Japlac - What the duck?

Purely by coincidence, today is Veterans day. This has nothing to do with the fact that the Snark Materials Acquisitions Team dropped this copy of Picture Post magazine on my desk and I flipped randomly to this ad for Japlac. Double-you tee, eff. Really?" "Japlac"?
This ad is from 1951, when, (you would think) there was still a bit of a sore spot in England when it came to Japan. Although, maybe Americans had more of a problem with the Japanese, due to the whole Pearl Harbor thing. England probably liked the Germans less than they did the Japanese. Still, double-you double-you eye-eye was only six years past when this ad ran. It's a bit of an eye-opener to see "jap-anything" sold commercially so soon after "the icky bit" between nations.

So, what's the deal with Japlac? Well, when you think about it, it makes some sense. The word "lac" can be traced back to an insect which was so numerous in India and China that is was given the name "lac", which was the root of the word "laksha", meaning "one hundred thousand". Lac bugs contained a resin that could be used to make the shiny painty stuff called "lacquer".  Ta-da.
Lacquer is very glossy, and generally dries harder than other finishes, such as enamel. The lady in the ad had better have a window open - lacquer tends to smell a lot while it's wet.

In Asia, lacquer production became something of an art, and they were good at it as far back as 4500 B.C. So, while in '51, it was no longer made from squashed bugs, but polymers and petroleum just like everything else in the world, the name had already stuck. In people's minds, Asia is still The Shit when it comes to lacquer furniture and shiny black things. Remember the shiny black furniture in The Eighties that looked kind of Asian? That's the lacquer look. It's a shame that The Eighties had to go and rub it's stink all over an ancient and beautiful art style, but "tasteful restraint" was a dirty word in The Eighties.

Actually, it's kind of understandable to use the prefix "Jap" to sell your lacquer in 1951 England. But still, that font. Wow. Kind of racist. You can download MP3s of WWII news reports from about a hundred places on the web, and it's really bizarre to hear an otherwise professional reporter talk about "pushing back the Japs" in a battle on some island or other. That's kind of an indicator of how much Americans hated them. They didn't think anything of calling them "The Japs". You don't get that kind of slanted hate speech in the news now without resorting to Fox News... but then again, that's not real news, is it? Heh.

It's easy for us here in The Future can look back on the word "Japlac" and exchange awkward glances. But at the time, it worked. Yes, Japlac is still around, but they've changed their logo to something a little less "me so solly". Good job, there. I'm kind of surprised to see they're still using the name at all. But if you must keep the name, at least lose the Nixon In China font.

So what would be an equivalent product in the future? Something that turns out to be racist but seems fine now? Let's see. Who do we "sort of not like", as a nation? Someone we'd be surprised to find we're friends with in a few decades?  "Tali-Ban Roll-On: Issue a fatwa against body odor!" Not really. That seems tacky even now. Gosh, peering into the future sure is hard.

Some other unfortunate household products from history that seemed like a good idea at the time:

-Philips' Milk of Rhodesia: Go like a Rhodesian!

-Kraut Kraut

-Babycham Lite - Now with much less baby!

-Irish Times Bathtub Whiskey - Everyone's a little Irish sometimes!


Swing Shift Shuffle said...

The term may relate more to the process. In the UK, the term "Japanned" means lacquered. So a wooden box with a lacquer finish is a "Japanned" box. The origin of the term obviously relates to the origin of the technique, which includes Japan as well as China. Granted the font is stereotypical, but the name may just mean the style of coating.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

I hadn't heard the term "Japanned" before, but the rest seems to confirm what I was able to piece together.

Thanks for your info, SSS!


Steve Miller said...

Japan black (Japanning) -- as initially constituted -- contains no lacquer. It's an asphaltic base and may contain linseed oil and other additives including carbon black. Baked on, it was cheap, glossy, durable, dried relatively quickly, and gave a good measure of rust prevention on metal surfaces (like Model Ts...). Nitrocellulose lacquers supplanted in in the 1920s.

I've got a number of (well-used, if not well-cared for) antique hand planes that still display some Japanning, but it's pretty obvious the finish was not designed for 100+ year durability.

Japalac may not have stood the political-correctness Test of Time(TM), but Japanning seems more a salute to a process that came from the craftsmen of the "Mysterious East".

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Aaaah, The orient! I'd like to bring back that term. What do you think? Does it have legs, or is it too non-PC?

That's some pretty obscure obscura you've got the knowin' of there, Steve! Thanks for the lore!


Craig F. said...

We bought tons of stuff from the Japanese following WWII. We sent W. Edward Deming over their to rebuild their entire manufacturing base following WWII. The guy's still a god there.

Go into any antique store and I guarantee you'll find a handful of items with "Occupied Japan" stamps on the bottom, which would suggest that they were built between 1945 and 1952.

FIL said...

I fly in to Narita Airport on Tuesday. I will be embedded with the Japanners for about 2 weeks.
What? ...Field reports on the subject of Japanning? As you wish.

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