Bakelite Canisters and Bessemer Plates
Bakelite Canisters were in most Australian kitchens in the 1940s and 1950s, and Bessemer Plates were at most BBQs in the 1960s. So who made these fantastic plastic items?
Vintage Australian Plastic Makers
This article on Vintage Australian Plastic Makers tries to identify all Australian makers of plastic kitchenware from the advent of Bakelite in the 1920s to the 1960s. Where I have found information on the history of the maker and the extent of their range, I have included this. I have also included some notes on Prices and Availability and a brief history of Plastic Development. I would love to here your comments, corrections, or any knowledge you can add.
I have been making regular updates as I discover new makers and items so come back again.
Correcting myself: I had always thought of plastic dinnerware as primarily for use at picnics or BBQs, however I have since learned that until dishwashers and microwaves became popular in homes, quality plastic dinnerware was used on the dinner table (ref 12). This should not surprise, given how visually appealing most of it is.
This is my second article for the website. I became interested in early Australian plastic kitchenware about 2010 and took the opportunity to do some research. I did not find a lot on the internet about Australian Makers and what I did find was all over the place with quite a few inconsistencies. I have tried to weave it together, but must apologise in advance for any mistakes as I am not an expert and did not purchase any expensive reference books.
The best single source I found was, the Sydney Power House Museum website (again), so if you have read that, you will recognise some of my content. There were many great photos on the internet but I decided to stick with my own.
Thank you to all the people who have sent me information and corrections. Your input has been excellent and proves that I am not alone in my plastics obsession.
See my retro plastic items for sale on eBay.
Makers: Manufacturers & Brand Names
I thought there would be only half a dozen manufacturers with the same number of brands, however it was not so simple and there is clearly more to know than what I have here. Often the same or very similar moulds were used by different manufacturers and the patented plastics like Bakelite, Duperite and Melmac were not exclusive to one maker.
According to the Plastic Pioneers Newsletter 2013, “In the 1940’s and 1950’s there were ten companies producing Bakelite or more correctly thermoset domestic ware. They were Nally, Eon, Helix, Sellex, Nylex, Iplex, (names with an ‘ex’ at the end were seen as modern) Tilley, Bristilite and Duperite (the ending evoking ‘Bakelite’) ACI also had Garnite.” (ref 1). There were other Australian companies producing other types of plastic as well.
According to a 1973 ANU thesis on the Australian Plastics Industry 1945-1968, “the processing industry as a whole is characterised by a large number of small firms and a small number of large firms.” “There were approximately 600 factories engaged in processing plastics in 1967/68… and 571 factories… were engaged in plastic moulding…” (ref 17). Of course these factories made more products than the kitchen wares of interest to this article.
With help I have identified 30 kitchen ware makers from 1920 to 1970 … I will call it a ‘draft’ list. I have discussed them in the order that I believe they started manufacturing. I have made a summary list at the end of this article.
Commonwealth Moulding Company Pty Ltd was producing Bakelite products in Arncliffe Sydney from about 1925 to at least 1945. They produced under the name ‘Marquis’ and were pioneers in the Australian plastics industry. “At one time every school ruler and a wide range of kitchenware were produced under the ‘Marquis’ brand…” (ref: 2). Included in the Bakelite range were canisters, spice canisters and dinnerware. Included in the plastic range were serving/fruit bowls, sweet dishes, dessert spoons, insulated water jugs, insulated serving bowls with lid, rectangular trays, a citrus juicer, mugs, rolling pins, measuring jugs, measuring cups with flip top lids, mixing bowls, children’s feeding bowls, jelly molds, flour sifter, screw top jars, egg cups, drinks trays, lidded sugar bowl, a cruet set, and salt & pepper shakers.
Moulded Products Australasia Pty Ltd (MPA) was established by John Derham in 1927 and was the first plastics firm in Victoria. They purchased ‘Beetle’ powder from the British Cyanide Company to make Duperite. A 1950s add suggests they made dinnerware under license from a US Company under the names ‘Duperite Superware’ and ‘Duperite Everware’. They also made products under the names ‘Harlequin Ware’ ‘Duperite Coronation Ware’. They produced a range of canisters, screw top jars, salt box, dinnerware and platters, salt & pepper shakers and useful kitchen items like measuring spoons, scoops and funnels. They also produced lamps, desk organisers and ink well stands. Later (maybe during the 1960s) they produced the ‘Vogue’ range of Melmac items that included jugs, tumblers, cups and saucers, sugar bowls, butter dishes, salt and pepper shakers, dinnerware and BBQ platters. In 1966 the company became part of Nylex Pty Ltd (ref 3) (see more below on Nylex Bessemer).
EON produced a range of Bakelite canisters from the 1930s through the 1950s. They also produced screw top jars, kitchen gadgets, rolling pins, picnic ware and from the 1950s flip-top storage containers.
Nally Products was born in Sydney in 1923 when Nat Fienberg and Wally Wakeham imported Condensite to make more reliable timers for the T-Model Ford. By the 1930s Nally soon began moulding other items including a range of Bakelite kitchen ware (ref 4). The ‘Royal Nally Ware’ range in mottled Bakelite included a teapot, cups & saucers, coffee mugs, lidded bowls, trays and water cups. The regular range included round (Nally) and squared Bakelite canisters (Nally Ware), bread bins, screw top spice jars, egg cups, tennis plates, cups and saucers, coffee cans and saucers. During the 1960s the plastics range extended to include biscuit barrels, cup & plate sets, and ‘modern’ squared canisters.
Sellex made Bakelite products in Sydney from the 1930s. Their range included planters, dinnerware, children’s tea sets, lidded jugs, measuring cups, Bakelite canisters, spice canisters, sandwich boxes and shakers.
British Plastics Pty Ltd had a factory in Melbourne that opened prior to 1937 and closed in 1978. They produced a range of Bakelite canisters, breadboards, dinnerware, butter dishes, coronation mugs, money boxes, coat hangers, toast racks, egg cups, scoops and a vegetable drainer. They produced a range of Melmac dinnerware under the name ‘Ornamin Ware’ and a range of storage containers and flip-top canisters under the name ‘Hostess Ware’.
Iplex Industrial Plastics made Bakelite products in Adelaide from the 1930s. Their range included spice jars with rack, Bakelite canisters, cups, plates, tennis plates, picnic sets and salt boxes.
Ibis Ware made Bakelite products in Melbourne. The a covered cheese dish and a salt & pepper shaker pair in a cruet stand.
Helix made Bakelite products during the 1940s. Their range included measuring cups and salt & pepper shakers.
Precision Plastics made products in Sydney (near the State Theatre) during the 1940s. Their range included egg cups (tulip shaped), salt & pepper shakers and children’s tea sets.
Tilley Plastics made Bakelite products in Sydney during the 1940s. Their range included Napkin rings, cake lifter, egg cup sets in a stand, spoons, salad servers, compote, standing lamps, side/wine tables and drinks trays.
Moldex Co. made Bakelite products in Melbourne. Their range included drinks trays, salad bowls, egg cups, squeeze bottles and a toy fire truck.
Bartone made Bakelite products in Sydney in the 1940s. Many of their pieces have catalogue numbers and a map of Australia cast on the underside. Not all pieces have a back stamp. They specialised in dinnerware (ref 5) but also produced vegetable keepers (crispers) for the fridge, salt boxes, recipe boxes, cake keepers, biscuit barrels and Bakelite canisters.
Malbren made Melamine products in Melbourne that are advertised for sale in the 1950s. Their range included mixing bowls, cups, saucers, plates and snack dishes or sundae boats.
Glensunite Melb (L&I Glenn Pty Ltd Melb) was producing plastic items in the 1950s. The name Glensunite was trade marked on 1 Jan 1900 and may have been a material name like Bakelite or Duperite. They produced a Cigarette case, drinking cups, a pull along toy and an Airline Food Tray for Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (NZ) (1940-1965).
Dalson Products Pty Ltd was founded in 1946 and around 1950 invented the Classic Aussie Peeler. They produced a range of plastic and metal kitchen utensils under the Dalsonware name and are still in business. They also produced plastic jelly molds.
Ferolux Products Pty Ltd was producing Bakelite products in Melbourne by the 1950s. They produced the round cake cooler shown (ref 13), which has no back stamp, and most likely the square cake keep and rectangular vegetable coolers also. They made some ingenious products including a ‘soap sudser’, ‘a whip set’ (for beating and decorating), a ‘gyro mixer plastic juicer’ (cup with juicer and lid) around 1952, a round apple cutter, Mix and match two-sided hinged lunch boxes, a donut maker, a speckled dinner plate and flip top canisters.
ACI (Australian Consolidated Industries) Pty Ltd (1939-1982) made Garnite products during the 1950s under the name ‘Garnite Superior Plastics’. Garnite was ‘unbreakable’ polyethylene. Their range included canisters, lidded bowls, measuring jug, cake box, screw top bottles, squeeze bottles, lidded decanter with tumblers, flower pots with saucers, cigarette boxes, salt & pepper shakers, drinks trays, clothes hangers, eye baths and bowls. They also produced salt and pepper shakers under the name ‘Winton Plastics‘.
Willow Ware P/L was established as Wilson Bros in Melbourne in 1887 as a metal working operation ‘making tinned plate tea and biscuit canisters’ (ref 13). In the late 1950s, they ventured into plastics, and with the introduction of injection moulding and blow-moulded products and in 1965 became Willow Ware Pty Ltd to be more closely associated with the Willow brand. Willow is the country’s largest maker of plastic pegs and also makes plastic storage containers. Vintage items made include plastic lids for metal canisters and measuring cups.
TAMCO Pty Ltd (Tool and Moulding Co.) was established in 1955 in Preston Victoria and later moved to West Heidelberg (ref 1). They produced Melmac products under the name ‘Hollywood’. Their range included trivets, dinnerware, mixing bowls, cake plates, butter dish, sugar bowls, salt & pepper shakers, cups and saucers, egg cups, mugs and snack dishes or sundae boats.
Nylex Corporation Australia (from 1966) had its origins in the 1930s as Moulded Products Pty Ltd, are well known for Plastic Injection Molding (ref 6). The Nylex trademark was registered in 1941 (ref 14). They have been affiliated with many American and Australian plastics companies. Bessemer Australia have been producing high quality cookware since the 1960s. In the 1970s, Bessemer appears to have had Nylex (trademark registered in 1941) make a range of pieces and patterns for them from Melmac. Melmac is a brand name of melamine powder manufactured and distributed by the American Cyanamid Company, and most likely produced in Australia under American License.
The chief designer at Nylex at the time was Lionel Suttie (ref 7). Lionel was an Industrial Designer and responsible for designing utility ware from Melmac including ‘Quartic’ salad sets and punch sets, butter dishes, milk jugs and sugar bowls. In the 1970s he also designed for B.X. Plastics.
Nylex Bessemer also produced a large range of household plain and patterned dinnerware including plates, platters, bowls and mugs and tea dispensers.
B.X. Plastics Australia P/L made plastic products in East Brighton, Melbourne from the 1950s. They were part of British Xylonite 1938-1999. Their range included squared ‘Capri’ hard plastic canisters in single and harlequin colours with a variety of lids and label styles. They also made round stacking servers and other kitchen and utlity items. Museums Victoria has a great catalogue of their C1970s range.
In the 1970s Lionel Suttie designed the iconic Capri Casa Ware range of canisters for B. X Plastics.
Pierwood Plastics Company, operated in Sydney and started life making toys in the 1930s and 40s. They moved into kitchen ware about 1947 under the name Fethalite.
They produced very popular kitchen ware under the name Gay Plastics and ‘Gay Ware’ from 1950-56. Their range was made from Fethalite with iconic raised lettering and included canisters, spice canisters with rack, cheese and butter dishes, jam, honey and sugar pots, salt & pepper shakers, bread and cake keepers, scone bins, measuring cups, salt cellars and tea dispensers. They also produced mixing bowls and screw top jars.
When Pierwood plastics folded, Nylex bought the patterns and the backstamp and the label changed to ‘Nylex Gayware’ (ref 11).
Prestige Plastics (Aust.) P/L Melbourne produced a citrus juicer and a range of plastic storage and fridge and freezer containers from the 1950s that included bread boxes, lunch boxes and screw top freezer jars.
Brian Davis and Company Melbourne became Decor Corporation in 1958. Their first product designed by Brian Davis in the late 1950s was the Habana Beaker Set (ref 15) with 6 cups in a container. They also produced 72 pack Party/Cocktail Forks, boxed eggcups and spoons sets , and a harlequin beaker sets with plastic rack, before becoming Decor. Other designers to work for Decor during the 1960s and 1970s include Tony Wolfenden and Richard Carlson.
Associated Plastics P/L Melbourne may have started production in the 1960s. They produced a range that included dinnerware, salt and pepper duos, jugs, cups and lidded storage cups called ‘Handy Cans’. Under the name ‘Kristaware’ they produced sandwich savers, jugs, scissor style salad servers, utility jars and stemmed sweet bowls.
Sydenham Plastics Melbourne were making metal and plastic products in the 1960s. They produced a range under the name ‘frescoware’ that included harlequin stemmed sweet bowls and egg cups, salt & pepper (in boxed sets) and utensils including strainer scoop, potato masher, egg lifter, crepe spatula, soup ladel, meat fork and shishkebab sticks. They also produced boxed sets of EPNS serving ware and dessert spoons with plastic handles.
Tupperware was created in the USA in the 1940s and introduced into Australia in 1961. They started manufacturing in Melbourne in the 1960s and produced a large range of products in pastels.
Prices and Availability
Prices and availability varies widely in this very large product field, depending on condition and desirability, but I will share my observations so far.
- You can still pick up individual pieces in various states of cleanliness and repair at markets for as little as 50 cents for a cup or $2 for a canister.
- If you want Bakelite Canisters sets be prepared to pay up to $20 a canister depending on the number of pieces and the overall condition.
- Some patterned BBQ platters can go for as much as $25 each on eBay.
- Dinnerware set pieces can be found for $1 a piece at markets and op-shops but desirable colours and patterns in sets can be as much as $5 a piece at op-shops and on eBay.
- I have been lucky and have bought plastic pieces for $2 each on eBay but generally they are priced higher and the bidding usually goes higher than this.
- A Bessemer or Hollywood sugar bowl, jug or butter dish will cost from $10 on-line.
- Your average market seller does not appear to have caught on to the desirability of these items yet, but some op-shops have and are pricing accordingly.
Summary of Manufacturers
- Commonwealth Moulding Company Pty Ltd, Sydney NSW, ‘Marquis’
- Moulded Products Australasia P/L (MPA), VIC, ‘Harlequin Ware’, ‘Vogue’, ‘Duperite Coronation Ware’
- Nally Products, Sydney NSW,’Royal Nally Ware’
- Sellex, Sydney NSW
- Haxby Ware
- British Plastics P/L, Melbourne VIC,’Ornamin Ware’, ‘Hostess Ware’
- Iplex Industrial Plastics, Adelaide SA
- Ibis Ware, Melbourne VIC
- Precision Plastics, Sydney NSW
- Tilley Plastics, Sydney NSW
- Moldex Co., Melbourne VIC
- Bartone, Sydney NSW
- Malbren, Melbourne VIC
- Glensunite Melb (L&I Glenn Pty Ltd Melb), Melbourne VIC
- Dalson Products P/L
- Ferolux Products P/L, Melbourne VIC
- ACI P/L (Australian Consolidated Industries), ‘Garnite Superior Plastics’, ‘Winton Plastics’
- Willow, Melbourne VIC
- TAMCO P/L (Tool and Moulding Co.), Melbourne VIC, ‘Hollywood’
- Nylex Bessemer, VIC
- B.X. Plastics Australia P/L, Melbourne VIC, ‘Capri’
- Pierwood Plastics Company, Sydney NSW, ‘Gay Ware’
- Prestige Plastics (Aust.) P/L, Melbourne VIC
- Brian Davis Company Melbourne (Decor), Melbourne VIC
- Associated Plastics P/L, Melbourne VIC, ‘Kristaware’
- Sydenham Products, Melbourne VIC, ‘frescoware’
- Glaser & Co. (inc. Newlyne Mfg. Co. Pty. Ltd), Melbourne VIC
- Tupperware, Melbourne VIC
The word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.”
“The first plastic, stuff called casein, was made from cheese. It was discovered by the German alchemist Bartholomaus Schobinger and was used to replace horn in marquetry work.” (ref 9)
In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt, a young inventor in Upstate New York invented Celluloid (based on cotton cellulose) in response to a shortage of ivory. “It could be molded into a shape or pressed paper-thin and then cut or sawed into usable forms. It could be mottled in browns and ambers to emulate tortoiseshell; traced with veining to look like marble; infused with the bright colours of coral, lapis lazuli, or carnelian to resemble those and other semiprecious stones; or blackened to look like ebony or jet. Celluloid made it possible to produce counterfeits so exact that they deceived “even the eye of the expert.” (ref 8)
“As with celluloid, Bakelitewas invented to replace a scarce natural substance: shellac, a product of the sticky excretions of the female lac beetle.” In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite “by combining formaldehyde with phenol, a waste product of coal, and subjecting the mixture to heat and pressure. Bakelite could be precisely molded and machined into nearly anything, from tubular industrial bushings the size of mustard seeds to full-size coffins.” (ref 10). Bakelite was used for everything from radios to car parts, telephones to combs.
The first wave of popularity for Bakelite came in 1927 when it became available in a wide array of colours. (ref 9) Bakelite is a thermoset plastic that does not respond to heat or cold which is why you’ll still find vintage Bakelite phones, pens, bangles, and even combs that look nearly brand-new.
“The 1920s and ’30s saw an outpouring of new materials from labs around the world” (ref 8)… including non-flammable celluloid, polystyrene, Styrofoam, nylon (artificial silk). Later derivatives include Teflon and Kevlar.
- Plastic Pioneers Newsletter Edition #129 Autumn 2013 found at http://www.plasticspioneers.com/Documents/Newsletter129.pdf
- “’Marquis’ Bakelite four plastic mugs, 1925 – 1935” found at http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=76918
- “Plastic articles made by Moulded Products (Australasia) Pty Ltd, Australia, 1930-1936” found at http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=243130
- “Collection of Nally Ware” found at http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=237510
- “Bartone Picnic Plates” April 17 2014, found at https://reretro.wordpress.com/tag/bartone-bakelite-picnic-plates/
- “Nylex and Mentone” found at http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/384.htm
- “Nylex Bessemer Australia Kitchen Designs” found at http://retrochalet.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/nylex-bessmer-australia-kitchen-designs.html
- “A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World” Scientific American May 29, 2011, found at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-brief-history-of-plastic-world-conquest/
- “Retro – A Guide to the Mid-20th Century Design Revival” Chapter 5 – Plastic, Adrian Franklin, 2011, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Australia.
- “Manufacturers’ Monthly Material of the Month part 1:Bakelite” found at http://www.manmonthly.com.au/features/manufacturers-monthly-material-of-the-month-part-1-bakelite/
- Thank you to John Reynolds of the Facebook group called ‘Canister Collective’ who corrected and added to my information on Gay Ware.
- Thank you to Mel Boston from the ‘Australian Canister page’ for telling me that Ferolux Melbourne made my Bakelite Cake Keeper.
- http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM01072b.htm for Nylex Corporation Australia
- http://ianwongresearch.blogspot.com/2011/06/habanna-decor-australias-first-product.html for Brian Davis
https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au › bitstream , “The Australia Plastics Industry: An Economic Analysis of Technical Change”., J.S. Marsden, Dec 1973 Dept of Economics, ANU.
See my retro plastic items for sale on eBay.