A lacquered and gilded finish could take months to complete, making many items rare in the places where they were made–Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia. To satisfy Western demand for the glowing objects that usually featured Chinese motifs of flowers, figures, or landscapes on a highly polished background of ebony or scarlet, the English developed a technique using repeated layers of varnish that approximated the Asian finish and called it japanning.
In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published a lengthy manual entitled A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishi. Like most English and Americans at the time, the authors seemed to have an imperfect understanding of Asian geography because they used the terms Japan and India interchangeably. The authors claimed their text would save purchasers from poor draftsmen, who “impose upon the Gentry such Stuff and Trash,” and would allow the “nobility and gentry” to obtain “whole Setts of Japan-work, whereas otherwise they were forc’t to content themselves with perhaps a Screen, a Dressing-box, or Drinking-bowl.”
This furniture fad quickly spread to Boston where Robert Jenkins sold “Japan’d Tea Boards (trays) and Waiters,” from his location on the north side of the Town House on King Street, Boston’s leading commercial thoroughfare, which connected the social and political center of town with the commercial wharves and warehouses at the harbor. This sophisticated thoroughfare was known as the epicenter of the burgeoning Atlantic trade in New England.