Just as buyers want to know if an antique table is made of oak or maple, a wedding ring is gold or brass or a statue is steel or bronze, serious collectors of antique plastic toys, trinkets, figures and jewlery want to know the type of plastic in an item. If you start selling old plastic items on eBay, bidders will ask you the identity of the plastic. Some vintage plastics, including Bakelite and Celluloid, are highly collectible these days.
Beyond general interest, identifying an item as being made from certain plastics shows that it is indeed old, or at least consistent with being old. Bakelite and Catalin, for examples, were discontinued decades ago and will only appear in an an old toy or piece of jewelry.
This brief article shows how to identify the five most common plastics used to make many vintage and antique collectibles: Celluloid, Bakelite, Catalin, Casein and Lucite.
How to tell plastic from other materials?
Most people have a good feel for what plastic feels like, but glass, crystal, rubber and other materials are sometimes mistaken for plastic. This is particularly true if the item is small, such as a button on a coat, or embedded into a larger object.
Plastic is warmer to the touch than glass, crystal and most gemstones. Just put the object to your cheek to test. Plastic is also usually much lighter. Glass items, such as a wine glass, will have a distinct sound when clicked with the fingernail that plastic does not. Plastic often has a seam, but rubber and glass can too.
The sometimes used hot needle test will often reveal the identity. A red hot pin won't pierce glass or gemstone, but can enter plastic and often gives a distinct plasticy smell. Rubber will give off a rubber smell. Wood will often give off a burnt wood smell. The hot needle test is a destructive test, so it should be done with care, if at all, and only in discreet areas, such as on the bottom. Many collectors do not use the hot needle test as it can leave a small hole.
** Plastic #1: Celluloid (Made: 1800s to early/mid 1900s)
Celluloid is the trade name for a plastic that was widely used in the 1800s and early/mid 1900s to make pins, buttons, fountain pens, buttons, toys, dolls and many other collectible products. If you follow antique auctions you will often hear the name mentioned. It was commonly used as an ivory substitute, to make fake ivory toiletry boxes, billiard balls, handles and backings for hand mirrors, combs and brush handles. If you ever see the name ‘French ivory’ or ‘Ivorine,’ those are other names for antique faux-ivory celluloid. Anne Frank wrote her famous WWII diary with a celluloid pen and even describes it in the diary. Many valuable late 1800s and 1900s baseball, political and tobacco pins are celluloid.
Though widely used in its day, drawbacks to celluloid are it is flammable, fragile and deteriorated with time. Celluloid often has cracking and crazing to the surface, along with toning and yellowing. Due to the common decomposition, antique celluloid in top condition is prized today.
Though celluloid is sometimes used today to make guitar parts, guitar picks and ping pong balls and, sometimes in recent decades, for rock and political pins, it was discontinued for most everything else decades ago. No modern made toy, figurine or toiletry will be made of of celluloid. If a vintage appearing pin, figure or trinket is made out of celluloid, it is likely indeed vintage.
Identifying celluloid: Antique celluloid tends to be much thinner and lighter in weight than other period plastics. For an antique fake ivory celluloid box, the top and sides will often be noticeable very thin, and the plastic surface to celluloid pints is noticeable thin. You can often see right through the plastic when held it is held up to a bright light.
The easy and reliable test for celluloid is to place it under hot water for a few seconds, then smell it. Or your can rub it vigorously with your finger or a cloth to get the smell. Celluloid smells like camphor. If you want to know what celluloid smell like after heat or friction, smell a ping pong ball. Rubbing your finger on an plastic item taking a sniff if quick and simple. You can do it right there in an antique store or at an estate sale.
**Plastics #2 and #3: Bakelite and Catalin (Made: 1907 to WWII)
Bakelite and Catalin are trade names for closely related plastics that are popularly collected today in the form of old timey radios (‘Catalin radios’), colorful jewelry, toys, trophies and more.
Bakelite and Catalin are both made from phenol and formaldehyde, and are phenol formaldehyde resins. Because of this they have many of the same characteristics. However, the two were made in different ways so also have distinct differences.
Bakelite was made from 1907-27. It used a filler of cloth, paper, cotton and even sometimes asbestos. This meant the plastic was heavy, strong, opaque and came in only dark colors. Bakelite usually came in only black and dark brown, and was used often used for ‘utilitarian’ purposes, including pipe fittings, coffee pot handles, electrical outlets and the bases to antique trophies.
When Bakelite’s patent ran out in 1927, the process was picked up by the American Catalin Company which called their version of the plastic Catalin. The American Catalin Company used the same phenol formaldehyde chemicals, but made the plastic in is a different way. In particular, no fillers were used. This meant that, unlike the dark and dreary Bakelite, Catalin was often translucent and made in a wide variety of bright colors and interesting designs, including a marble of different colors. Catalin was used for more fun, decorative and collectible items, including jewelry, toys, trinkets, decorated boxes, brightly colored radios. Catalin tended to shrink with age, which explains the sometimes warped and shrunken frames for Catalin radios. Catalin was made from 1928 to about World War II.
Collectors and dealers mixing up the names.
As the plastics are so closely related, collectors and dealers often get the names mixed up, calling Catalin Bakelite, and Bakelite Catalin. Most so-called ‘Bakelite jewelry’ on the market actually is Catalin. Some sellers on eBay and elsewhere play it safe and call it ‘Bakelite Catalin.’
The good thing is both plastics are vintage (1907-WWII), so if you know its one of the two but aren’t sure which, you can be at least confident the item is old. You can even use the catch all ‘phenol formaldehyde resin’ to cover them both, though that might not sound as romantic at sale.
Identification of Bakelite and Catalin
First I’ll show the tests to used to identify phenol formaldehyde–- meaning both Bakelite and Catalin. Then, once something is identified as phenol formaldehyde, we’ll look at how to differentiate between the two.
Bakelite/Catalin general appearance: Bakelite and Catalin are both heavy and clunky. They make a distinct sound when two pieces are clinked against each other. Visually, there should be no seams or mold marks. There is no pure white, as the whites formed a yellowish patina with time.
Bakelite/Catalin hot water and rub test: Hold the plastic under hot water for perhaps 15 seconds, then smell it. If it smells strongly like medicinal chemicals, then it likely is Bakelite/Catalin. Though it doesn’t work as well, you instead can rub the plastic with your fingers and sniff for the strong medicinal small.
‘French Bakelite,’ a mostly modern made faux-Bakelite that is Casein (described later in this article).
Bakelite/Catalin polish test: The common metal polisher called Simichrome Polish can help identify Bakelite/Catalin. If you rub a q-tip with simichrome polish on Bakelite or Catalin, the polish on the q-tip will turn yellow. Simichrome polish is available at many hardware stores and online. The same test works with Dow Bathroom Cleaner or 409. Only do the test in a discreet area.
So, then, is it Bakelite or Catalin?
If you can determine an item is phenol formaldehyde, the next question is is Bakelite or Catalin. If you know the date of the item, then it’s easy. Bakelite: 1907-1927. Catalin: 1928-1940s. Bakelite only comes in dark colors, usually black or dark brown. Catalin can come in a wide variety of color colors, including bright colors and marbling. Bakelite is opaque, while Catalin is often translucent. If the item is brightly colored jewelry or other items, it is more than probably Catalin.
** Plastics #4: Casein (1800s to today)
Casein plastic was a popular plastic developed at the end of the 1800s and used throughout the 1900s. Casein is a powdered milk. For Casein in plastic form, the powder was mixed into a paste then hardened by putting it in formaldehyde.
Casein was originally made in Europe and sometimes called galalith, a name you still see from time to time. Casein was hard, could be polished and colored to imitate materials like ivory. Casein was used for jewelry and fountain pens, but is most commonly found in the form of knitting needles and buttons.
Casein is easily identified by putting it under hot water for a few seconds as it will smell like burnt milk.
As Casein was used over such a long period of time, it's presence won't prove an item old, but you at least know it was available in antique times.
** Plastics #5: Lucite
Lucite was a popular early form of plastic that is still used today. While transparent in its natural state, Lucite can be made opaque and translucent, dyed many possible colors, molded and embedded with objects, so comes in a wide and sometimes wild variety of colors and looks. In vintage times, it was used to make everything from plastic toys to jewelry.
Lucite has a slick feel and is fairly light weight. It is lighter in weight than Catalin. If you put Lucite under hot water or rub it vigorously, it has no smell.
As Lucite was made for over a long time, it can be hard to be sure if a Lucite item is old or know. The most common way to identify vintage Lucite is by the style. Vintage styles include marble and granite-style Lucite (has a distinct marble or granite multi-coloring), clear Lucite with objects embedded in it (such as plants, bugs, trinkets), confetti Lucite which is clear Lucite with glitter inside objects inside, and moonglow which seems to glow under light.