America’s first plastic

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email

In recent articles I’ve written some about antique photography. This article is about the “Thermoplastic cases” that housed those antique photos. Many people confuse thermoplastic with gutta-percha. Gutta-percha is made from India rubber.

In 1854, Samuel Peck received his patent for inventing the thermoplastic process. His patent did not restrict others from using his process. Soon other manufacturers began producing this new material.

Thermoplastic case open showing Lysander and case label
Thermoplastic case open showing Lysander and case label. Photo by Ted Spaulding

Peck’s process was a mixture of shellac and sawdust. This was thoroughly mixed, heated, and colored with chemical dyes. It was then passed through rollers to create a thin sheet of hot plastic. This heated plastic was then placed over a mold where it was pressed by the molding machine.

In the antique photography trade, we call these cases “thermoplastic” or “hard cases.” Some refer to them as “Union Cases.” The term Union comes from Peck himself. He chose Union as the name because his process was a union of shellac and sawdust.

Peck did not register his Union name, which resulted in other case manufacturers claiming they produced Union cases. There were several competitors: A.P. Critchlow, Littlefield & Parsons, and a couple others.

There is an excellent book on this subject. In 1988, Clifford Krainik published, “Union Cases, Collector’s Guide to the Art of America’s First Plastic.” I have a copy of his book. Krainik’s book is the standard for collectors.

Krainik breaks down these cases into several categories. There are cases representing classical scenes, scroll designs, geometric, patriotic Civil War, firemen, historical, and floral. Hundreds and hundreds of photos of case designs are included in Krainik’s book. A couple of these cases are worth a thousand dollars. These would be the whole-plate cases or brightly colored cases. Both are rare. Another case is what we call the Oreo because they resemble Oreo cookies. Some of these are bright colors.

Thermoplastic case with Lysander Marshall tintype
Thermoplastic case with Lysander Marshall tintype. Photo by Ted Spaulding

Condition is everything. These cases are prone to cracks or chips. Weak areas are hinge cracks, clasp cracks, and corner chips. Many survive today in excellent condition, a credit to those early case makers.

The photos with this article are a case Ted Spaulding donated to the Chester Historical Society. In Krainik’s book, this is number 445. It is a common case in superb condition. It is chip-free with a lustrous finish. It bears the Littlefield, Parsons & Co label with patent dates of 1856 and 1857.

Today, this would appeal to a new collector. An advanced collector will already have it. The problem today is that few young people are interested in collecting.

What I like about Krainik’s book is the ease it gives me to sell these cases. All I have to do is email photos to a collector friend with the Krainik number and condition. We then talk over the phone and make the deal.

The photo in the case is John Lysander Marshall. Lysander was wounded at Gettysburg July 2, 1863. He died of those wounds Aug. 8, 1863 and is buried in Gettysburg. When I removed the photo of Lysander from its case, I found a tiny newspaper clipping behind the photo.

“Why weep, then for the darling boy,

Your pride, your comfort and your joy,

Thus early passed away;

Your loss is his immortal gain;

Now free from sorrow, death and pain,

He lives in realms of day.”

Also from Ted is a CDV albumen photo of Lysander. This is a paper photograph. This CDV clearly shows a brass frame around the photo. This brass frames indicates it is a copy photo as CDVs have no need for a frame. They were slipped into an album page, not a case, with very few exceptions.

I can best explain it this way. The tintype in the thermoplastic case was the only image of Lysander. After Lysander died in Gettysburg, family members wanted a photo to remember him.

The family took this thermoplastic case and tintype to A.S. Hayward on Main Street in Chester to have copies made. Hayward would have removed it from the case as I did. He then would have taken a close-up of the image. Now, Hayward had a glass negative from which many photos could be produced. The brass frame now is part of the photo. Hayward was in Chester until 1867 so this dates the copy photo.

Thanks to Ted Spaulding, the Chester Historical Society now has the original tintype of Lysander and a CDV copy.

Last week’s “Whatzit” was a bottle opener.

  This week’s old saying. “You have to hoe a row of corn with a man to know him.”

Back To Top