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Japanned Ware: an ancient form of recycling?

Japanned Ware Letter Rack

Japanned Ware Letter Rack, 1835-1865

Today we are all aware of the need to recycle but recycling is nothing new. In Victorian times papier mâché made from waste paper was commonly used to make japanned ware goods.

The papier mâché was moulded into the required shapes and coated with lacquer making the final article tough, but relatively light.  The material is very versatile; the ancient Chinese even made war helmets out of it!

Papier mâché was first produced in China and Japan and objects made from it were highly prized.  In the 8th century during a war between Persia and China, workmen were captured and probably sold as slaves to work in Samarkand, then owned by Arabs.  The Arabs learnt from these workers how to make paper from waste products; paper itself was very valuable and rare. The Arabs used all sorts of things to make paper: vegetable leaves, old fishing nets, even old mummy cloths! From there paper and paper-based by-products like papier-mâché spread around the world.

But if papier-mache was to be used in new ways something else was needed to make the material durable and in China and Japan they had the ideal solution: a tree which produced a wonderful hard, shiny lacquer to harden in the moist, tropical heat.

Lacquer box with lid decorated with gold dragons on a black background

Chinese lacquer box with lid decorated with dragons

Chinese and Japanese lacquer ware became highly prized in Europe and fetched high prices. 

Enterprising Europeans saw an opportunity to copy this type of ware and make their fortunes but there were three major problems to be overcome; The lacquer was poisonous and killed the workers quickly; Europe’s cold climate was unsuitable for drying the lacquer; Kiln drying damaged the coated papier mache and wood products.

European scientists began to look for a substitute in the 18th century. At first, an asphalt (tar) product was developed, then an oil-based one, but this tended to crack, finally, in 1763, Stephen Bedford from Birmingham was awarded a prize for producing copal varnish.

Copal varnish became the glossy base for highly decorated papier-mâché and tin articles made by Georgian and Victorian Japanners. The best of these were based in Wolverhampton and Bilston, and they eventually became famous around the world.


Shirley Spaulding De Voe, English Papier Mâché of the Georgian & Victorian Periods (ISBN 0214653307)
Yvonne Jones, Georgian & Victorian Japanned Ware of the West Midlands (ISBN 0950432415)

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