Japanned furniture: global objects in provincial America

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Spirit: The Seventeenth Century,” chap. 2 in “Geographies of Capitalism: Encountering Asia in Early America,” unpublished manuscript in progress; and Jacob Judd, “Frederick Philipse and the Madagascar Trade,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4 (October 1971),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

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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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