6.07.2013

Blood and Sawdust

spectacular bois durci tray, France, 1900. Julien K Cole
ox blood + sawdust = 19th century wonder material
frames and decorative plaque from the Mernick website collection
 
"pyrogenes"— match holders
All items, except as noted, from the collection of Gaston Vermosen
In contrast with today's vogueish marketing gestures of reuse, recycling and boutique "upcycling", 19th century society appears to have understood reclamation as a stage of production. According to Susan Strasser, Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware and author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, “The 19th century world regarded reusing materials as a matter of common sense, of stewardship of material goods.” Used goods— metal, cloth, glass — if they were discarded at all, were retrieved by peddlers or scavengers and turned into new goods. Much more so than simply rendering horses at the glue factory, 19th century society was almost perversely adept at recycling. Tallow was reclaimed for candles and soap, bones were ground for matches, gelatine, and soap as well. I read recently that as we are a petroleum-based civilization, the 19th century was a grease- and bone-based one. Add to that blood.

In 1855 Francois Charles Lepage got a French patent for a method of combining blood albumen from slaughterhouses with wood powder to form a plastic, moldable material he called bois durci. The wood dust, either ebony or rose wood, was mixed with blood, dried and then ground to a fine powder. The powder was placed in a steel mold and steam heated to 400-500° in a powerful hydraulic press. After a half hour, the mold was plunged into cold water. The resulting wood product was an extremely dense, highly polished object ready-fashioned into whatever fantastical ornamented fancy was desired, or could be further worked with saw, lathe or burin. The French Scientific and Industrial Year for 1863 explained it's appeal,

We find now... at low prices: statuettes, medallions, and objets d'art, made of this wood, resistant and unalterable in air, which are well superior to [those] moulded in earthenware or plaster. The caskets, inkstands, purses, frames, etc. and the other delicate objects made by the same means, are not challenged for elegance, or the finish of details, by the most well finished of sculptures.
That jet brooch or gutta percha trinket box you purchased at the flea market? Might just be blood. Anything jet could do, bois durci could do cheaper and in brown. In addition to blotters, hand mirrors, and other tabletop niceties, bois durci lent itself to mourning jewelry, photography cases and even early telephone receivers.

Dr. W. H. Dibble of Trenton, NJ, developed the American answer to bois durci, patenting cattle blood and sawdust compressed at 40,000 pounds per square inch as "hemacite" in 1877. Manufacturer and Builder of 1892 rapturously pronounced hemacite "impervious to heat, moisture, atmospherical changes, and, in fact, [it] is practically indestructible... there is... no limit to the artistic and effective combinations..." Hemacite appears to have taken on a more workman-like role than its artistic and aspirational French cousin. Substituted for both wood and metal, it was put to use as doorknobs, escutcheons, all manner of pulls and household trimmings, and, later, roller skate wheels.

Despite their successful run, and a legacy of baroquely bomb├ęd heirloom desk accessories and commemorative plaques, by the early 20th century Bakelite and other modern plastics had left the quaint and earthy bois durci and its ilk in the
proverbial dust. //

Read more about hemacite and bois durci at Cabinet, mernick.org and Un Plastique Naturel by Gaston Vermosen

3 comments:

male said...

read with interest and pleasure - thanks also for the tip into 'cabinet' magazine - have you followed the print version for ages (since 2000)?

Kamila said...

Another random + interesting post -- why I love your blog! Thank you.

Angela Voulangas said...

Thanks Kamila, always nice to hear good feedback!

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