Yonkers, Home of the Plastic Age

     In 1978 Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at Akron, Ohio and into the Rail of Fame for United States Business Leadership in 1983. Dr. Baekeland was a Yonkers resident for more than fifty years.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium to a poor shoe repairman and his wife on November 14, 1863, five days before President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. While attending high school during the day, he attended the Ghent Municipal Technical School during the evening, taking courses in chemistry, physics, mathematics and economics. At the age of seventeen he began studying at the University of Ghent on a scholarship and at twenty–one, in 1884, received a doctorate of Science, maxima cum laude. A boyhood interest in photography attracted him to the study and eventually the teaching of science. In 1889 he and Celine Swarts, his professor’s daughter, combined a honeymoon with a travel scholarship to the United States where the couple settled permanently. He became a chemist at the E. and A.T. Anthony and Company, the manufacturers of photographic equipment and resigned in 1893 to found the Nepera Chemical Company in Yonkers, telephone number 397. The Yonkers Directory of 1895–1898 lists the Baekelands as living at 85 Hawthorne Avenue, an empty lot today on the west side of the street, two lots north of the intersection of St. Mary’s Street.

In the 1890’s photographs were developed by the use of indirect sunlight, making their development impossible in inclement weather. Dr. Baekeland discovered how to develop photographs using gaslight, an artificial lighting procedure, and Nepera Chemical sales for the Velox paper sky rocketed. In 1957 Charles Hellman had a conversation with Dick Richter, the Baekeland’s chauffeur for 34 years, who told Charles that the Eastman Kodak Company, hurt economically by the high sales of the new Velox paper, made an offer for the patent of the new development, but was rejected. A later offer of one million dollars was accepted, after which Kodak started manufacturing its newly purchased paper, only to discover that it didn’t work. Coming back to Baekeland, Kodak was told that he expected them to have trouble. When filing a patent it was customary for an inventor to omit a step or two so that if somebody started using the patent without paying royalties, failure would result. Dr. Baekeland told the Kodak people they paid for his patent but not for his knowledge. After paying another one hundred thousand dollars, Kodak was informed that a solution was introduced to produce a change and at some point the solution was removed.

According to the Yonkers map of 1896, Nepera Chemical occupied property between Barney Street and Tompkins Avenue, west of the Putnam Railroad tracks. The Yonkers map of 1907 shows Eastman Kodak owning the same property.

With some of their new wealth, the Baekelands purchased an estate in the Harmony Park section of Yonkers, bordering on the south side of the Untermyer Estate. Besides a three storied house with a tower, the property contained greenhouses, a huge garage, a small cottage and a two and one half storied stable that was converted into a laboratory.

Dr. Baekeland began experimenting with phenol and formaldehyde and noticed that condensation produced a residue that couldn’t be removed from the test tubes. He tried to invent a shellac type solvent to remove the residue and succeeded in inventing a totally synthetic and thermal setting plastic that he named “Bakelite.” The invention of Bakelite is considered the beginning of the Age of Plastics because it was the world’s first synthetic plastic. An article on Dr. Baekeland in Time magazine on May 20, 1940 is entitled, “Father of Plastic.” If the invention of Bakelite is considered the beginning of the “Plastic Age” and Bakelite was invented in Yonkers, Yonkers is the “Home of the Plastic Age.”

A patent for Bakelite was obtained in 1906, Bakelite resins were produced in 1907 and on February 8, 1909, in a speech delivered to the American Chemical Society, the discovery of Bakelite was formally announced.

In 1910 the General Bakelite Corporation, later the Bakelite Company, was founded and Dr. Leo H. Baekeland served as president until it merged with the Union Carbide Corporation in 1939.

Bakelite, because it wouldn’t melt or soften, was used initially in the automobile and electrical industries and then was used for a wide assortment of items like airplane propellers, handles for kitchen utensils, pipe tobacco stems, pens, billiard balls, etc.

The Baekelands’ two children, George and Nina, attended School 16 on North Broadway but Jenny, born in 1890, died in 1895 of influenza. As a young married man, George and his wife lived at 717 North Broadway. Nina married George Roll and was later married to Phillips Wyman of Odell Avenue. Celine Karraker, Nina’s daughter, thinks that Phillips Wyman’s first wife’s father was the contractor who built the Greystone Railroad Station.

Celine was born at Snug Rock and grew up in Tarrytown, but spent much of her childhood at Snug Rock. She remembers her grandfather well, his laboratory and study in the tower of the house where, “…he inculcated in me a passion for inquiry and adventure.” She also refers to my memories of climbing the fence into the Untermyer Gardens when we were children and spending hours in that magical setting." Granddaughter Celine goes on further to say: “My grandfather in his later years used to love to take the trolley into downtown Yonkers and wander, talking to street people. He came from a very poor background and felt a kinship with poor city folk. Although he was a scientific genius and made a fortune, he disdained material things and remained a man of simple needs. He was happiest on his boat in old sneakers and white duck pants and shirt. In fact, he wore sneakers when he was formally dressed.”

The story is told that he had only one suit, so his wife went into a clothing store in Getty Square, picked out a $125 English blue serge suit that would fit him, gave the proprietor a $100 deposit and asked him to put it in the front window with a $25 price tag on it, but to sell it only to her husband. That night she told her husband about the beautiful blue serge suit she saw in a clothing store window being sold for $25. He said it was impossible, she insisted it was true. The next evening Dr.Baekeland got off the train from New York City, went to the store, admired the supposedly $25 suit and bought it. On the way home he was joined by his next door neighbor, the famous lawyer, Samuel Untermyer. The doctor showed the lawyer the suit he had just bought, after which Untermyer offered him $75, and he sold it. That night he was ecstatic telling his wife how he out–smarted Untermyer.

His interest in photography caused Dr. Baekeland to be interested in the movies, which he frequently attended. He was driving a car in the 1890’s, long before his Yonkers neighbors, purchased his first yacht in 1899 and in later years commuted to work in Perth Amboy, New Jersey by yacht. The yacht was kept at a marina at the foot of his property on Warburton Avenue.

Dr. Baekeland received many honors and honorary degrees from around the world, belonged to many chemical societies, was president of the Electrochemical Society in 1909. president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 1912, and president of the American Chemical Society in 1924. He is credited with receiving over 100 patents.

Dr. Baekeland died on February 23, 1944 at Craig House in Beacon, New York, a sanitarium where he had been a patient for several months. A wake was held at Havey’s Funeral Home, 107 North Broadway, and a funeral service was held at “Snug Rock” on Saturday, February 26th. Burial was in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Celine Baekeland was an accomplished artist and co–founder of Prospect House, an after–school program emphasizing the arts for children of working parents. Her motto was “bathe them, feed them and give them exposure and experience in the arts.” Her own children attended many performances and exhibitions, according to granddaughter Celine. Prospect Settlement House was at 11 Jefferson Street from 1908 until 1910, 53 Buena Vista Avenue from 1911 – 1913 and at 49 Buena Vista Avenue (Teutonia Hall) from 1914 until the early 1930’s.

Celine Baekeland died on February 27, 1957 in Coconut Grove, Florida, in the home she and her husband bought that had belonged to William Jennings Bryan, whose campaign banner hung in Getty Square when he ran for the Presidency in 1908. She also is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

—Tom Flynn

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