The history of Bakelite poker chips is fascinating, especially since so many sets have easily endured to this day. Many of us remember playing with our parents' poker chips, even as children, because it was a "toy" that couldn't be broken and would withstand rough playing, throwing, or whatever we wanted to do with them. The poker chips came in all kinds of interesting colors, as did their holders. Some of those holders were wooden and others were also made of bakelite that was sculpted into different shapes with some even looking like marble.
Prior to Bakelite, back in the 1870's poker chips were often made of ivory from elephants, hippos, walruses, and mammoths. These types of true ivory have a cross-hatch "X" pattern which is not present in the poor duplicate vegetable ivory which really comes from a tree in the South American Rain Forest. Ivory chips were expensive, so poker chips began being made from man-made materials including paper, rubber, and wood.
In July 1907, Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a chemist from Belgium working in New York, patented a new synthetic plastic that he named Bakelite, which was also thermosetting, meaning that it did not return to its original state. This actually began the plastics industry, and Dr. Baekeland was known as the Father of Plastics. Still being used today are his principles of a combination of pressure, heat, and an alkaline to combine formaldehyde and phenol resulting in this synthetic resin.
Because of its resistance to moisture, heat, cold, and the fact that it won't melt or burn, Bakelite has been used in an amazing number of things in addition to poker chips such as jewelry, cameras, telephone and radio casings, billiard balls, toys, fountain pens, toothbrush handles, pipe stems, kitchenware, electric guitars, and even for coffins and the Model "A" distributor body and cap! It is also used in industries such as aerospace, power generation, and electronics.
REFERENCE: "Time" magazine, September 22, 1924.
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