Monday, November 30, 2015
BAKELITE: A Short-Lived History
The industrial use of Bakelite is a vanished art. Gone are the days of Bakelite clocks and radios and swanky cigarette holders. And buttons too. When Bakelite was discontinued, a lot of household items lost their "Jazz Age" aesthetic. As cheaper types of plastic (i.e. celluloid and lucite) replaced Bakelite in the 1940's, the Art Deco movement drew to a close and the importance of "style" waned in favor of "functionalism." What we have today is an endless torrent of dreary, affordable schlock. Walmart, anyone?
Imagine working in a button factory in the 1920's or the 30's and the unique output of that time period. The tools and machinery that workers used are what produced this kind of "double-cut" button with a contrasting grid pattern on each side. It's Bakelite and it's hard to find. Needless to say: they don't make buttons like they used to.
Friday, November 27, 2015
Art Deco all the way, this button has that 1920's oomph that I love in an old piece of Bakelite. I polished it for this photo, but not too much since I like how the patina in the carved details plays up the leafy design. Bakelite can be very theatrical and this button feels like its own cabaret show. Not suprisingly, it comes from NYC. I found it in an antique shop down the street from Coney Island.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
A dark, spinachy green, these Bakelite buttons are shaped like a couple of tin cans. Why so? I have no idea, but I like to imagine them on the sleeve of a tricked out dinner jacket. They are robust buttons with the stubbiness of old drawer knobs. One can only wonder what kind of outfit they accentuated. Were buttons like this a fad once, churned out by the J.C. Penney Company at the height of the Great Depression? And who wore these? I'm going to make a wild guess: hipsters.
Visit Doreen's online store
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
I saw this button five years ago at an antique shop called "Pippin Vintage Jewelry" in New York City (on 17th Street). At first I passed on this faux tortoise humdinger, but as I was leaving the store I decided to go back and look at it again. The color is rootbeer. The shape of it reminds me of a stylized bolt head. "It's Bakelite," said one of the shop employees. Something about those deep, industrial-looking grooves won me over and I snapped it up. Since then I've never seen another button like it. Thank you, New York.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
This thickset pair of apple juice sisters has that Bakelite "clink" that collectors listen for when determining genuine Bakelite. I don't know if I have the ear for verifying Bakelite on sound, but these are the real deal. What I love about apple juice Bakelite is the fishbowl-like feel it emulates. These buttons have the chunky vibe and the signature heft that makes them unmistakably authentic. Once upon a time, I'll bet these were part of a real swanky coat. This is apple juice Bakelite at its juiciest.
Monday, November 23, 2015
The color on this one is known as creamed corn, the palest shade of Bakelite out there. Really, it's a faded variation of butterscotch that suggests ivory. Note the chiseled marks on the smoothness of the Bakelite where the squares were whittled down by factory tools. This bold button exudes all the buttery, vintage aplomb of definitive Bakelite. 1929: Be there or be square!
Friday, November 20, 2015
Some of the most sophisticated Bakelite buttons ever assembled were garnished with an escutcheon. I think that'll be the word of the day: Escutcheon. The definition is as follows:
"A flat piece of metal for ornamentation."
As a general rule, I prefer to collect Bakelite buttons without escutcheons since they often distract from the Bakelite. However, if the Bakelite is carved or artfully distinguished I will make an exception. This is one of those exceptions. The sloped sides of this button call attention to two rows of hoop-shaped indentations. Although the brass poppy escutcheon is definitely the central attraction, it's the carved Bakelite that I love the most. The color is chocolate, a toothsome hue that really does look like a Hershey confection.
Based on the Art Nouveau style of this escutcheon, I believe this button is nearly a century old. The vintage design of the poppy evokes the illustrations of John R. Neill who illustrated the original "Wizard of Oz" books between 1904 and 1920. The poppy is also a "remembrance symbol" that is used to honor soldiers who died during WWI between 1914 and 1918. The poppy was eloquently popularized as an emblem of the war's death toll in the John McCrae poem, "In Flanders Fields."
I purchased this button in 2014 from an antique dealer in Royalton, Vermont.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Averaging at half-an-inch across, these are among the smallest Bakelite buttons in my collection. I don't normally collect these eensy bits, but somehow I have quite a few of them. For tiny buttons, these have big visual-appeal. How would you describe the green one? It looks to me like a stylized bomb with aerodynamic fins. The funny yellow button with its fifteen prongs looks like it fell out of a Bakelite R2-D2. (I love spoke buttons and will be posting more at a later date.) Also, I think there's a Cole Porter musical happening in the apple juice doozy with shavings of confetti falling like snow in its insides. Anything Goes! Bakelite is too cool.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
What a tough button to photograph! This cherry pinwheel has the look of polished glass and loves the sunshine. I took a picture of it at noon, but the glare was too much. Four hours later I tried again and got this not-so-great shot. Bakelite is famously tricky to photograph, though it can be amazingly photogenic. This curvy beauty parades an Art Deco seashell outline that reminds me of a twirling flamenco dress.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Here's a button that dreams of becoming an artichoke. The color of this Bakelite is called moss, though some collectors call it split pea soup. It's a combination of green and brown with marbled veins of black. Some of my moss buttons have an almost amphibious vibe while others remind me of strange vegetables. This one sports a trefoil design with etchings on the leaves. I love how a hunk of old plastic can seem so organic. Some of my weirdest Bakelite buttons are of this moss variety. They are the goblins of my collection.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Fluid swirls run through this button like a juicy cloud. This is what I call "Orange Juice" Bakelite, though I'm not ruling out other descriptive terms. Some would classify this as a butterscotch button with inner flourishes, or apple juice with an injection of orange streaks. Hold this button up to the light and it almost looks like there's a nebulous galaxy floating inside of it. Here on my blog, I will refer to this kind of Bakelite as Orange Juice. I don't know what I do to attract so many OJ buttons into my collection, but I have quite a few of them. This one is a contender for best Art Deco design.
Friday, November 13, 2015
Here's one of my showstoppers. The Millefiori (Italian glass) centerpiece on this button looks like a psychedelic cough drop. Normally I'm not a fan of Bakelite buttons with gaudy ornaments that detract from the Bakelite, but this button won me over. I especially like the carved grooves and dotted pattern on the Bakelite. Design-wise, somebody went to town on this thing. Even the patina (exaggerated in the sunlight) plays up the drama of this funky zinger.
As a side note, the Millefiori jewel on this tour de force is true to the actual manufacture of the button and not a tacky add-on. I did my research.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Every now and then I find a button that feels like it has something to say. This is one of those buttons. Notwithstanding a few dings and bruises, this button radiates wise vibes and hidden stories. The butterscotch tone of the Bakelite has darkened over the years to an almost adobe mustard and when I rub my thumb over the surface, I'm pretty sure there's some ancient juju emanating from the crisscross design and bow-carved details. Construction-wise, this button reminds me of the Native American Indian art I used to see everywhere when I lived in Arizona, or a road trip I went on once through Taos, New Mexico. Whatever its origins, this button is definitely in a Southwestern mood. Also, I don't mind that it's a tad battered. For me, that's part of the mystery.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Today's Bakelite button is a striking emblem in maroon. It evokes bloodshed and patriotism, French valor and beheaded queens. Like a stylized splash of wine, this button is a salute to Pinot noir and King Louis XVI. Too bad this dark purplish shade of Bakelite has always been so difficult for me to find. It's the one color area where my collection wanes. C'est la vie...
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
About once a month I'm going to devote a random Tuesday to toggle buttons. What is a toggle? Here's a suitable definition:
"A short rod of wood or plastic sewn into one side of a coat or other garment, pushed through a hole or loop on the other side and twisted so to act as a fastener."
In other words, toggles are oblong buttons or textile closures. I suspect that toggles were invented in China and were originally made of bamboo, but that's just a wild guess. I acquired these 4 Bakelite toggles through various antique shops and button dealers in hopes to form a colorful set. Eventually the quartet came together. The black one is a dead ringer for a piece of licorice.
Monday, November 9, 2015
This fabled yellow mustang is one of the Holy Grails of Bakelite buttons. Once upon a time, my hunt for this button could not be tamed. I searched for it for years until this one found its way into the stable of my safekeeping. More than just a dandy sample of old-time plastic, I've seen this sought-after superstar in books on Art Deco. For me, it epitomizes the Bakelite world of the 1920's like nothing else. A butterscotch horse profile resting in an apple juice dish, it measures two inches across and oozes a rich, vintage panache. This button is extraordinary!
Friday, November 6, 2015
These are some of my newest Bakelite buttons, a couple of orange showoffs from the 1930's. I like the slats on these guys and consider this design to be an understated example of Art Deco. I'm not lucky when it comes to orange buttons since they tend to evade me. So it was a surprise when my friend, Doreen, hooked me up with this pair of carroty squares.
Visit Doreen's online store
Thursday, November 5, 2015
When I first laid eyes on this button (at an antique shop in downtown Kansas City) I thought I was looking at the embryo of a deformed pine cone or an alien germ cell. The strange curves, decidedly Art Deco, won me over and I snatched up this oddball. Someday I'm pretty sure it will sprout an antenna and come to life in my dresser like an industrial-strength cockroach from Mars. A brown button of any other kind might be a dull thing, but not this Bakelite keeper. After bringing it home, I polished it to a dapper shine and introduced it to my set of Bakelite browns. Right now, this is one of my favorite buttons.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Bakelite buttons often give prominence to a bold carving--frequently a floral scheme or a stylized design. Sometimes the carving is painted. This green button, depicting a stemmed clover, still has a faint residue of gold paint resting in its carved details. I can only imagine the snazzy vest that this might've been part of once.
Bakelite buttons are hard to find because there aren't too many of them left in the world. If you own one, consider it a treasure! It's taken me years to build up my collection. I bought this green beauty from my friend Doreen in Michigan. Doreen is my "lucky charm" when it comes to finding Bakelite buttons. She runs a store out of her home and has been selling vintage buttons for years. I'll be mentioning her frequently on this blog--and even though this is not a platform for selling buttons, whenever I refer to Doreen I'll be sure to include a link to her online shop. It's called "Buttons from the Attic" and is brimming with eyefuls of the finest Bakelite around.
Visit Doreen's online store
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
My favorite color of Bakelite is red. Especially when polished to a candied shine, red Bakelite buttons look like hard, savory confections. This button epitomizes the sweet trickery of bright red Bakelite. Truth be told, if you bit down on this goody you'd probably crack your jaw. I bought this button from a fellow-Bakelite collector who acquired a whole batch of these at an estate sale in upstate New York. Notice the leaf design curling inwards along the rim. That's an Art Deco motif that occurs often in Bakelite buttons. It harks back to the 20's and 30's, exemplifying a style that thrived during the glory days of Betty Boop.
Monday, November 2, 2015
Nearly ten years ago I saw this pair of Bakelite buttons in an antique store in New Hampshire. They caught my eye and on a whim I bought them for $8 each, thinking I'd lose them to a messy drawer the way trinkets disappear into the rubble of so many forgotten keepsakes. These were different though. Admiring them more closely under the light at home, I began doing research on "Bakelite" and speedily became intrigued by the beautiful plastic of the 1920's, 30's and 40's. Bakelite evokes the Jazz Age. From swinging flapper beads to the cigarette lighter on Jay Gatsby's escritoire, it's got a debonair vibe. Within a year, I became a steadfast hunter of the stuff--scouring antique shops across the USA for more and more buttons in all the famous colors of Bakelite: cherry reds, intense greens and dazzling nuggets of sunny butterscotch. Soon, my collection grew into a respectable stash and then a stockpile and finally a bona fide mine. Today I'm up to my chin in thousands of Bakelite buttons (and some swanky, Bakelite buckles too). At any rate, this is where my collection began and here is the blog that will chronicle the whole shebang. As for the two buttons above, in Bakelite world, these colors are called "apple juice" (left) and "rootbeer" (right). Both buttons remind me of varying shades of amber and have a nifty energy to them that's hard to describe. They really kind of are like slices of baked light. Stay tuned for more...