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.