Bakelite was the first totally synthetic plastic. The phenol-based substance was patented in 1907 by the Belgian born scientist, Dr. Leo Baekeland. It must be thermoformed and, once hardened, it cannot be reformed. It is so hard and resilient that it can be carved. For this reason, Bakelite became a popular medium for jewelry, radio housings, and some utilitarian objects. By the late 1930s, the formula was altered and a broad range of colors was introduced, which made the substance particularly desirable for costume jewelry. Although there is little study of the use of Bakelite in cutlery, the main period of production seems to be from the late 1930s into the 1950s, mainly in Germany and the United States. The range of Bakelite and other plastic wares for kitchen and table use proliferated in the 1950s as emphasis shifted from formal entertaining to a more casual mode.
This piece is an interesting synthesis of old and new materials and forms. Here, a chromed metal blade, in a traditional broad scimitar shape found in fish slices since the early 19th century, is decorated with a simple jagged line decoration reminiscent of a tendril and leaf. The Bakelite handle bears an art deco design of a simple geometric lozenge form divided in four sections of contrasting tan and brown.
Although the museum’s collection includes examples of Bakelite jewelry and buttons from the 1930s through the 1950s, the piece proposed for acquisition would be the first example of Bakelite cutlery to enter the collection and would provide a fine starting point on which to build a body of Bakelite flatware.
This object was
Dr. Robert Lerch.
It is credited
Gift of Robert Lerch.
Its dimensions are
L x W x D: 24.5 x 4.4 x 2.8 cm (9 5/8 x 1 3/4 x 1 1/8 in.)
Cite this object as
Fish Slice; bakelite, chromed metal; L x W x D: 24.5 x 4.4 x 2.8 cm (9 5/8 x 1 3/4 x 1 1/8 in.); Gift of Robert Lerch; 2004-28-1
This object was previously on display as a part of the exhibition Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005.