I can’t remember when I first came across this intriguing word. The context must have indicated white plasticky stuff, because if I hear (or more likely read) it today, the things I think of are those little collar stiffeners which come in classy men’s shirts. Isn’t there also a reference (Wodehouse or similar) to grown men hitting a piece of gutta-percha around a rather boring landscape with a stick, like Mark Twain’s alleged ‘good walk spoiled’?
Gutta-percha was a sort of precursor of plastic, and in Commercial Botany of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1890, it is stated to be the second most important vegetable product of the British Empire, after ‘India-rubber, or caoutchouc’. It is derived from the latex of genus of south-east Asian trees, Palaquium, but unlike the latex of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), it becomes brittle when exposed to air and light. Another unfortunate difference is that the latex cannot be tapped: the trees have to be felled and the bark stripped off before it starts to flow. Thus enthusiastic exploitation of the resource without planned replanting led almost to the extermination of the tree species between 1847 (when Sir W.J. Hooker first described it in the Journal of Botany) and the 1870s.
Its first commercial use was as a waterproof sole for boots. ‘Being easily moulded by heat, it was soon applied to the manufacture of pails, buckets, basins, water-pipes, door-handles, knobs for drawers, and a host of similar purposes.’ Marcy’s Prairie Traveller (written for western pioneers in the United States) recommends a gutta-percha knapsack as a useful piece of kit. It was also used as covering for under-sea telegraph wires, though rubber fairly rapidly overtook it. (According to Wikipedia, it is also used ‘for dental applications during root canal therapy’: I can’t pretend that knowing this during that very unpleasant experience would have cheered me up at all.)
It also had its ornamental uses: at the Great Exhibition of 1851, furniture moulded from gutta-percha which imitated wood was displayed, and it was also used as a substitute for ivory, ebony and jet in jewellery and knick-knacks like snuff-boxes and the heads of walking sticks, as well as for the faces of dolls. (The Arts and Craft movement hated it for its artificiality and mimicry of other materials.) And, in one of the most far-reaching examples of cultural displacement known to man, good old boiled goose-feathers in a small leather pouch (good enough for generations of Scotsmen) were upstaged by gutta-percha for golf balls. Moreover, golfers apparently discovered that that the more dented the ball, the better it flew though the air, so the now familiar dimples were introduced, a bit like ‘go-faster’ stripes.
Commercial Botany of the Nineteenth Century contains much more riveting information, under its various chapter headings: food products and beverages, drugs (and ‘new drugs’), oils and waxes, gums, resins and varnishes, dyes and tanning materials, paper, fibres, fodders, timber and hardwoods, and ‘miscellaneous’. Under this last are included rattan canes for walking sticks, and umbrella and parasol handles (1,500 tons imported in 1886, and the largest manufacture, in Old Street London, employed 530 people); citronella oil; briar-root pipes; and loofahs. The book doesn’t just give economic /botanical information, but presents a wonderful overview of the fashions and fads of the British public – avid consumers at the zenith of the Empire.
Oh, and, apparently, ‘gutta’ means ‘sap’ and ‘percha’ is the name of the tree, in Malay.