Plastics (a material that can be formed into rigid objects, films, or filament) morphed throughout the 19th and 20th century. Hundreds of manufacturers and inventors kept improving the medium to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society. Below is a brief roster of plastic milestones throughout the latter part of the 19th century and the 20th century.
In London, 1862, Alexander Parkes unveils the first-ever man-made plastic. Dubbed "Parkesine," it fails due to high costs.
After the failure of Parkesine, Daniel Spill tries to manufacture a similar material named Xylonite.
The first major plastic, celluloid is discovered in 1869 by American John W. Hyatt. It is manufactured in 1872 during a time of high demand for an ivory replacement.
Two German researchers, trying to create a white chalkboard, mix casein (milk protein) with formaldehyde and create a new plastic called Galalith (from the Greek gala, milk, and lithos, stone). It is also manufactured under the name Erinoid. Casein plastics are still used today, mainly in the production of buttons.
The first completely synthetic man-made substance, Bakelite is invented in 1909 by independent New York chemist Leo H. Baekeland. The "material of a thousand uses" is used to make everything from car parts to jewelry. In the 1920’s plastic enters haute couture when Coco Chanel includes Bakelite jewelry in her accessories collection. However jewelry manufacturing was suspended in 1942 in order to concentrate supplies on the war effort. Post World War 2 thanks in part to improved technology — Bakelite became obsolete.
Bakelite pieces are now valuable collectibles. Andy Warhol was an avid collector. After his death in 1987, Andy Warhol's extensive Vintage Bakelite Jewelry collection sells for record prices at Sotheby's. In 1998, the Bakelite "Philadelphia Bakelite Bracelet" sells for US$17,000 at a Treadway/Toomey auction. Bakelite collecting is still going strong. Our website focus is on all 20th Century Vintage Plastic Jewelry.
When Bakelite's 1910 patent expires in 1927, the Catalin corporation starts making the same substance under the name "Catalin" and adds fifteen new colors to the color range. 70% of the "Bakelite" remaining today is Catalin. Also suspends jewelry sales in 1942 (see above). Plastic is the perfect medium for the Art Deco period, when bold, colorful, geometric designs are popular.
"Lucite" is the brand name of a polyacrylic discovered by DuPont in 1931. Around the same time, an identical polyacrylic is developed by the Rohm & Haas Chemical Company and named "Plexiglas." In the UK and other European nations, it is generally known as "Perspex." DuPont markets Lucite jewelry after the war.
Daniel Fox, a chemist at General Electric, discovers a polycarbonate resin thermoplastic that looks like acrylic but is much more durable (almost bulletproof). A patent is filed in 1955 and it is given the brand name "Lexan." Familiar products made of Lexan include Apple's iBook and iPod and Naglene water bottles. @ www.oldluxe.com