Families gathered around Bakelite radios (to listen to programs sponsored by the Bakelite Corporation), drove Bakelite-accessorized cars, kept in touch with Bakelite phones, washed clothes in machines with Bakelite blades, pressed out wrinkles with Bakelite-encased irons—and, of course, styled their hair with Bakelite combs. "From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes," Time magazine enthused in 1924 in an issue that sported Baekeland on the cover.
The creation of Bakelite marked a shift in the development of new plastics. From then on, scientists stopped looking for materials that could emulate nature; rather, they sought "to rearrange nature in new and imaginative ways." The 1920s and '30s saw an outpouring of new materials from labs around the world. One was cellulose acetate, a semisynthetic product (plant cellulose was one of its base ingredients) that had the easy adaptability of celluloid but wasn't flammable. Another was polystyrene, a hard, shiny plastic that could take on bright colors, remain crystalline clear, or be puffed up with air to become the foamy polymer DuPont later trademarked as Styrofoam. DuPont also introduced nylon, its answer to the centuries-long search for an artificial silk. When the first nylon stockings were introduced, after a campaign that promoted the material as being as "lustrous as silk" and as "strong as steel," women went wild. Stores sold out of their stock in hours, and in some cities, the scarce supplies led to nylon riots, full-scale brawls among shoppers. Across the ocean, British chemists discovered polyethylene, the strong, moisture-proof polymer that would become the sine qua non of packaging. Eventually, we'd get plastics with features nature had never dreamed of: surfaces to which nothing would stick (Teflon), fabrics that could stop a bullet (Kevlar).
Though fully synthetic like Bakelite, many of these new materials differed in one significant way. Bakelite is a thermoset plastic, meaning that its polymer chains are hooked together through the heat and pressure applied when it is molded. The molecules set the way batter sets in a waffle iron. And once those molecules are linked into a daisy chain, they can't be unlinked. You can break a piece of Bakelite, but you can't melt it down to make it into something else. Thermoset plastics are immutable molecules—the Hulks of the polymer world—which is why you'll still find vintage Bakelite phones, pens, bangles, and even combs that look nearly brand-new.
Polymers such as polystyrene and nylon and polyethylene are thermoplastics; their polymer chains are formed in chemical reactions that take place before the plastic ever gets near a mold. The bonds holding these daisy chains together are looser than those in Bakelite, and as a result these plastics readily respond to heat and cold. They melt at high temperatures (how high depends on the plastic), solidify when cooled, and if made cold enough can even freeze. All of which means that, unlike Bakelite, they can be molded and melted and remolded over and over again. Their shape-shifting versatility is one reason thermoplastics quickly eclipsed the thermosets and today constitute about 90 percent of all the plastics produced.
Many of the new thermoplastics at one time or another found their way into combs, which, thanks to injection molding and other new fabrication technologies, could be made faster and in far greater quantities than ever before—thousands of combs in a single day. This was a small feat in and of itself, but multiplied across all the necessities and luxuries that could then be inexpensively mass-produced, it's understandable why many at the time saw plastics as the harbinger of a new era of abundance. Plastics, so cheaply and easily produced, offered salvation from the haphazard and uneven distribution of natural resources that had made some nations wealthy, left others impoverished, and triggered countless devastating wars. Plastics promised a material utopia, available to all.