Japanned #atozchallenge


Japanned tea tray, Birmingham History Galleries. By Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom (CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, I used to like to read the phone book. Not much of a plot, but a hell of a cast…

No, seriously, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages when I was younger. It was kind of fun, seeing all the different businesses and all the different categories. Until I was in high school, the Yellow Pages included both businesses that a consumer would be interested in (e.g. department stores, plumbers) and businesses that dealt mostly with other businesses, like tool and die makers and janitorial supplies. It was educational, because occasionally I’d run across a category that I had no idea even existed.

Such was the case when I found half a column dedicated to businesses that did “Japanning.” I knew what “Japan” was, and as far as I knew it wasn’t a verb, but here it was, looking like something several companies in the Chicago area did. Of course, I had to investigate. I had a general idea, and when I had a free moment at school I ran to the library and looked it up in our Funk & Wagnall’s (okay, it was the World Book, I just wanted to use an old line from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In), and learned that it was lacquering.

Turning to Wikipedia (more recently), I learned that Japanning was a process that started in Europe during the 17th Century in Italy. It was an imitation of the process developed in Japan of coating furniture and iron items with a heavy lacquer, almost like enamel paint, for decorative purposes and for preventing the items from rusting. When Europeans started getting japanned items from Japan, China and India, it created quite a rush on the items, thus leading to Italy getting into the Japanning business. Soon it spread to England, France and the Low Countries. The European technique was to coat things with layers of shellac that were heat dried, then polishing them to a high gloss.

Japanning was big business in Europe until the 1800’s, when electroplating items to keep them from rusting became the norm. The technique of applying layers of shellac was central to the development of the art of decoupage, decorating objects with colored-paper cutouts. Japanning was still done to protect metal objects such as hand tools, sewing machines, bicycles, and cookware.

Back to the phone book. In the mid-Seventies the publishers of the Yellow Pages in Chicago announced that the one big book would be split in two, one containing business-to-consumer (B2C) and the other business-to-business (B2B). It reduced the size of the directory considerably, but I missed having all the B2B entries. It was like the Sunday paper: you’re not going to read the whole thing, but it’s nice to know it’s all there. The first time I went looking for a new job, I stopped by an Illinois Bell office and got the B2B directory and sent resumes to a number of companies I found there, one of which hired me.

25 thoughts on “Japanned #atozchallenge

    1. You’d be surprised at how educational reading the Yellow Pages can be. I would see something advertised that I didn’t understand, and I’d want to know more about it. Never got up the courage to actually call one of the companies and ask them about their business, though…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Phone books are practically extinct nowadays, as are Funk and Wagnall’s. We had Encyclopedia Brittanica at home. I did not know it was called Japanning but love those decorated trays.


    1. I think the encyclopedia publishers have stopped printing them. I know Encyclopedia Brittanica is all online now.

      AT&T still drops phone books off at my house, despite the fact that we’ve told them on numerous occasions to stop doing it. So they aren’t extinct yet. Nor for that matter are payphones, though they’re getting very rare. I’ll talk about them next week.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Never heard the term. Thanks for the education. As for the phone book, my husband and I cringe that these are still printed. Would never use when there is the internet. The day it is delivered annually it goes right in the recycle bin. I wish I had a fire place. I hope others that also choose not to keep also recycle. Hate to think of those books in the landfill.


    1. Especially since fewer people have landlines and can look up numbers on their phones and connect to them almost automatically. There are still older people, I’m certain, who want a phone book, but why give one to everyone that’s just going to be recycled right away, or worse, thrown in the garbage? Make them available at the phone company or let people order one (by phone or postcard) if they want it.


  3. This was thought-provoking. I was fascinated by the Yellow Pages although I’m sure ours must have been much smaller than one for Chicago but still a good thick book. It was my only go to reference book for careers study lessons for school homework in later childhood years. As for Japanning, I’ve never heard the term. however your mention of the popularity of lacquering reaching Europe coincides with the times when papier mache furniture making was quite popular in England (and maybe other places in Europe and elsewhere ). The Japanese being well-known for their amazing uses for paper makes me wonder if the term Japanning also has roots in papercraft other than decoupage – although this was often applied to the surfaces of papeier mache furniture items. I’ll have to look into it one day. Cheers, very nice to catch up with your A to Z posts again. I’m sorry i’m not getting time to browse your other posts at the moment, having to try focussing my time, like everyone in the challenge I guess.


    1. One of the things I’ve learned (and this is my seventh year doing this) is that it’s impossible to comment the way you can the rest of the year. I’m going back through and catching all the comments that were left that I haven’t answered, and there are a ton of them. We don’t advertise it the way we did in years past, but a lot of people will participate in an “A to Z Road Trip,” where they visit blogs that participated in the challenge through the rest of the year, at a more leisurely pace. You might want to consider that…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I never heard of that word but I know the process. It looks so beautiful to..in my mind anyway. Reading the phone book?? So did I! Every once in a while, I would flip through the phone book to see all the unique names but I loved reading the yellow pages, looking at the pictures to see how they liked to advertise. I don’t think young kids even know these existed


    1. I know. I think it would be cool to build a book or website (or a blog) out of the display ads in the Yellow Pages from different cities. People do that for old catalogs, why not phone books?


  5. John,

    I remember quite well those large phone books. I did not know what Japanning was before now but I’ve seen products with that process applied or at least I think I have. At any rate, I little smarter thanks to you. I also used the Yellow Pages in the early 80s to get my first job and several after college graduation. In fact, we still have an old phone book from the late 90s. What they print today is nothing and is more of aggrevation than anything because I have to pick up out of my drive to toss it into the trash. If I need to look a business up these days, I just ask Google. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the visit yesterday, my friend!

    ~Curious as a Cathy
    A2Z iPad Art Sketches ‘Jars & Jelly’


  6. Wow, talk about a history lesson. I remember always having the yellow book handy for the kids to sit on at the dinner table or my mom used one when dad was trying to teach her how to drive (that never panned out until many years later – mom was only 4’10”) and she had to sit on it. Now I’ve never heard of Japanning nor the process. Well, like they say ya learn something new every day!!! THANKS!


  7. Phone books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias were regular reading material for me. I miss the old phone books. We get some lame regional directories delivered to our doorsteps now, but they are in now way as good and comprehensive as those old ones were.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


    1. The Chicago directories were great. They were almost the size of the Webster’s New World Dictionary, albeit not quite as heavy, and chock-full of display ads. You really could learn a lot about what people do by flipping through it, and who knows when you might need to know someone who did basement waterproofing?

      One of my cousins took a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia into the bathroom with him every time he went, and managed to read the whole thing over the course of a year. My family thought he was nuts (which, if you know my family, was the pot calling the kettle black), but it was a pretty solid accomplishment for a twelve-year-old. If we had ever had an encyclopedia at home, I might have tried it.


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