Early plastics were used to create many things: kitchenware, jewelry, industrial insulators, radio and telephone components, toys, purses, and more. So knowing more about the old plastics is knowledge most collectors can use.
Prior to World War Two, there were several plastics: Parkesine (1862), Xylonite (1869), Celluloid (1869), Galalith (1897 — aka Erinoid and French Bakelite), Bakelite (1909), Catalin (1927), and Lucite (1931 — aka Plexiglas or Perspex). The first two, Parkesine and Xylonite, quickly failed. Galalith is still used; primarily for making buttons, but Lea Stein and Pavone are two well recognized modern designers of French Bakelite Jewelry.
The most sought after plastics are Celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite.
Celluloid items tend to be thinner and lighter than other plastics. Often you can see right through the plastic when held up to a bright light, even if dyed. While it can be twisted or bent, it also is more brittle and can crack easily, especially when heated to higher temperatures. Some celluloid pieces can even be flammable. An easy, safer test for Celluloid is to place it under hot water for a few seconds. If it smells like vinegar or old camphor, likely it is Celluloid.
Bakelite feels heavy and clunky. Visually, what to look for is the absence of seams and mold markings. The finishing processes removed these lines. Also, Bakelite will never have those white ‘worn’ markings on the edges. That’s hard or modern plastic. Instead, Bakelite has a patina which softens the piece as an all over ‘fine scratching’ wear, not markings where the color is rubbed off.
If the piece passes those indicators, then you can try the following.
The simple tried and true test for Bakelite is to hold the item under hot water for 10 seconds. (Do try to avoid getting the findings wet, as this may weaken them.) If it smells of medicinal chemicals — like an old band-aid or medicine chest, that is the formaldehyde smell of old phenolic Bakelite (and I do mean strongly, there’s no ‘maybes’ here) — it is more than likely genuine Bakelite. This test is the least likely to damage or degrade the finish on the Bakelite.
However, there are also other methods.
Friction or rubbing is one method that can be done right there at the yard sale or flea market. Just rub the piece until your thumb feels hot, and sniff. If it really stinks — not the smell of attic or dirt, but a real chemical stink — it’s Bakelite. Not fool-proof, but the only ‘on the spot’ thing you can do — if the seller allows you to do so. (Many sellers do not wish to have pieces damaged with lots of handling and rubbing.)
Some collectors prefer simichrome polish. Bakelite polished with simichrome will leave a yellow residue on cloth, regardless of what color the Bakelite is. The yellow color may be as pale as canary yellow or a more orange-yellow, but if it is Bakelite, it will not be the color of dirt (brown). Found at most hardware stores, simichrome is somewhat expensive, but many consider it great for polishing Bakelite (as well as silver and most metals).
A few collectors recommend using Dow Bathroom Cleaner or 409 on a swab to test your vintage plastic items. If the swab develops a yellow color, regardless of the color of the plastic, the piece is probably Bakelite, but both of these are chemicals which risk damages. I do not recommend them. If you wish to try any of these products to test your item, please test a small area first. You do not wish to harm the gloss finish. Put a small amount of the product on a cotton swab and rub on a small test area for just a few seconds, then wash the tested area immediately with warm water to prevent damage to the finish. Do this first, then check the swab for test results.
Should you try 409 or the Dow cleaner, and strip the finish, you may try try simichrome or car wax to polish the piece. You may need to polish the piece gently several times to attempt to restore the finish. This is why I try the water test; it’s far less risky and troublesome.
Bakelite may fail any one of these tests if the piece is dirty, has a damaged finish, or has had finish or sealant not original to the piece applied to it.
There is also one other test: lemon juice. Lemon juice will not test for Bakelite, but for coral. Since Bakelite was often made to look like coral, you can use lemon juice to see if it’s plastic or real. Drop a small bit of lemon juice on the piece; if it becomes effervescent and bubbles, it is real coral.
Being the same as Plexiglas and Perspex, Lucite is more recognizable. It has a slicker feel and is lighter than Bakelite. Like Bakelite, it would be rare to find a piece with mold marks or seams. Generally speaking, Lucite comes in bright colors and patterns that are not seen in Bakelite. Sometimes in darker colors it is confused with Bakelite. However, if you’ve done the Bakelite tests (and feel the piece does not have a damaged or altered finish), the piece is likely Lucite. “No smelli, Plexi” is what I say.
Care of Plastics
Celluloid jewelry can be damaged by moisture, temperature extremes, and chemicals. Celluloid that has been stored in a closed environment for long periods can also dull quite dramatically and even crack.
The embalming fluids and other base chemicals used to create Bakelite can break down over time when exposed to extreme temperatures, humidity, etc. This chemical reaction reduces your wonderful vintage piece to a smelly pile of ick. Your nose will likely tell you this is happening. You will smell strong odors; a vinegar-type smell. This break-down is called “The Disease”.
Storing your collection in a reasonable environment, free from extremes, just as you live in. Not too hot, not too humid. However, should you find one of your pieces catches “The Disease”, immediately remove it from your other Bakelite items. Yes, this means pitch it. “The Disease” is incurable; the piece is dying. “The Disease” is a communicable one, and one piece suffering from it can and will make the others sick too. Heartbreaking to throw out a favorite purse or radio, yes. But better the loss of one piece rather than the whole collection.
Lucite items, especially clear and lighter colors, can easily show scratches; so be very careful with any cleaning products with abrasives. Lucite often has rhinestones, shells and other materials set in it, which means setting your Lucite purses too close to one another can make it all too easy to scratch one as you pull the other out.