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History of the Miniature Case Paul K. Berg
Prior to 1839 a small wooden case was used by artists for miniature portraits and silhouettes. This was in the years before the invention of the daguerreotype. Information about these companies or individuals is scant and there is little interest in them.
With the release of Daguerre’s process in 1839, there was an explosion of interest in producing this "wonderful likeness of life" and many individuals hastened to learn the art. By its very nature the daguerreotype was (and still is) easily subject to irreparable injury by contact with any object which could cause scratching of the (plate) image, even by touch from the salt in the moisture on the finger leaving a fingerprint. The daguerreotype plate, covered by a mat and protected by a piece of glass, still required further protection and it was a natural consequence that the new photographic industry turned to the available miniature case manufacturers for the solution to the problem. Within a year, thousands of these cases were being produced to keep up with the ever increasing demand for daguerreotypes.
The early photographic cases, i.e. those manufactured prior to 1849, were made of a ten piece wooden frame, usually pine which was plentiful, easily worked and relatively inexpensive. Each top and bottom half was composed of four side rails glued to a single cover, for a total of ten pieces. This construction form was inherently defective in that warping was commonplace. By 1849 this problem was solved by shortening the length of the single cover piece and gluing another piece of wood on each end whose grain was directed perpendicular to the main piece. Another improvement made at this time was a change in the method of uniting the side rails. Originally these were mitered unions, but this was changed to a mortised joint which provided additional strength and stability to the unit.
The front and back of the very earliest cases were of similar shape, but shortly (by 1840) it became common for the top to be slightly convex while the bottom was flat centrally with the four edges slightly beveled. By the mid 1850’s the shape was generally standardized, viz. a flat front and back cover whose margins were slightly beveled or somewhat rounded.
The wooden frame was covered by gluing to it extremely thin pieces of Moroccan leather which had been previously dyed and embossed. The dyes used were black, various shades of brown or, less commonly, a deep red or port wine color. On rare occasion orange or green was used. The embossed design was usually reserved for the cover. While the early embossing often was only a simple geometric pattern, more fanciful scroll work or floral arrangements soon appeared. Gilding appeared by 1846. By 1850 very detailed geometric and floral patterns adorned both top and bottom covers.
Case closure was maintained by a hook and eye fastener. The fancier cases covered with velvet, papier mache, or shell often were supplied with a pressure or push button fastener. The two halves of the leather case were attached by a similar piece of covering material which acted as the spine. The fabric was extremely thin and was easily weakened. A definite reduction in quality of the wooden frame case occurred during the decades of the fifties and sixties. The use of leather was replaced by embossed paper or cloth.
Following completion of the frame the interior of the case had to be outfitted. The inside of the front cover was "trimmed" by inserting a pad. The pad was originally made of silk but later velvet replaced the silk. The silk pad was unadorned whereas the velvet was embossed with figural and more commonly geometric designs.
The bottom half of the case, into which the image was placed, received two additional items. One was a piece of plain paper was glued to hide the flat interior wood surface and the other a liner consisting of velvet covered cardboard which was glued to the four sides. The color of the velvet liner bore no relationship to the color of the cover pad so that different combinations or "mismatches" are commonplace A few manufacturers or individuals inserted identifying paper labels in the case; as a consequence this is predominately the only means available to us to associate a specific case with a specific maker, but this amounts to less than one percent of the millions of cases that were made.
Very little is known of those who engraved the (leather) case designs. A few individuals such as Benjamin True, Anthony Paquet, Charles Loekle, David Pretlove and Gaskill & Copper, each acting as independent contractors, placed their name on the case as part of the embossed pattern. The vast majority of cases were designed by company employed individuals and therefore their names will probably never be known,
Before discussing the thermoplastic case makers it is necessary to explain the term "gutta percha". The collector will inevitably be told that the thermoplastic (hard) case is made of gutta percha. This is not true. No known photographic case has ever been proven to have been made of this substance. Gutta percha is the sap of a tree which grows in the tropics especially in the southwest Pacific islands. It is very similar in appearance and feel to the thermoplastic composite of the miniature case, but gutta percha is a rubber which when softened by heat, becomes quite moldable (hence the term "plastic" was used to describe it) and when hardened by cooling, becomes solid and acid resistant. Thermoplastic on the other hand is not of a rubber base. Furthermore, gutta percha is subject to deterioration by moisture over time whereas thermoplastic remains stable.
The year 1853 witnessed the introduction of a new type of case to the public, destined for immediate acceptance and great popularity but relatively short-lived when compared to the common-place leather and paper covered wooden case. It is still known by its original name, the "Union Case". It was not until the following year, that Samuel Peck, in his patent described the components of the case. By describing the process of thermoplastic manufacture in detail in the patent, Peck is usually given credit for inventing the thermoplastic case. The term "Union" is derived from the union of the components i.e. gum shellac, wood fiber or other fibrous material and a color dye which, when heated and mixed together, produced the thermoplastic compound.
In 1852 while Peck was perfecting his case making, Alfred Critchlow was simultaneously doing the same in Florence, Massachusetts. The A.P. Critchlow Co. was founded in 1853. Critchlow sold his interests in the firm in 1857 to David G. Littlefield and within one year (1858) the firm name was changed to Littlefield, Parsons & Co. This new company produced more new thermoplastic case designs than any other; greater than 390 are currently recorded.
In May 1866, Littlefield, Parsons & Co. became the Florence Manufacturing Co. By this time the daguerreotype and ambrotype had fallen out of demand and were rapidly being replaced by the tintype and carte de visite. The need for thermoplastic cases was rapidly dwindling.
Another major manufacturer, Holmes, Booth and Haydens was founded in 1853. They were the first to introduce color other than brown or black into Union cases such as orange, orange-red and green which are highly prized by current collectors for their distinctiveness as well as their rarity.
Wadham’s Manufacturing Company of Torrington, Connecticut, began case production in the 1850’s. Their cases are distinct from all others in that they retained exclusive usage of the Kingsley & Parker patented hinge. This hinge is readily identified by its unique external position at the upper and lower margins of the case. Unfortunately, the association was a failure for both firms, resulting from the high rate of fracturing of the case at the site of the hinge attachment. Three other case makers with known labels were A. B. Chapman, Levi Chapman and Francis C. Key and Sons all of New York City.
J.L. Baldwin patented the "screw" type closure seen on the very popular circular case today called the "oreo" because of its similarity to the cookie by the same name. The vase majority of green and orange cases are found in the shape.
One thousand one hundred seventy nine different thermoplastic cases have been recorded and more will be found.
Only one manufacturer of thermoplastic cases not of American origin has been identified. John Smith of Birmingham, England recorded patents in 1859 and 1860. His case (Berg #1-31) is the only known thermoplastic case wherein the manufacturer’s name and date of the patent appear as part of the molded design.
The history of the miniature case is intimately associated with the development of the photographic process. The demise of the case industry, the death knell of this art form, can be attributed to the use of the four-lens camera and paper photography. Perfected by Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi in 1857 it is known as the carte de visite. The daguerreotype and ambrotype could not compete with the less costly production of multiple images. These cartes de visite images became an immediate success since they could be easily carried and transported without the concern for damage or glass breakage. Paper images were light and cheap and multiple copies were immediately available from a single exposure. And so, by the end of the 1860’s, the miniature case became obsolete.
© Paul Berg (2006) – Used with permission