Mass Bradley asked: Besides cultivating a "trained eye," are there any simple but effective tests to determine if an object is composed of Bakelite...
Thank you for the question, Bradley. Invented in 1907, Bakelite (pronounced BAY-ka-lite) was used for practical, industrial purposes. Only later did it appear in its most prevalent state: jewelry.
Bakelite is actually pretty hard to distinguish from certain similar plastics -- even with a trained eye. There are three main "in the field" ways to identify Bakelite:
1: Appearance: Bakelite has a certain reflective quality that is slightly different than similar plastics. The colors are more muted in comparison.
2: Weight: Bakelite will be the heavier of the two when comparing similar sized items made of this and another plastic.
3: Smell: When a small section is rubbed vigorously, it gives off a specific smell like formaldehyde. (Others say it is like camphor or carbolic acid.)
When at home, you may dab a small amount of a household cleaner on the item with a cotton swab. These cleaners (e.g. Formula 409, Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Cleaner) do something to the Bakelite or the patina and make the swab turn yellow. I have not tried the swab method; so I cannot confirm whether it works.
Although Bakelite is the glamour plastic (for the moment), don't allow its allure to blind you to the other great advances made in plastics in the early half of the 20th century. Fine jewelry, decorative items, and many practical items were made from Catalin, Urea, Melamine, etc. Many of these items changed the course of history in both practical and aesthetic ways.