Vintage Bakelite and Catalin Radios

When many people think of plastic Art Deco radios, the word Bakelite immediately comes to mind. That’s understandable enough, since Bakelite was the first molded plastic used in radios, and it’s the oldest of the most common early-20th-century industrial plastics, the others being Catalin, Plaskon, and Beetle.

One of the limitations of Bakelite for 1930s designers was its dark color. Bakelite radios from that period are invariably brown or black, the product of their carbon-based ingredients, phenol and formaldehyde, being mixed into a resin, cooled and crushed, and then heated again under intense pressure, a process called thermosetting. Marbling and other surface variations could be produced by adding fillers to the recipe, from rags to sawdust, but the earliest Bakelite radios were somewhat somber in appearance.

The look of plastic radios changed dramatically, however, when Plaskon was introduced in 1933. Originally developed by the Toledo Scale Company as a replacement material for its heavy porcelain and iron scales, Plaskon allowed radios to be white or beige.

While some Plaskon radios were also made in colors such as red, the plastic most associated with brilliant hues was Catalin, which could be dyed in a variety of colors. Catalin radios were cast rather than molded, which meant their edges and seams had to be finished by hand. Initially used in costume jewelery (many so-called "Bakelite bangles" are really made of Catalin), by 1937 Catalin was favored by radio manufacturers such as Emerson and Fada to create colorful cabinets, behind which hid their radio’s wiring, speaker, and tubes.

Because Catalin was cast as a solid resin with no reinforcement, cracks were common, making surviving pieces highly collectible. Also, many of the originally vibrant colors have faded, due to the lack of UV light protection in the resin.


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