get a pungent odor, it's Catalin.

Catalin can be unstable chemically. When stored away in a hot attic for years, it may begin to break down. Sometimes, you will see crystallization beginning in parts of the plastic. That is irreversible damage.

Catalin is made of made from phenol formaldehyde, the same as bakelite. The difference between the two is that Bakelite "pellets" were cooked under high pressure and high heat in a sealed mold. That formed a hard dark-colored material. Catalin was produced by pouring liquid catalin resin into an open mold and baking it at a relatively low temperature for 5-7 days. (Thanks to Peter Simmons for this additional information.)

It is important for collectors to realize that by the 1950s there were many other brightly colored plastics that closely resemble Catalin. These plastics are frequently double mis-identified in antique stores as bakelite when in fact, they aren't even catalin. One common example of this is the red plastic handles on 1950s "silverware" that is almost always labeled bakelite.

Catalin is very flammable, will melt, and is not brittle. Because catalin is so popular, today, it is being produced again and used to copy 1930s items. You can often recognize recent fakes by the evidence of hand tool work.


Introduced in the 1940s, this material is similar in appearance to Bakelite but has a glossy finish and can be given a wide range of colors. It is resistant to water and odor absorption. Therefore it was used in automotive ignitions and in durable plastic dinnerware such as "Lifetime," or "Melmac." Many automotive parts such as distributor caps are made from Melamine. Early "Melmac" is made of Melamine. By the 1960s "Melmac" was being made from other plastics. Melamine is somewhat brittle and somewhat susceptible to flames and heat.


Casein plastics had a much less prolific life cycle. It wasn't as durable as bakelite and it wasn't as attractive and easily worked as Catalin. It was widely used in automobiles on gear shifts, interior door and window knobs and other interior decorative trims. As anyone who has tried to restore a 1940s car knows, those are some of the hardest parts to find, because the heat caused them to disintegrate and crumble.


Polystyrene represents a class of plastics that became common around 1950. It quickly supplanted Catalin because it could be produced in bright colors but injection molded to take complex shapes without the need for hand work. It is very brittle and highly susceptible to damage from heat. It was used to produce inexpensive toys and household items. The plastic Easter bunnies or Santas or model airplanes of our childhoods are made of Polystyrene. The material wasn't strong enough for the usage so the items frequently broke. It was Polystyrene that gave all plastics the negative connotation of inferior and unnatural that became prevalent in the 70s and 80s. Because unbroken pieces are so rare, and because so many of the toys of our youth were made from it, polystyrene has become a very popular collectible plastic.

Modern Plastics

Today, there are hundreds of plastics for every use. They are carefully tailored to their intended use and largely fulfil the century old promise of plastic as a cheap durable effective material for everyday objects. Many people are drawn to the plastics of yesteryear because of their historic, aesthetic, and nostalgic significance. Bakelite allowed the modern industrial world to emerge. Catalin captured the beauty of the deco style of the thirties. Polystyrene brings back memories of the (broken) toys of our own childhood. And most important of all, Celluloid saved the elephants!

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