The Case of the Red Planet
Ok, so I have a slight obsession with the planet Mars of yesteryear. The Mars of today while still red, bears little if any resemblance to the celestial body that held the hopes of some great adventure like that which awaited Civil War veteran John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. Nor does it still possess the sense of impending doom as foreseen by H. G. Wells in War of the Worlds. It should, but modern science – that killer of dreams – put an untimely end to that which we all knew, or at least hoped to be true. This tiny 1/16th glass plate image of Mars harks back to those halcyon but now long lost days.
Above: Resplendent with its padded purple velvet liner, this tiny cased image pose several questions. The thermoplastic case is of the type commonly used just prior to and during the American Civil War. The glass image itself does not appear to be an ambrotype plate one would normally see in such case but may actually be a period magic lantern slide which was cut down to fit the case. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia.
When closed this c. 1860 thermoplastic cased image measures a gem-like 1 7/8 inches by 2 inches (4.8cm x 5cm). The image itself is not a true photograph of Mars since at the time there was no way of tracking a planet with a telescope over the very long exposure times required to produce an image. The common practice at the time consisted of an artist or astronomer observing the planet over a given length of time and creating a drawing or painting of what he saw. Then the finished artwork was photographed in a studio setting to produce the final glass plate image. Under very close examination this image appears to have been photographed from a watercolor painting.
Above: The detailed outside of the thermoplastic case with a fruiting plant design. The tiny rose-headed pins which retain the cases brass hinges and clasp can be clearly seen. Often mistakenly referred to as gutta percha, photographic cases such as this example was made from thermoplastic, a putty made up of coal or sawdust mixed with shelac. The plastic material was then pressed into carved steel molds and baked. The resulting hardened material took on this dark brown or sometimes black coloration and could hold extremely fine detail. Thermoplastic could be somewhat brittle and subject to chipping and cracking. This example is almost unblemished. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate who may have produced or owned this little image but it must have been a prized and very unique possession then just as it is now.