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In a class of its own – Japanned ware, social engineer

12/14/2009

A shaped teapot stand raised on feet, centrally decorated with a rose and thistle in gold leaf, with a rich border pattern. Henry Loveridge & Co., late 19th century

Papier mâché and the great social divide?  Surely not.  But believe it or not, in the nineteenth century, thanks to the newly born ritual of tea-drinking, japanned ware became a status symbol; where today’s plasma TV or latest Scandinavian furniture would sit would be japanned items that proclaimed the wealth of the household.

In the 17th century, when tea and coffee were first imported to England, they were expensive luxuries, available only to the rich and well-connected. In those days, rich people were only acceptable in the ‘right’ circles if their wealth was in land- anyone who actually worked for a living, however rich, was looked down upon by the land-owning elite.

From beans to business

However, as more British ships traded British goods overseas, merchants brought cargo-loads of tea back in their empty ships and the men who bought and sold them became wealthy and wanted to be accepted as successful people.

Rejected by the elite upper class, they began to form their own social group, meeting in coffee-houses to read newspapers and to talk politics and business.

Something’s brewing

But their was a role for the women too; wives of businessmen now had a fashionable new pastime: the tea-ceremony. Instead of aristocratic connections these families had money and possessions, and tea-time became a ritual of politeness and manners, where the hostess would invite guests to whom she could show off her possessions, as well as the polished manners of her children.

The ritual became incredibly popular, and sparked a craze for buying anything to do with tea.  Manufacturing tea-sets made Josiah Wedgewood of Stoke famous, and Matthew Boulton of Birmingham climbed to wealth and notability making silver ware.

Japanned ware tip-top table 1845, slate top lacquered and decorated with a fountain in pearl, exotic birds and a bronze sky with gold leaf border. Decorated papier-mâché base.

Keeping up with the Joneses

These japanned wares were Wolverhampton’s claim to fame: tea-trays, caddies, chairs, tables: all were in demand and the richer you were the more elaborate your furnishings.  Some, like the table illustrated here, were so elaborately decorated that it is unlikely a tea-pot was ever allowed to grace their surface.  It was, instead, there for show, a statement of the family’s position and respectability.  In the same way today that your neighbours want you to know about their latest gadget, especially if it’s better than yours, so the fashion for tea paraphernalia fuelled a boom in japanned ware which employed local Wolverhampton craftsmen and earned them an international reputation for many years.

Eventually tea, coffee,  japanned ware and politeness helped to create a new social group, known as the middle class. Its success is demonstrated by a firm of underwriters that you might have heard of; Lloyds of London.   Lloyds of London started life as one of many businessmen’s coffee-houses.

Sources

Maxine Berg, Luxury & Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (ISBN: 0199272085)

Lloyd’s of London (accessed 30/11/2009)

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