Around 1850, Samuel Peck developed a material made from shellac and wood fiber that became known generically as thermoplastic. Peck's own name for the material was Union.
The material could be heated and pressed into molds like modern plastics. It was quickly adapted to making holders for early photographic images such as tintypes, ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. These hinged holders made of thermoplastic are known collectively as Union Cases after Peck's process. The word Union refers to the union of shellac and wood; it does not refer to the northern states during the Civil War. Most have elaborate designs that make them highly sought after in their own right and also for the display of vintage images. They are usually a deep reddish brown or black in color.
A reproduction Union case is available in the market that is sure to cause some confusion. It is made of reddish brown modern plastic that looks and feels like the original. It has brass hinges and a red velvet lining.
The name of this specific design is "Eagle at Bay" and it was first made by Littlefield, Parsons & Co. in 1862. It features an eagle by a cannon under an American flag surrounded by patriotic emblems. The reverse is decorative scrollwork and flowers. An original Eagle at Bay Union case can sell for $100-$175. The modern plastic reproduction retails for $16.
The new case is 3 ¼" × 3 5/8". To our knowledge, it is the only size reproduced in this design. The easiest way to identify the new case is to look for a series of casting marks. These appear as circular depressions along the inner edges of the case. They are particularly noticeable around the hinges. No similar marks exist on original cases.
Be alert for genuinely old images inserted into these new cases. Images of common subjects are inexpensive and easily removed from genuine damaged cases.