Florence Compound was the invention of Alfred Critchlow (1813-1881) who was a manufacturer of horn buttons in Birmingham, England. After emigrating to the US, where he initially continued in this trade, Critchlow eventually moved to Florence, Massachusetts, where, in the 1850s, he began to experiment with moulding compounds of shellac (a resin secreted by the lac beetle) and gutta percha (a natural material derived from the Malaysian tree of the same name). He developed a shellac-based moulding material which he named Florence Compound and used it to manufacture buttons and Union Cases (small protective cases for daguerreotype photographs), thought to be some of the first mass-produced plastic mouldings. In 1853 Critchlow went into partnership with Samuel Hill and Isaac Parsons, but when the development of new photographic processes led to a dwindling in demand for such cases, he sold his share in the company which then took the name Littlefield, Parsons and Co. Subsequently they changed their name to the Florence Manufacturing Co. and, needing to find new uses for their moulding material, produced highly decorated hand mirrors and brush sets.
One such mirror has recently been acquired by MoDiP. The back of the mirror is decorated with a Japanese chrysanthemum design
and the word ‘Florence’ is clearly seen moulded on the handle.
The mouldings are still crisp and sharp and, apart from a little damage to the handle, it doesn’t look as if it is over 130 years old.
The ability of shellac to be moulded into intricate patterns is also demonstrated by this Union case which is part of the Plastics Historical Society Collection and held at MoDiP. Manufactured by S. (Samuel) Peck & Co. it is thought to have been made in the 1850s.
Another recent acquisition for MoDiP is a very pretty shellac trinket box. It has a moulded lid depicting two nesting birds. As yet we haven’t conducted any research to establish its manufacturer. It has no identifying marks, but hopefully, with time, we might find information about it.