Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Very Different Oreo

I am a collector of antique photography and gutta percha cases. One of the more interesting gutta perchas in my collection is one that dealers call, for obvious reasons, an Oreo. When this Oreo is taken apart (you like to take them apart, don't you?), it reveals a locket-like tintype.

Gutta percha is a natural rubber from the Malaysian gutta percha plant, seen below, and that natural rubber was used for a number of applications. According to the George Eastman House, however, the gutta percha case was nothing of the sort. It was actually an early shellac-based plastic dating to 1854.


  1. How utterly fascinating. I had never heard of this before! It is amazing how indiginous cultures come up with a natural solution from the resources they have available around them, and yet Western Civilisation reverts to science. Tour little "oreo" is absolutely wonderful.

  2. I've heard this called the first 'plastic'. IT is an amazing material and at a friends wedding recently they had an amazing photograph in a gutta perchas frame. You would have sworn it was the most exquisitely carved wood!

  3. Thanks, David and Stefan - it is indeed an amazing material. I started collecting daguerreotypes at a time when very nice ones could still be bought for under $10! At that rate, I became very selective, foregoing faces that didn't appeal to me, and looking for only the best cases. At some point, my focus turned to gutta percha cases. I'm especially proud of this piece because it screws apart by fragile threading, but is in mint condition. I've never seen another Oreo that wasn't damaged.

  4. Thank you for dropping by Hf,K. and becoming a follower. I am following you as well and I am so happy that I will learn from your blog each time I look. As example I have never heard of the gutta percha cases, I'm thrilled. I myself collected tin types and daguerreotypes over the years (too costly now)I love them. Anyway thanks again, I will be watching.

  5. I've enjoyed learned something new. I was so intrigued by this material I read more about it. One thing about such antiques is they often have crisp, fine detail...whether on this material, silver, porcelain, engraving, embroidery, calligraphy, etcetera. Whenever I look at antiques and collectables, the things that have good detail seem to be most sought after.

    In the modern world, few have the time or dedication to devote to such work, even for mass produced things. What a legacy so many artisans and craftspeople of long ago have left for us today.

  6. You're welcome, Kevin. Not only am I a follower, but I added you to my list of favorites the evening I discovered Hf,K!

    Terry, your comments have inspired me to do a display of all the gutta perchas. Each one was more intricate than the next, and they're all examples of high craftsmanship.

  7. I love a good history lesson! This is a fascinating post! I knew only a little about gutta percha. Thank you for compiling this.


  8. So do I! Thanks for being a follower. Mark

  9. I posted a different sort of oreo cookie today.
    Wonderful lesson here.

  10. Hi! What a great story. I've heard of gutta percha before, but had never actually seen it. Also, don't have any dental fillings either ;-)
    Your collection must be such a joy!

  11. pve, I love your header and that we were on the same wave length this week - I just hope my cookie never crumbles like yours! Elsbeth, thanks for stopping by - I'm thinking of eventually putting the whole collection up for sharing.

  12. I'm surprised that the gutta percha still is being used with reference to cases - While gutta percha was embedded in transatlantic cables and in dental fillings - the light of day and oxidation breaks it down - the thermoplastic composition used in cases is shellac, sawdust, and coloring agent

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I made the distinction between the real gutta percha and the thermoplastic composition used in "gutta percha cases" in my sidebar commentary on daguerreotypes. Your comment makes me realize that I had not corrected this posting, which came before the sidebar histories, and I will do that now.

      I live in Florida, and I can tell you that the thermoplastic composition fared little better, at least in this climate.