Saturday, July 9, 2011

Union cases and what they contain(ed)

Some people collect antique photographs. Virginia jeweler Tom Liljenquist and his sons, for instance, spent 15 years collecting ambrotypes and tintypes of American Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Within that time, they amassed close to 700 photographs, which they donated to the Library of Congress last year (click here for entire digitized collection, click here for selected slideshow). Most of the photos in the Liljenquist Family Collection (on display in Washington, D.C., through 8/13/11) depict young enlisted men, often with their firearms. Some of the soldiers are shown instead with their musical instruments, and a few are posed with their wives and children in front of a painted backdrop. The subjects and the photographers are for the most part unidentified, but one soldier's family left a note pinned to the photo case that may have helped put a name to the image.

Other people collect the cases used to house the photographs, whether or not they still contain the photo. These special daguerreotype housings known as "union cases" were invented by Samuel Peck of New Haven, Connecticut, and patented in 1854. Often mistakenly believed to be made of gutta-percha, a natural latex derived from the sap of a tropical plant, they were actually manufactured from a mixture of sawdust and shellac. Peck called this thermoplastic material "union," which explains the name, but his company also produced cases from leather and papier-mâché. Union cases were molded into decorative and often patriotic designs, and this first form of plastic was soon copied and produced by other companies, whose labels were sandwiched behind the glass, pinchbeck mat, and photograph. Now collector's items, union cases are sold in lots or individually at auctions, antique photo shows, or on-line.

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