I woke up this morning and thought time to write a new blog. We are in France at the moment, the weather is wonderfully hot at least over 35 degrees and my mind turned to bakelite once again (and why not?). Well I am still bemoaning the fact that I had declined to purchase the most gorgeous little bakelite Box Brownie camera in a leather case from a vide grenier for 5€. But worry not, as this is not another blog about bakelite and not even about people who collect bakelite, as I have previously touched upon Andy Warhol’s penchant for collecting carved bakelite bangles. He also collected cookie jars and had over 175 when he died.
No! I am thinking about when items are gathered together in a collection they always seem to me to be more than the sum of their individual parts and have a significance and beauty all of their own. I am not really considering the psychological reasons why people collect or the very different and wacky things that are collected. Rather than be too Freudian here I like to think that people collect either for fun, to rekindle childhood memories of perhaps toys played with in the past; or for investment, because a collection may be worth something in the future; or for a sense of achievement because it could be fulfilling to complete a collection; or a collection may demonstrate a sense of identity and individualism. Collecting is what we humans do, and it is and has been an essential tool for the historian and anthropologist. If humans didn’t collect then we wouldn’t have the wonderful contents of many of our museums today. And for me, collecting isn’t just having a couple of items that are similar or the same, it is having that particular amount that makes it into a collection. Considering the “odd number rule” I would say it’s got to be a minimum of three items. Anyway having done a little research courtesy of the web I realised that people collect the most weird and sometimes horrible things. From celebrity hair, to tattoos, to used toothbrushes. For those with a nervous disposition or weak of stomach, and that includes me, I shan’t be venturing into this area of collecting. See what you think of the following collections and do let me know what you collect, if anything. (Images mostly courtesy of Pinterest).
If you want to read more on the subject of collecting then check out Marjorie Akin an anthropologist from the University of California, who has written an essay, “Passionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections,”
You may have been wondering who the very stylish lady is that surrounds my blog. Nancy Cunard was born in 1896 and was the only child of Sir Bache Cunard an heir to the Cunard shipping line and her mother was an American heiress Maud Alice Burke. In her later life she gave up her home and travelled. There was mental illness and poor physical health towards the end probably brought on by poverty and alcoholism. She was found on the street in Paris and died two days later on 17th March 1965.
She was brought up in England on the Cunard estate of Nevill Holt Hall in Leicestershire. Her parents separated in 1911 and she moved with her mother to London. She was educated at boarding schools in England and France.
When she was 24 she moved to Paris and became involved with literature, modernism, surrealism and Dadaism.
She was also a style icon. Her passion for African culture was shocking and unconventional. She wore huge slave bangles all the way up her arms, made from ivory, bone and wood. All natural materials made by native people and this provoked uproar in society circles. She also wore a necklace made from huge wooden cubes which paid homage to cubism. Eventually her eccentric style became legitimised and was referred to as the “barbaric look”. Jewellery houses such as Boucheron made their own versions of her African pieces.
In the late 20’s she had an affair with Louis Aragon, who was a French poet, novelist/editor and member of the communist party. He was also a follower of Dadaism and a founding member of Surrealism in 1924. After the affair ended she met Henry Crowder an African American jazz musician. Crowder opened her eyes to the injustices of racism and was to inspire her political activism in this area. In 1931 she published “Black Man and White Ladyship” which was an attack on the racist attitudes of the day. She also went on to edit “Negro Anthology” which was a collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction by African American writers. It also included her own account of the “Scottsboro Boys” case. Because of her involvement in this book, she received anonymous threats and hate mail some of which she went on to publish in the book.
In the 1930’s she began to fight against fascism. She wrote about Mussolini’s annexation of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War. Cunard was to accurately predict that the events in Spain were the prelude to another world war. She raised funds for the Spanish refugees by standing on the streets of Paris. She polled 200 writers about the Spanish Civil War asking the question “Are you for, or against, the legal government and people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism? For it is impossible any longer to take no side.” She published the responses in a booklet “Authors Take Sides”, the most being from George Orwell, which started “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. This is the second or third time I have had it. I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden or Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody…”
In London during the Second World War she worked tirelessly as a translator for the French resistance.
So Nancy didn’t simply settle for being a rich heiress, muse, patron or mistress to artists and writers, she was a fierce campaigner against injustice and prejudice wherever she encountered it.
Bakelite “born of fire and mystery,” Time magazine
Bakelite jewellery is hard to find but unlike hen’s teeth you can find it.
I want to explain how I determine whether the plastic costume jewellery that I have collected over the years is bakelite or some other form of plastic/Lucite.
Bakelite is a man made plastic named after a Belgian chemist, Leo Hendrik Baekeland who invented it in 1907. Just Google the word bakelite and you’ll get loads of information about its history. Bakelite was probably the first real plastic as it is entirely synthetic in its make up. Jewellery has often been made from plastics like amber and reformed bone.
If the piece is being purchased at a flea market, vintage fair or car boot sale then I rely on my sense of touch/feel and my eyes. Bakelite tends to come in a range of colours that are more natural looking than Lucite (oranges, greens, rusts and browns). The piece will usually be quite clunky and solid to the touch. Definitely no seams as this would denote a moulded plastic. Bakelite has a warmth and greasiness that Lucite does not. When I get the piece home, I will run it under hot water and wait to see if there is a smell that is very strongly formaldehyde or carbolic acid. If bakelite the smell will be apparent very quickly when run under very hot water. At the same time I will use a cotton bud to rub a very small amount of simichrome/or chrome polish on the piece and if it is bakelite there will be a yellow residue on the cotton bud. Some colours of bakelite wont test positive with the polish but if they are bakelite then the hot water test may confirm its authenticity.
If you want to collect plastics, try and not be disappointed if it isn’t bakelite. There were certainly lots of other plastics that were used in the middle to late 20th Century and if you buy because you like, then you will never feel cheated.
Remember Andy Warhol, who said “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”? He was a flea market junkie and fell in love with Bakelite as a medium. He bought every quality piece he could find and accumulated a huge collection. After his death in the late 1980’s, this collection was sold at Sotheby’s in New York and this spurred interest and therefore prices risen.