Japanned furniture: global objects in provincial America

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

May 2009 |On a cold winter dawn in January 1701, trumpeters marched through the streets of Boston, waking the residents and proclaiming Samuel Sewall’s poem.1 Written by a devout Puritan who had inherited a mercantile fortune, the poem shows a global imagination at work—and perhaps at play too. It reminds us that the provincial society of early America was not so provincial after all. Residents in Boston and the other important colonial ports, such as Salem, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, were all part of a global circulation of goods and people.Only a handful of colonial Americans actually traveled beyond the Atlantic world. Two New England–born men, Elihu Yale (1649–1721) and Nathanial Higginson (1652–1708), had made their way across the globe and up through the hierarchy of the British East India Company to become governors of Fort Saint George in Madras, India. A few merchants from New York and New England had ventured their ships around the Cape of Good Hope to trade (and supply pirates, or so they were accused) in the Indian Ocean.2 But these were the exceptions. Many found their lives bounded by perhaps the single trans-atlantic voyage made by their parents or grandparents. In the port cities, however, the economy depended on long-distance trade to and from the Caribbean, England, Europe, Africa, and beyond. All colonists were participants, whether they knew it or not, in a worldwide web of exchange.

England’s economy relied not only on its American colonies but also on its trade with Asia. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, English and American consumers developed a growing appetite for goods from the East Indies, particularly Indian cottons and Chinese tea. And tea, as the English would drink it, required sugar, increasing demand for the sweetener grown on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, whose planters, in turn, became avid consumers of American foodstuffs and Asian teas, textiles, and related luxury goods. Thus a small island in the North Sea and its vastly larger colonies developed a robust merchant marine fleet and a booming economy based on a global exchange of goods.

Asian goods, more commonly known as East India goods, found their way to the ports of early America. As newspapers appeared in major cities in the 1720s and 1730s, advertisements increasingly reflected the availability of Indian calico, various kinds of teas, Chinese porcelain, and other luxury items “Just imported from London,” as was often noted in bold letters. One of the most striking examples of the influence of this global commerce was the production of japanned furniture during the early decades of the eighteenth century (see Figs. 1, 2). Accompanying the imported tea and textiles flowing into London through the East India Company and private traders, lacquered furniture and small boxes excited the admiration of English and European audiences from the mid-1600s on.

A lacquered and gilded finish could take months to complete, making these items rare in the places where they were made—Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia. To add to the allure, the lacquer was derived only from the Japanese varnish tree (Rhus verniciflua), which grows only in Asia. To satisfy Western demand for the glowing objects that usually featured Chinese motifs of flowers, figures, or landscapes on a highly polished background of ebony or scarlet, the English developed a technique using repeated layers of varnish that approximated the Asian finish and called it japanning.3

Japanning quickly developed into a major urban craft industry in England. Encouraged by the dramatic expansion of London furniture production in the decades after the Great Fire in 1666, joiners, cabinetmakers, and furniture finishers were inspired by the examples of lacquered furniture, screens, and boxes brought to England, and the number of London japanners expanded rapidly. Drawing the ire of long-established craft guilds, such as the Company of Upholsterers, the japanners submitted a petition in 1700 for competitive relief from their tactics,4 following the example of the cane-chair makers, whose product was also based on an Asian original and required cane imported through the East India Company. In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published a lengthy manual entitled A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, being a Compleat Discovery of those Arts… that inclu-ded “Above an Hundred distinct Patterns for Japan-work, in Imitation of the Indians, for Tables, Stands, Frames, Cabinets, Boxes, etc.” 5 Like most English and Americans at the time, Stalker and Parker seemed to have an imperfect understanding of Asian geography; they used the terms Japan and India (or Indian) interchangeably even though they distinguished lacquerwork done in Japan from that of China or Indonesia. The authors claimed their text would save purchasers from poor draftsmen, who “impose upon the Gentry such Stuff and Trash,” and would allow the “nobility and gentry” to obtain “whole Setts of Japan-work, whereas otherwise they were forc’t to content themselves with perhaps a Screen, a Dressing-box, or Drinking-bowl.”

These still dramatic and imposing japanned pieces with their elaborate decoration seem not to fit with our picture of early Boston—its stained-wood center-chimney houses, unpaved streets, and crowded wharfs—just emerging from the Puritan era. But by the 1720s this was a town where the well-to-do, and those who could imitate them, might sport scarlet cloaks and powdered wigs. This was the period when the wealthy merchant Andrew Faneuil (1672–1737) built his brick mansion with elegant gardens and a summerhouse like those found in the best English gardens. And future Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682–1757), son of another successful merchant, embarked on a gentleman’s tour of England and the Continent. In Germany young Belcher, like his ambitious English compatriots, waited on the family of George I (r. 1714–1727) at Hanover.6

Not only were colonials adopting a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, but their buildings were undergoing a dramatic transformation as well. Houses of the middling sort and gentry, like Faneuil’s, were enlarged to include a parlor for polite gatherings. The bedstead, a feature of the best room in most seventeenth-century houses, was banished to an upper chamber, and those who could added another bay to their single width houses. On spying a neighbor’s improvements early in the century, the Boston merchant Thomas Banister (1683–1716) wrote to his agent in London that “some curious clear glass” was the “newest Fashion” in town, and of course he wanted some for his own abode.7 Together with larger rooms and high ceilings, such sash windows with multiple panes of glass imported from England—all part of a Georgian attention to space and symmetry—created light-filled rooms.8

In such airier, more spacious rooms larger pieces of japanned furniture—high chests of drawers and tall-case clocks—could show to most advantage; their reflective surfaces and elaborate gilded decoration could take possession of a room and reflect luster back onto their owners. In such an environment, it is not surprising that several japanners flourished in Boston (see Fig. 4).

As the center for American furniture manufacture until 1750, Boston had as many as a dozen japanners at work during the first half of the century. In 1714 the Englishman William Price (1684–1771), who was already an accomplished japanner, arrived in Boston and quickly joined the Anglican King’s Chapel, where the Faneuils and other affluent potential clients worshiped. At about the same time William Randall (w. c. 1715–c. 1735) opened a cab-inet- and framemaking and japanning shop near the Town House, now the Old State House, across the street from the wealthy merchant Charles Apthorp (1698–1758), who helped to finance Randall and his partner, Robert Davis (see Fig. 5). Thomas Johnston (1708–1767) developed a family business catering to Boston’s merchant elite; he and his sons Thomas Jr. (1731–c. 1776), Benjamin, and John (b. c. 1753; active 1773–1789) worked as japanners (John painted portraits as well).9 

The purveyor Robert Jenkins sold “Japan’d Tea Boards and Waiters,” or trays, from his location on the north side of the Town House on King Street—Boston’s leading commercial thoroughfare, which connected the social and political center of town with the commercial wharves and warehouses at the harbor side. The colonial historian Bernard Bailyn observed that even in the late seventeenth century this cosmopolitan thoroughfare was “the exact pivot point of the primary orbit of the Atlantic trade in New England.”10 And, as evidenced by japanned furniture, tea, Chinese porcelain, and the many East India goods possessed by colonial Americans, it also represented a main point of connection to the world beyond the Atlantic.

Much less is known about japanners in other colonial cities. The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island, owns the japanned tall-case clock shown in Figure 6, the works of which were made by William Claggett about 1728. Although the name of the talented limner who decorated it remains unknown, it is possible that Newport’s resident japanner William Gibbs (d. 1729) may have done the work. Gibbs is best known for the way he adorned the walls of his own house with elaborate panels of japanned decoration.11 In New York in 1759 Gerardus Duyckinck (1695–1746) advertised in the New-York Mercury that he had moved to a new location and was “selling as usual” British and East India goods, powders and varnishes for painting, “japanner’s colours, gums, speckles and frosts of different sorts,” and “a good assortment of pictures and looking glasses,” as well as window glass of all sizes. A skilled japanner himself, Duyckinck also offered “limning, gilding, silvering and lackering done at a reasonable price.”12 In the same year John Long offered “japann’d waiters,” and a luxurious assortment of imported fabrics and accessories from his shop on Wall Street, and in mid-July an auction in New York included “japanned and enamell’d Wares, of Bread Baskets, Waiters, Trays, and Toothpick Cases.”13 All the advertisements emphasized the fashionability of the objects offered by invoking novelty and variety and by often employing the phrase “just imported from London” to connect the objects to the broader circulation of goods that supported consumption and social class in Anglo-America. Whether made abroad or at home, smaller pieces—such as trays, boxes, and cases that were more portable and less expensive than high chests and tall-case clocks—continued to appear in the shops of colonial ports and provided a way for a growing number of people to participate in global commerce.

In rooms in Boston and throughout provincial America, the ritual of taking tea reenacted and reinforced the growth of an Anglo-American culture. But it was a culture based on a global circulation of goods, as japanned furniture attested. Tea drinking, often dispensed from specially designed tables, some of them japanned as well, gathered together goods from around the globe—tea and porcelain from China, sugar from the Caribbean, sweetmeats flavored with spices from Indonesia, all arrayed on a Turkey carpet and served to gentlemen and ladies dressed in fabrics from India and China (or English imitations of Asian textiles) and sometimes attended by a slave from Africa (see Fig. 3). The ensemble of objects might also have included Asian modeled cane chairs and have been set off by the hybrid fantasy of Chinese style wallpaper.14 Unlike their countrymen across the Atlantic, Americans did not adopt a wholehearted chinoiserie style but rather incorporated Asian inspired objects into their genteel lifestyle. They understood japanned furniture not as an exotic curiosity but as one of the many global products that signaled their participation in a transatlantic polite and commercial culture.15

1 Samuel Sewall, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674–1729, ed. Milton Halsey Thomas (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973), vol. 1, pp. 440–442. 

2 Phyllis Whitman Hunter, “A Projecting Spirit: The Seventeenth Century,” chap. 2 in “Geographies of Capitalism: Encountering Asia in Early America,” unpublished manuscript in progress; and Jacob Judd, “Frederick Philipse and the Madagascar Trade,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4 (October 1971), pp. 354–355. 

3 Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, American Furniture, 1620 to the Present (R. Marek, New York, 1981), p. 129; and Adam Bowett, “London Furniture 1666–1714,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 160, no. 6 (December 2001), p. 791. 

4 The japanners’ petition was entitled “The Case of the Japaners of England.” See Bowett, “London Furniture 1666–1714,” pp. 788, 791, and p. 793 nn. 17, 20, 22, and 24. 

5 John Stalker and George Parker, A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing… (Oxford, 1688), n.p. 

6 Phyllis Whitman Hunter, Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World: Massachusetts Merchants, 1670–1780 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 2001), pp. 86–87, 120. 

7 Quoted in Cary Carson, “The Consumer Revolution in Colonial British America: Why Demand?,” in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century,
ed. Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert (University Press of Virginia for the Capitol Historical Society, Charlottesville, 1994), p. 636. 

8 On the rebuilding of Boston into a Georgian city, see Hunter, Purchasing Identity, pp. 86–87; Kevin M. Sweeney, “High-Style Vernacular: Lifestyles of the Colonial Elite,” in Of Consuming Interests, pp. 11–23; and Carson, “The Consumer Revolution in Colonial British America,” pp. 635–636. 

9 Brock W. Jobe et al., American Furniture with Related Decorative Arts, 1660 to 1830: The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Layton Art Collection, ed. Gerald W. R. Ward (Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1991), pp. 107, 109; and Fairbanks and Bates, American Furniture, 1620 to the Present, pp. 129–130. Another son, William (1732–1772), was also a portrait painter. 

10 Bernard Bailyn, New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1955), pp. 36–37. 

11 On Gibbs and his house, see Caroline Frank, “Architectural japanning in an early Newport house,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 170, no. 3 (September 2006), pp. 105–113. 

12 New-York Mercury, April 16, 1759. 

13 Parker’s New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, December 17, 1759, and July 14, 1760.

14 Hunter, Purchasing Identity, pp. 120–124; Carson, “The Consumer Revolution in Colonial British America,” p. 630; and Bowett, “London Furniture, 1666–1714,” p. 790. 

15 On the British version of polite and commercial culture, see Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727–1783 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, and Oxford University Press, New York, 1989).

PHYLLIS WHITMAN HUNTER is an associate professor at the University ofNorth Carolina Greensboro. She studies the connections between capitalism and cultural change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is the author of  Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World: Massachusetts Merchants, 1670–1780 (2001).