Japanned furniture: global objects in provincial America

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.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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