Plaskon, and other early plastics:
Many old plastic buttons are described loosely, and inaccurately, as bakelite, but are actually Beetle, Catalin, Plaskon or Casein.
Bakelite, or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, was the first synthetic plastic. It was developed in 1907 by Dr Leo Baekeland working on a substitute for shellac, and patented in 1909. It was made from phenol and formaldehyde with added fillers such as wood or asbestos fibres. As a result, mainly dark, sombre colours were made. According to ‘An insight into Plastics’ by BTR Nylex Ltd., the plastics industry started in Australia around 1917 with buttons moulded from imported phenol-formaldehyde powder being among the first products manufactured. (Editor’s note: This was probably done by Berthold Herrman. See the General Plastics page.)
In 1925 the British Cyanides Company (whose trademark was a beetle) developed a thiourea-formaldehyde moulding powder which was marketed from 1928 as Beetle powder. In Australia, Duperite branded products, and others, were made from this imported powder. This type of plastic allowed the introduction of previously unavailable colours, and are mottled or marbled.
Plaskon was developed in 1931 by the Toledo Scale Company as a lighter material than metal to make their scales from. It was made from urea formaldehyde with cellulose as a filler, as was great for making white products.
In 1927 the American Catalin Corporation of New York City acquired the patents for Bakelite and developed Catalin plastic. Catalin is what most “Bakelite” jewellery is actually made of. It was also made from phenol-formaldehyde, but in a 2 stage process without the use of fillers. It was available in clear and solid colours, as well as light, bright options that were not possible with Bakelite. It oxidises over time so that clear and white would yellow.
Formaldehyde was also used, with casein protein from milk, to make Casein plastic. It was successfully made in England from 1914. (An earlier French/German version called Galalith was developed from 1899-1904.)