|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 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 bombéd 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