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H4054 Samples (23), 'Catalin', phenol-formaldehyde resin, made by Catalin Limited, England, 1937-1938. Click to enlarge.

Samples of 'Catalin' phenol-formaldehyde resin

The Museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. The collection was driven largely by Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), a former industrial chemist, who worked as curator and later director of the museum from 1927 until 1955.

Throughout the early 1900s the Sydney Technical College and the Sydney Technological Museum held similar aims and objectives regarding the promotion, use and development of local …


Object No.


Object Statement

Samples (23), 'Catalin', phenol-formaldehyde resin, made by Catalin Limited, England, 1937-1938

Physical Description

Specimens of Catalin cast phenol-formaldehyde resin: 1 red and 1 green transparent rod, 1 tortoiseshell bangle cast and polished bangle, 1 pink serviette holder (fish design cast) and polished specimen, 1 dark blue buckle cast and polished specimen, 1 pink brush back cast and polished specimen, 1 turquoise button cast (butterfly design) and polished specimen, 1 red button cast (bow design) and polished specimen, 1 square green bar cast, 1 round fluted green rod cast and polished button, 1 red flat fluted block and polished specimen, 1 knife handle cast and polished specimen, 1 red buckle, 1 blue buckle.



These samples were produced by Catalin Limited in England between 1937 and 1938. They are made from cast phenol-formaldehyde resins.

The Director of Catalin Limited wrote the following to Arthur Penfold in regard to their products:

'CATALIN, a cast plastic, is furnished in a large variety of rich, deep colours which go clear through. It is non-inflammable, acid-resisting, odourless, tasteless, polishes to a high lustre and is pleasant to the touch.

CATALIN is supplied in solid form such as rods, sheets, tubes and castings in a variety of designs and sizes. It machines similarly to wood or metal without special tools or equipment, and it adapts itself to manufacturing operations at no additional expense.' (Luster, 1938)

Catalin Limited manufactured cast rods, sheets and tubes made from phenol-formaldehyde resins and other companies produced the consumer products. This was the same for the Catalin Corporation in the United States. However, Catalin Limited in England had a plasticating section where they produced a small range of goods such as shaving brush sockets (Catalin Limited, 1941).


J. Luster, Director of Catalin Limited correspondence with Mr Penfold of the Technological Museum, 22 June 1938.

Catalin Limited correspondence with Arthur Penfold of the Technological Museum, 4 June 1941.



Plastics have a significant impact on our daily lives and have been influential in the construction of modern society. They are used to produce familiar products such as toothbrushes and toasters as well as incubators and body parts that help save lives. Plastics have enabled industry to produce products more economically and efficiently and artists have used them to create striking jewellery and works of art.

It is often perceived that plastics are a material of the twentieth century; however, its beginnings go back to eighteenth century Europe and conditions created by rapid industrialisation, scientific curiosity and opportunities to create great wealth through innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Many of the semi-synthetic plastics of the nineteenth century and the synthetic plastics of the twentieth century were influenced by earlier manufacturing methods of making products out of natural plastics such as horn. In Australia there was scepticism about the virtues of plastics, however in the late 1800s some plastic products such as table tennis balls were being imported (Fahey, 1989).

New materials were required to meet the needs of the technological developments occurring in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The invention of Bakelite in 1907 was ideal for the purposes of the emerging electrical and automobile industries. It was invented by Leo Baekeland and was the first fully synthetic plastic to be produced. Bakelite was produced using phenol-formaldehyde resins. Phenol-formaldehyde can take on any colour, however to make moulded products from it strong fillers need to be added. Black or brown pigments were the only colours that could conceal these fillers. Hence early moulded phenol-formaldehyde products (Bakelite) were black or brown.

Baekeland lost his patent protection for some of his phenol-formaldehyde inventions in 1926 and 1927. This led many companies, including Catalin, to produce phenol-formaldehyde products. However, as there was great consumer interest in colourful wares at this time, the race was on to find a mouldable phenol-formaldehyde plastic that would be strong, colourful and bright.

Chemists at the German company Herold AG developed a phenolic resin that could have dyes added to it and could create casts of many shapes and colours. The casts could then be cut or sliced and sanded and polished to create a final product. This process was used in America for the first time in 1928 by the Catalin Corporation. Plastic rods and tubes in a range of shapes were cast that enabled the production of colourful products such as napkin rings, jewellery and belt buckles, as represented in this collection of Catalin donated to the Museum. Meikle writes in regards to products made of this material that, 'In 1934 more than half the costume jewellery sold in New York City was made of bright plastic; at some shops the proportion reached 70 percent.' (Meikle, 1995)

The Herold AG method could not produce moulded colourful and strong plastics. This was first discovered by Hans John in 1920 who patented urea-formaldehyde resins. Commercial success was not made of this discovery until Edmund Rossiter of the British Cyanides Company developed a mixture of urea and thiourea formaldehyde moulding powders that were used to create 'Beetle' moulding powders that created colourful moulded home wares in the late 1920s.

Arthur Penfold wrote to Catalin Limited in 1938 requesting samples of their products. They responded with a letter that had a sample disk of red Catalin pasted onto the letter. The letter stated the following, 'In sending you this disc of CATALIN we call your attention to a material of rare beauty, combining the magic of colour with strength and durability.' (Luster, 1938) It also said, 'Modern industry demands "life" and beauty as well as strength. CATALIN will stimulate your sales and add "zest" to your product.' (Luster, 1938)

The Catalin Corporation began in 1928 in New Jersey. Catalin Limited, England was set up in 1937 to take advantage of the market needs in Europe. It was autonomous, but it used the American company's technology (Apley, 1999).


Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at, 1997, accessed 08/08/2007.

J. Luster, Director of Catalin Limited correspondence with Mr Penfold of the Technological Museum, 22 June 1938.

Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic: a cultural history, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995, p.76

K. Fahey, 'An Island of Plastics': Processing in the 1980s, The Editors Desk Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1989, p.25.

Martin Apley, 'Cast Phenolic Resins', Plastiquarian, no.23, winter 1999.


Credit Line

Gift of Catalin Limited, 1938

Acquisition Date

22 November 1938

Cite this Object


Samples of 'Catalin' phenol-formaldehyde resin 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 19 January 2022, <>


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