Saturday, May 07, 2011

Occupation: Japaner/Japanner revisited

FROM: Shannon
Hi. I have volunteered to transcribe images for for a while, and today I came across someone with an occupation "Japaner" so I was curious and Googled it and came up with your page. I saw that you wanted to hear if anyone else had an experience with the word, so I thought I'd let you know. This would be the 1891 England census in Spitalfields, London.

Glad Ol' Myrt's 2006 web posting about the term " Japaner/ Japanner" came up for you on the web. I'll reproduce it for newbie readers here, since we're into blogging now:

Occupation: Japaner/Japanner

I found a new, unknown (to me) occupation for a cousin in the 1910 census. He was a "Japaner" at an electrical works. Have you ever heard of this, or perhaps one of your readers have come across it. I "googled" it, but came up with no results. This was in the Chicago area.


Well, Ol' Myrt has never heard of this term either. At first I wondered if the interpretation of the enumerator's handwriting was part of the problem. However, I went to and came up with this alternate spelling, which might shed some light on the subject:
\Ja*pan"ner\, n.

1. One who varnishes in the manner of the Japanese, or one skilled in the art.

2. A bootblack. [R.]

So, DearREADERS, does anyone else have experience with this term "Japaner or Japanner" ? Let us know ASAP.

WOW, within just a few hours back in 2006, my DearREADERS added to the understanding of Japanning.

From: April Hoover (an Electrician's daughter)

Japaning is a process used to protect metal. The metal is dipped in lacquer or varnish and baked on (cured) in a japaning furnace. This results in a thick glossy finish. You might recall this type of finish on old sewing machines and scissor handles. As far as your reader's ancestor in the electrical works, the cast iron cases of the electrical motors being produced were probably Japaned to prevent them from rusting and that what the guy did for his daily bread.

From: IKPharo

"Japanning" was a term for a high gloss, multi-layered furniture finish, if I recall my Art History correctly.

From: FamRSearch

I had assumed it dealt with a person who created lacquered objects. They some times have stuff on the antique road show that they call Japanware that is lacquered with a number of layers of varnish. Here is info from a site that gives a history of Japanware (in English or Welsh!!). Website:

"The term 'Japanware' is used to describe objects which have been finished and decorated in a particular way. A ‘Japan’ finish can be created on lots of different materials. 'Japanning' means the finished, decorative surface and not the article itself.

In the 6th century the Chinese developed a way of applying different coloured varnishes onto items of furniture. Part of the process involved baking the items so that the layers of varnish or lacquer became much harder than ordinary painted surfaces. This lacquering process often involved decorating the object with designs. [...]"

Julia Coldren-Walker
PS I was the Rev War expert on the Ancestry chat room many moons ago.

NOTE from DearMYRTLE: Yes, Julia, I do remember you! :)

From: Karen Stuart

Because the person worked at an electrical works, it may refer to some technique of varnishing used for insulation. I'm more familiar with the term as it relates to decorative arts: a technique of varnishing that was applied to furniture, boxes, screens, etc., imitative of goods produced in Japan. Very popular, and often very beautiful. Search "japanned" at for some pictures.

From the Yahoo encyclopedia;

From Wikipedia:

From: Mac1

The definition you have as #1 is probably the correct one. In the past lacquer was used as an insulation in electrical motors and other devices. The coils of the motor, for instance, was dipped in a vat of lacquer, dried, and then touched up by hand. When the lacquer dried hard, it kept the windings from moving and wearing from the magnetic forces.


A Japaner is probably someone who applied Japan Black. It is a black varnish that was used as an insulator on small diameter wire for electrical purposes. Electronics do-it-yourselfers in the 1940s and earlier used "enameled" wire. Some of it was coated with a black enamel.

From: Margmcdo

I believe it is a painting process that gives an oriental look to a cabinet. I have a cabinet [61" high x 42" wide] that has had the process done. It seemed to have been popular in the 1920s.

From: Marlena Amalfitano

Japanned items were usually black metal, either with a high gloss to resemble Japanese lacquer work or with a dull finish and embellishments something like tole ware. Early sewing machines had a Japanned finish, with glossy back and gold scrolling.

From Lavonna,

I went to Cyndi' in the Old Occupation's section.
Japanner: Applied Japanese style black hard varnish. "Japanning".

From: IMOJC1
I believe the occupation of Japaner/Japanner derived from the insulating varnish that was put on electrical wires used in manufacturing electric motors, windings, magnetic coils etc. Thanks for all your hard work and sharing of knowledge of genealogy. I save every newsletter and then when I have a large amount I save them to CD for future reference.

Dear, DearREADERS,
I especially love it when you share the source for your thinking, i.e. your dad's experience as an electrician, an art history class, a cabinet you own, Cyndi's list, a wiki, etc. That helps others understand how you arrived at your conclusions. That is just the sort of audit trail we need when attempting to understand unusual terms. The same is true for documenting the source of the lineage assumptions we make when climbing our family trees.

In doing a little research on the subject, some new web resources have come up since the original 2006 postings.

The American Decorative Arts Forum of Northern California  provided the title page shown above.

The Antiques Bible - Japanning

The WK Fine Tools website has reproduced the table of contents and provided a .PDF version of A Handbook on Japanning by William N. Brown (1913). 
Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. Thanks! I learned something new! A comment about that census page: The handwriting is much better than most of our USA census records.

  2. My gg-grandfather is listed alternately as japanner or in the varnish business, in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, from about 1860 through 1901, both in the old City Directories and on the census.

  3. My gg-grandfather is listed as a japanner in Baltimore, MD from the late 1850's until he disappears from the records in the 1890's. He is also described as a "decorative painter" in one census. One of his sons followed in his footsteps in the late 19th century. Japanning was used not only on furniture and decorative items, but also on coaches and wagons.