mike@mikehelms.org

 

Smith & Wesson’s Union (Gutta Percha) Case

Smith & Wesson’s Union (Gutta Percha) Case

Among the rarities of Smith & Wesson’s earliest years is the gutta percha case. Between 1850 and 1861 almost 5,000 of these cases were manufactured. The cases’ fragile plastic and delicate hinges have whittled the number of survivors down to an estimated 250 cases, if that.

The top of the Smith & Wesson Union Case. Note that it says “Manufactured Only By Smith & Wesson” … placing emphasis on Smith & Wesson’s exclusive license to the bored through cylinder patent.

The Smith & Wesson Model 1 was the company’s first gun. It chambered a modest seven rounds of .22, but its concealability and ease of use made it a runaway success. Marbled paper boxes made by Springfield resident Charles C. Taylor housed each gun, but those wanting a more elaborate box, between 1859 and 1861, could order the Union Case.

Thermoplastic and Gutta Percha

An excellent description of the thermoplastics is found in Crainik and Walvoord’s “Union Cases” book. They were comprised primarily of sawdust and shellac, with other bits thrown in for good measure. Metal molds pressed and formed the molten goo that gave the resulting product its elaborate shape. This book also notes that the term “Gutta Percha” is not technically correct. While some photographic cases were made out of Gutta Percha, the majority were made out of shellac. “Thermoplastic” is technically accurate, but “Gutta Percha” is what most collectors know it as.

Littlefield, Parsons & Co.

The origins of Littlefield Parsons & Company is more obscure. English-born Alfred P. Critchlow (26 Dec 1813 – 24 Mar 1881) was one of the pioneers of the union case industry. He held a patent for a hinge design that would work well with the brittle thermoplastic. He manufactured daguerreotype cases in the 1850s in Springfield, Massachusetts with his business partner Daniel Littlefield (23 Nov 1822 – 31 May 1891) under the company name “A. P. Critchlow Co.” Alfred retired from the business in 1858, and Littlefield picked up a new partner Isaac Parsons (8 Feb 1830 – 31 Mar 1910), which explains the name “Littlefield Parsons.”

The detail of the Model 1 cast into the lid of the Union Case. It’s clearly a first issue Model 1 since it has the rounded frame and circular side plate, and it’s a 3rd to 5th variant since it has the spring-loaded barrel catch and the recoil plate. This dates the case’s design to a period spanning from October 1858 to February 1859.

The Cases

The thermoplastic cases that Littlefield, Parsons & Co. made for Smith & Wesson came in two varieties: the “crossed flags” style and the “pistol” style, with the names referring to the design motif on the top of the case. Inside, the cases had a fitted space for the pistol and holes for 56 rounds of the deadly .22 short black powder ammunition that the Model 1 chambered. The complete package was attractive and had an air of lux.

Inside the Union Case, with a spot for the pistol and holes for 56 rounds of ammunition. The top of the case is lined with padded velour, and the bottom is lined with an equally soft (but not cushioned) velvet material.

The Smith & Wesson Union Case was the company’s first attempt at beautiful packaging. The cost per unit (approximately 70¢) was not insubstantial, though. The wholesale cost of each gun was about $9, so the Union Case added almost 10% to the price of the firearm.

The corner of the Union Case showing the notched shield, eagle, ribbon and flourishes.

Importance

The 257,000 Model 1’s manufactured dwarfed the production run of 5,000 Union Cases. The case itself remains more of a collecting curiosity for advanced collectors. More broadly, the development of thermoplastics remains another unsung victory of the industrial revolution.

Initially used for picture frames, buttons and other such trinkets, plastics eventually became a pivotal material for manufacturing. They require much less energy to manufacture and can be cast and shaped into elaborate designs.

Littlefield, Parsons & Co. was also an excellent example of how various technology businesses converged in the mid-19th century. Its namesakes Daniel Littlefield and Isaac Parsons both went on into other manufacturing businesses. Littlefield led the “Pawtucket Hair Cloth Company” as its president, and his success eventually helped him get elected as Rhode Island’s lieutenant-governor in 1889. Parsons went on to manage the Florence Manufacturing Company, whose products included a sewing machine. David A. Hounshell’s excellent book “From the American System to Mass Production” discusses the importance of both guns and sewing machines to the development of mass-production technologies.