Monday, May 17, 2010

So, What Exactly is Gutta Percha?

We are quickly approaching an important anniversary in American history. In a few short days (May 22) it will be 154 years (that's 1856 if you don't want to do the math) since South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. When I read about the incident a few years ago I found that Brooks has used a gutta percha cane for his assault weapon (not pictured here).

When I read that, the first question to myself was, what the heck is gutta percha? I had never heard of it before. Well, apparently it was quite the new product discovery of the mid-nineteenth century.

Gutta percha is a hard rubber much like many of our plastic products today. It came from the gutta percha plant/tree (pictured below) of Southeast Asia. Although indigenous peoples in the region had used the product for centuries, Europeans in the 1840s found that extracting the sap from the plant by boiling it and then allowing it to dry in the sun produced a latex that could used in for many different products. One of the positives that made gutta percha highly desirable was the fact that it could be easily moulded and did not shrink when it cooled.
Gutta percha back then, like plastic today, was used for just about everything that you can think of. It was used to insulate submarine telegraph cable, and to make moulded jewelry and intricate furniture. It found favor with pipe manufacturers for durable pipe stems, and even was used in the mass production of golf balls. One of the most popular uses in that era though was for photograph cases (seen below).
Photographs were a relatively new invention in the mid-nineteenth century and people needed ways to keep their expensive images protected, especially those printed on glass and metal plates. Gutta percha proved to be an excellent choice. It was hard and durable, but not brittle and it was relatively light weight.
Gutta percha was used readily well into the twentieth century for things as diverse as pistol grips and tooth fillings.

1 comment:

  1. Since gutta percha is hard and durable, but not brittle, it would have to have been a truly ferocious blow that broke the stick used to attack Charles Sumner.