Polymer Pioneer: Bakelite Synthetic Plastic Invented in Yonkers

A browse through any number of antique shops in historic Westchester County will reveal various examples of Bakelite—the world’s first plastic and darling of the vintage collectibles market. Invented in Yonkers in July 1907, the chemical marvel gave birth to the plastics industry and revolutionized a range of products for the home, office, and industry.

Bakelite was discovered and patented by Belgian-born chemist Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland. In 1889, following his graduation from Ghent University with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, Baekeland traveled with his wife Celine to visit New York City and Columbia University. During his stay, he met Richard Anthony, of the E. and H.T. Anthony photographic company, and was convinced to stay in the country as his apprentice. Baekeland worked as Anthony’s chemist for two years. He then branched off on his own to consult with other industries and explore the potential of polymers—chemically linked molecules that are the building blocks of plastics.

Photograph of Leo Baekeland's laboratory in Yonkers, New York State, U.S.A. Image from Bakelite review : silver anniversary number, 1910-1935 published by Bakelite Corporation. New York, NY: Bakelite Corporation, 1935
Photograph of Leo Baekeland’s laboratory, 1935 – credit: WikiMedia

Yonkers Laboratory Experiments

While Baekeland initially made his fortune through his invention of Velox, an innovative photographic paper he later sold to Kodak, we remember him today for his contributions to synthetic plastics. To further his ability to experiment on his own, Baekeland and his family settled in the Harmony Park neighborhood of Yonkers. They named their three-story turreted home, Snug Rock. He soon converted a barn on his property into his laboratory. There, he dedicated his early explorations to developing an alternative to shellac, a natural polymer made from the shells of female lac beetles.

As Baekeland transitioned to experimenting with phenol and formaldehyde, his research yielded an unexpected result—a dark-brown resin resistant to solvents and reheating. The material is made through intense heat and pressure, creating a polymer that is hard, heat-resistant, and electrically insulating. These properties quickly made Bakelite a sought-after material for a broad range of products. This vast array of products included jewelry, kitchenware, radio and telephone exteriors, electrical insulators, and other industrial applications. Baekeland patented his creation in July 1907 and shared his discovery with the American Chemical Society in 1909.

Intense Colors and Surging Popularity

Vintage set of 4 Bakelite bangles
Vintage set of 4 Bakelite bangles – credit: Wikimedia

Before Bakelite, plastics were typically black, brown, or grey. These colors lacked inspiration and creative use outside of the manufacturing industry. Since Bakelite can be cast in a variety of vibrant colors and unique shapes, it began to be used in home décor, fashion, and small electronics in the 1920s until its peak in the 1940s. This period of production inspired designs in the Art Deco style. This feature makes any Bakelite plastic highly sought-after to this day. The Philadelphia Bracelet, one of the most famous Bakelite jewelry items, was showcased on The Antiques Roadshow. Appraisers valued it at a whopping $6000 to $8000.

In the spring of 2010, the Hudson River Museum hosted an exhibition, “Bakelite in Yonkers: Pioneering the Age of Plastics.” The display featured a collection of objects, including Baekeland’s notebooks, industrial molds, and historic photographs of Bakelite factories.

From his laboratory in Yonkers, Baekeland birthed the Polymer Age and the use of plastics in our daily lives. While Bakelite’s popularity faded in the 1950s, it continues to flourish in the vintage and retro jewelry markets worldwide. The unique material also plays a major role in manufacturing plywood, computer components, and automobile parts.

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