Bakelite History


Lac Bug Shellac BakeliteTo get to the History of Bakelite we must travel back in time to the year 1907 when a Belgian-born chemist, Leo Bakeland came up with a process of combining Phenol with formaldehyde Shellac Mixtureresin.  Bakeland was looking for a replacement for shellac.  Shellac is made from the excretion of Kerria Lacca insects (lac bugs).  Yum.  What happens is the female lac bug goes about their business excreting their lac goodness over tree bark.  This excretion or coating is created to protect the insect’s eggs.  The excretion looks like a tunnel or tube.  These lac laden tubes are scrapped off the tree bark (These lac bugs are usually found in India and Thailand) and then melted down.  What is left behind are sheets of shellac flakes that can be mixed with denatured alcohol to create a liquid finish known as shellac.  Who ever came up with the idea needs to win a big door prize, but unfortunately they are long gone.  We are talking over 3000 years gone.

You got to wonder what they were thinking at the time.  Were they thinking this could be a good source for food, but since it tasted really bad, they thought what the heck I mix this stuff with alcohol and see what happens.  Maybe they did it on a dare.  I guess we will never know.

Did you know that shallac isn’t just used on furniture.   Yep that’s right it is also used on finger nails.  This might really freak you out.  It is also used on Jelly Beans and Apples to make them more shinny.  So the next time you grab a hand full of jellybeans, just remember a bug’s secretion most likely made them shinny.  You may also want to check the ingredients of food you buy.  Chances are, confectioner’s glaze, confectioner’s resin, candy glaze, resinous glaze, pure food glaze, and natural glaze all contain lac bug excretions.

Back To Bakelite

Just like many accidents in history, Bakeland discovered his new formula for Bakelite by accident and ended up with one of the first mass producible plastics that would revolutionize the modern world.  Bakeland formed his new company Bakelite Corporation in 1922.  The first factory was built near Bound Brook, New Jersey, in 1929 and production for the product ramped up from that point.  Across the pond in England the company Bakelite Limited was formed in 1926 and production began around 1928 when a new factory was established in Tyseley, Birmingham.

Knowing these dates helps you figure out how old or at least what the starting date may have been when trying to determine age of products that were made from bakelite.  If you have a product made from bakelite, chances are it will not be older than 1928.  While there were products made from bakelite before these dates, most of the commonly find items were made after.

Here are some examples of products that were made from Bakelite.

Bakelite Phone

Bakelite Dominos

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  • lac bug
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