Antiques and Art Around Florida — 2014-2015 Season
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Bakelite In The Kitchen
Barbara E. Mauzy

Chemist Dr. Leo Hendrick Baekeland developed and named Bakelite originally to be an insulator for electricity. Prior to Baekleland’s discovery, chemists researching plastics formulated acids in shellac substitutes. Instead he used a base, ammonia, which insured final hardening and greatly reduced the gas content of the solution. His predecessors used temperatures in the 50-75 degree Celsius range; Baekeland went to temperatures of 150-200 degrees Celsius and added pressure. He discovered the more heat used the harder the substance became, and the birth of Bakelite occurred in his Yonkers, New York laboratory in 1907.

Bakelite became an incredibly useful material because it was able to be laminated, stretched into fibers, and molded. By 1927 scientists had adapted it to dozens of applications, and Bakelite was on the brink of entering the “modern” kitchen. It was in 1927 that the concept of color in the kitchen was born, and Bakelite was a wonderful alternative to wood and metal because it was available in yellow, gold, white, cobalt blue, green, orange, red, brown, and black.

Bakelite-handled flatware was introduced to the American housewife in sets of knives; six table knives cost $14.95 in the mid-1920s. This was quite an extravagance, but the US economy was thriving and most white families were able to treat themselves to luxuries if not regularly, at least on occasion, and it was to this demographic that manufacturers targeted their print advertisements. The concept was simple: use the forks and spoons you already own and enhance the table setting with a colorful Bakelite knife. Although Bakelite advertisements began in the mid-1920s, Community Plate (Oneida Community, Ltd) began to proactively promote Bakelite-handled utensils in 1929 just in time for the Great Depression.

Few were able to consider the extravagance of expensive knives after the crash of the stock market and the years of hardship that followed, so Bakelite flatware and kitchen tools failed to become popular. As the economy and personal finances recovered in the mid- to late 1930s, Bakelite was again marketed and this time with success. The second round of promotions began with “picnic sets” and “luncheon sets” which were sold as six forks and six matching knives. It is important to note that there is a genuine lack of spoons which contributes to the difficulty one may have securing a set of Bakelite with spoons, particularly both tablespoons and teaspoons.

This time, many American women embraced Bakelite and complete sets became available along with a huge assortment of kitchen gadgets. Manufacturers of furniture, glass, and metals incorporated Bakelite as knobs, handles, and other such ornamentation.

Chemists at DuPont Corporation invented Lucite, a transparent plastic, in 1931. This material was incorporated with Bakelite to create some of the most interesting and popular flatware handles of all.

Magazines and catalogues show Bakelite-handled gadgets in kitchen scenes through the early 1950s.

Some tools were made with chrome or chrome plated metal, but for use in today’s kitchen consider the reliable durability of stainless steel.

By the early 1950s, Bakelite was considered old fashioned and women’s magazines offered directions on weaving materials over the handles to create a new, fresh appearance. There was a final attempt to keep Bakelite current with “Brazilian Horn” Bakelite, a brown swirled handle that was to replicate natural horn that had been used as handles in years past. Many Brazilian Horn pieces were free or quite inexpensive with purchases of Kraft Foods products.

Bakelite enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the early 1990s when contemporary magazines began propping photographs with Bakelite kitchen items. Articles featuring recipes, scenes in homes, and advertisements all began adding the colorful charm Bakelite provides.

I began hoarding Bakelite flatware at this time and in the mid-1990s I started selling flatware for $1 a piece regardless of color or style. I published the first edition of Bakelite in the Kitchen in 1998 and by that time the marketplace had totally changed. Bakelite was a hot commodity in the kitchen and as jewelry. Ounce for ounce, vintage Bakelite jewelry was selling for prices much higher than gold, something that is quite mindboggling!

The popularity of Bakelite continues, as it should. It is durable, colorful, and abundant. Just as in 1925, you can perkup a table instantly with a few pieces of Bakelite. Mixing and matching is appropriate, but maintaining a simple color palette is also effective.

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding the care and use of Bakelite in the kitchen. As with everything vintage, proper cleaning is of utmost importance and this means hand washing. Papers that were packaged with sets of Bakelite specifically indicated the use of warm soapy water, the word “hot” was not used. Automatic dishwashers will destroy Bakelite handles; they will crack, split, and discolor.

Sunlight and air are other enemies of Bakelite as they will cause the handles to oxidize. This chemical reaction can cause bright colors to become dull and certain colors to actually transform into new colors: pinks turn orange, blues turn green and/or black, white becomes gold, and so on. It is possible to restore Bakelite to its original hues, and I show the procedure step-by-step in Bakelite in the Kitchen, 2nd edition . To maintain luster and color, keep Bakelite in drawers or utensil boxes, not out in crocks or baskets.

Value is determined by condition as well as supply and demand. Collectors want vintage kitchen collectibles to appear new and unused. Bakelite handles are susceptible to being burned or melted when used incorrectly during meal preparation; collectors want handles that remain in pristine condition. The connector, or ferrule, needs to be tight; no one wants a wobbly fork. Flatware was manufactured with plastic ferrules (that are quite often cracked or broken) and metal ferrules. Egg beaters need to crank and spin with ease, springloaded items must retain an ease of use, and so on. Certain designs are more popular and thus of higher value. Androck created a line of “bullet handled” kitchen tools that feature a ribbed style that collectors love. Less common gadgets such as ice breakers or hot dog curlers are of high demand simply because they are elusive. Handles with Lucite or multiple colors of Bakelite are of higher value. In the early 2000s one could state with authority that any tricolored handles were worth a minimum of $200 each, but today’s market won’t support this value, although overall prices have remained stable or a bit higher over the last several years.

If you are interested in starting to collect Bakelite keep in mind the general lack of spoons as there simply weren’t as many spoons produced as forks and knives. Soup spoons are particularly rare and most of those will have, for some unknown reason, damage on the metal. Stainless steel is superior to chrome or chrome plating, and metal ferrules are more durable than plastic ones. Buy what you love. There are no rules; you can set a colorful table with one color or a variety of colors.

One cannot expect to find sets with these designs; it’s a challenge locating these handles one at a time.

A final word of advice when shopping for Bakelite or any vintage piece(s): it is better to purchase one rare, valuable item than several less expensive items. Most inexpensive collectibles are of less value simply because they are available – supply and demand. Searching for hard-to-find Bakelite will reward you with lovely pieces that should/could hold their value or go up in value which is a lovely perk!

I started photographing Bakelite in 1998 for inclusion in my first edition of Bakelite in the Kitchen. Prior to that, Bakelite was simply merchandise my customers wanted. After six months of focusing a camera on the colors, styles, and configurations, I became hooked! I started keeping Bakelite for myself and after more than 15 years I still hold on to odd, unique, and interesting pieces. It is easy for me to justify my personal Bakelite purchases because I exclusively use Bakelite flatware and serving utensils. Washing them by hand is just a labor of love!

Barbara E. Mauzy is an author, dealer, & collector specializing in vintage American kitchen. With more than 20 titles in print, her books include Mauzy’s Depression Glass, 7th ed., PYREX® The Unauthorized Collector’s Guide in a brand new 5th edition, Bakelite in the Kitchen 2nd ed. And many more. Barbara sells on eBay as todays_ pleasures_tomorrows_treasures and maintains the eBay store: Barbara and Jim Mauzy.
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