Gutta-percha or Thermoplastic Union Cases?
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Over the years we at OldPhotographic.com have heard all types of questions on the subject of collecting Antique and Vintage Photography, and because of the popularity of Cased Images, we are quite frequently asked if purchasing Gutta-percha Union Cases are the best types of Antique Photographs to collect, but every time we hear this question we know right off the bat that we are speaking with either a misinformed, or a really new collector of Antique Union Cases. Therefore we have decided to try and set the record straight for those of you who are new to collecting Union Cases, and try to answer the question; just What exactly is a Union Case, and why do some people call them Gutta-percha Union Cases?
For those of you who are new to the world of collecting photography, and especially early photography like Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, you've most likely heard of those little plastic cases that some antique images come in being called Gutta-Percha Union Cases, but in actuality, Gutta-percha has nothing to do with the materials used in the manufacture of a Union case. So if Union Cases are not really made from Gutta-percha, why do Antique dealers, Auctioneers, and other misguided photography dealers call those photo cases Gutta-percha?
It is possible that at some point in the history of Thermoplastic Union Cases (which is what they are really called), someone thought the cases looked like Gutta-percha, or were actually made from Gutta-percha because Gutta-percha was used in the manufacture of small furniture, beads, mourning jewelry, and other small objects which emulated carved wood, and yes, even Thermoplastic Union Cases, and because it was dark in color, hard and durable and could be easily molded into various shapes it is easy to imagine that someone would think that a Thermoplastic Union Case could have actually been made from Gutta-percha.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. Gutta-percha is a completely different material which is actually derived from the Gutta-percha (Palaquium) tree which is native to Southeast Asia and northern Australasia, from Taiwan south to the Malay Peninsula and east to the Solomon Islands. The word 'Gutta-percha' comes from the plant's name in Malay, getah perca, which translates into English as "percha sap".
Starting with the term Union Case, unlike many people believe, the name has nothing to do with the American Civil War and the battle between the Union and Confederate States. The term Union was coined in 1854 by Samuel Peck who was a daguerreotypist in the United States, and who invented the process of making the early plastic cases used for protecting and housing the daguerreotype image which is very prone to any type of scratch or abrasion. The Term "Union" refers to the material construction of the cases, and is derived from the "union" of the cases components; shellac, sawdust, other chemicals and dye for coloring the cases, which was usually black or brown. When these components were mixed together, heated and pressed into a mold, the parts of a Union Case are formed and because of the way they were made, the parts of the cases could take on fine, and in some cases, elaborate details which most Union cases display. This composition material, was and is still called Thermoplastic, and is actually one of the earliest forms of plastic. Before the Thermoplastic Union Case was invented, Daguerreotype or Ambrotype cases were usually made from wood and covered with very thin leather. Sometimes they were even made from other material and covered with mother of pearl and silver wire inlay.
Some of the finest and most highly sought after Union Cases you can find are made from Thermoplastic, but Thermoplastic Union Cases are inherently fragile and are subject to warping (usually from heat), breaking (mishandling/dropping), discoloring (although not that often, but usually due to the sun or water damage), and cracking (especially around the hinges and closing clasp). It is highly recommended that you use extreme caution when opening a Thermoplastic Union Case until you are familiar with how tight the clasp is. It can sometimes be helpful if you apply slight pressure to the bottom half in the middle side near the clasp with one thumb, while gently lifting the top half with the other hand. Don't force it or you could break or crack the case around the clasp. If you are having trouble, don't be afraid to ask the dealer for help. Believe me, they won't mind.
When you do find an image in a Thermoplastic Union Case, you may be surprised to learn that the Union Case the image is in might just be worth more than the image inside, but even though not as plentiful as the leather and wood Union Case, most Thermoplastic Union cases are fairly common (well at least as common as an antique from the 1850's or later can be). Rarity of a particular Thermoplastic Union case is judged by shape, design, condition and size. Although when it comes to Half Plate and Full Plate Union Cases being the rarest and highest in price, some designs like the Indian Monument in Cuba Thermoplastic Case for example can command quite high prices, even though they are rather standard 1/9th plate Union Cases. Other Thermoplastic Union Cases in the shape of an Oreo cookie are also desirable, and believe it or not are called Oreo cookie cases. There were literally hundreds of designs, shapes, and uses for Thermoplastic cases, and they housed all types and sizes of Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Tintypes.
Unless the Thermoplastic Union Case you are considering purchasing is a rare design, a half plate, or full plate Thermoplastic Union Case. condition is probably the strongest factor in determining the price you will pay. Even standard size cases will command a higher price if they are in exceptional condition with no chips, cracks, or other damage, but the case, if perfect, can be more important than the image inside unless, (in most cases) the image is an occupational, ethnic, outdoor or very interesting image. In addition, Daguerreotypes are usually higher in value than a similar Ambrotype or Tintype and although not always the case, pricing of an image in a Union Case usually follows the same value scale.
If you collect Antique Photography like we at OldPhotographic.com do, at some point in your search you will inevitably be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more cased images like Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes and sometimes Tintypes, but the majority of the Union Cases you are likely to run across are made from wood and covered with embossed leather which was the most popular form of Daguerreotype or Ambrotype Union Case until the invention of the Thermoplastic Union Case.
There is nothing wrong with leather Union Cases though, and some of them can have very beautiful designs, but leather union cases are subject to the spine being split simply from age and opening and closing of the case over time, and to a lesser extent Red Rot where the leather is literally disintegrating. When a Union Case suffers from a broken spine, the two helves of the case can become separated and over time the top half which is usually the cover can become misplaced, to even worse, lost. That's why you will sometimes find cased images being listed as half cases, split cases or full cases. Don't confuse a full case with a full plate case which is very rare and can command upwards of a couple thousand dollars or more depending on the image inside. Fortunately when it comes to a full case, if you have both the top and bottom. of the case and they are a match in design, there are thin leather spine repair kits available online and if done with care, the repair does not lower the value of an interesting or high value image. Watch out for mismatched tops and bottoms though. Unfortunately there is little that can be done about Red Rot, and unless the image is inexpensive, rare, or exceptional or you need the mat, preserver, or glass, it's not really worth purchasing unless it is very inexpensive.
Union Cases: A Collector's Guide to the Art of America's First Plastics. We use this large and invaluable book to value all of our cased images, and although it is a bit expensive new, it has proven its self to be well worth the purchase price and has saved us many times in the past from making costly mistakes when purchasing and/or pricing our own Union Cases.Because we are also collectors of Antique Photography, we highly recommend purchasing the well written, informative and fully illustrated price guide:
In fact, it has paid for its self many times over, and we have yet to find a Thermoplastic Union Case that is not listed in this book. You can also save some money by purchasing a used copy of this book from Amazon.com which in most cases is just as good as the new version. Just be sure to check the condition in the seller's description for condition. While you are at it, you should also check out these other Photography Collectors Guides which besides being worth their price in the amount of money they will save you in the long run and keep you from overpaying for a Union Case that turned out to be worth less than the Thermoplastic it was made from.
If you don't at least own a copy of the highly informative and extremely relevant book Union Cases: A Collector's Guide to the Art of America's First Plastics, you are doing yourself a great disservice. So what are you waiting for? Pick up a copy of this extraordinary book today! You won't be sorry you did.
Tags: types, union, cases, antique, collecting, decided, collector, gutta-percha, hear, misinformed, speaking, question, record
"I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive."
American Artist and Photographer