A Tale of Two Nations: Victorian America and The Japan Craze

Working in the Northeast Region of the United States, the archeology lab staff at NMSC are used to encountering a variety of artifacts types manufactured in Europe, but aside from the omnipresent Chinese Export Porcelain, we rarely encounter artifacts of Asian origin. This month, however, we came across several artifacts with unusual decoration that piqued our interest: a lusterware teapot with Asian-style handpainted latticework and delicate cherry blossoms, several sherds of Water Drop earthenware, and a sheet of zinc stamped with an elaborate pastoral scene and a partial mark declaring the piece “Made In Jap…”. These artifacts led me to investigate “The Japan Craze” that took the United States by storm in the late 19th century.

Prior to the mid-19th century, Japan was an almost completely isolated nation, partially in reaction to the devastating Opium Wars waged by European nations throughout Asia. This solitary period ended in 1853, with the arrival of an American fleet led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Through a combination of diplomacy and military threat, Perry was able to open negotiations with Japanese leaders for trade and access. Over the next twenty years, Japan experienced a complete overhaul of its political and social structures and embraced Westernization, taking the world by surprise with the breakneck speed of its modernization.

When the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia rolled around, Japan had a few years of international exhibitions under its belt, and was prepared to get people’s attention. The Centennial marks Americans’ true introduction to Japanese culture and art, and though the initial reviews were mixed (as Wiliam Hosley notes, “America may have been flush with money, but it was still extremely homogenous and culturally immature”), American art critics were largely enamored. Embittered by the Civil War and disgusted by Victorian tastes and industrialization, aesthetes embraced everything they understood (or often, misunderstood) about Japanese art and taste. Hosley explains: “Japan offered both a diagnosis and a cure for the Victorian’s growing cultural malaise…Victorians feared that, in spite of abundance, the quality of life had somehow declined.” Japanese art objects symbolized what was disappearing in American life: the individual craftsman, both artist and artisan, who produced his work without the influence of commercialism or industrialization. The natural and harmonious themes predominant in Japanese art also appealed to a nation weary of urban expansion and industrial pollution.

The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts were at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution in America. Massive factories employed thousands of workers who lived in company-run boarding houses and even whole towns. These workers were the focus of archeological investigations performed in 1986 at the Boott Mill Boarding House site at Lowell National Historical Park. During the excavation, a few sherds of a mysterious ceramic were discovered: a brown porous earthenware with a thick, drippy glaze.

Two sherds of "water drop" earthenware.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Two sherds of “water drop” earthenware. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Research by Mary Beaudry revealed that this ware was in fact Japanese in origin, and was known as “Water Drop”. She discovered that the ware was so ubiquitous as to hardly warrant description in trade catalogs of the era, despite its rarity in the archeological record. In a market previously dominated by British earthenwares, Japanese goods were so widely popular that they even reached working class households. The discovery of this ceramic in the back yard of a millworkers’ boarding house is almost too perfect as an example of the backlash to industrialization symbolized by The Japan Craze.

The American interest in Japan created a booming export market developed rapidly, especially for art and artifacts from Japan’s feudal past, of which the new Western-focused government was eager to rid itself. Japanese fashions, performing arts, and philosophy began to enjoy popularity in America. Kimonos, paper parasols, and folding fans became fashionable among ladies of all social ranks, as displayed in this portrait by Mary Brewster Hazelton from 1897 and the cover of Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1914:

combined photo

Left: Portrait by Mary Brewster Hazelton from 1897. Right: Cover of Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1914.

Japanese kabuki theater fascinated the West, which was only beginning to view actors and theaters with anything but distrust and disdain. In 1879, British author Edwin Arnold wrote The Light of Asia, a poem about the life of the Buddha, which sold thousands of copies in the United States. The West could not get enough of Japanese cultures. It is ironic that by seeking the authentically pre-industrial in Japanese art, Americans contributed to the rapid industrialization and commodification of Japanese art.

Black luster teapot with Japanese-style decoration.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Black luster teapot with Japanese-style decoration. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

One example of this commodification is this teapot discovered in the yard of the Commandant’s House in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston National Historical Park.  With no maker’s mark, it is difficult to place the origin of this handpainted earthenware teapot, but it clearly displays Japanese decorative themes, such as elaborate latticework and cherry blossoms, which were popular on all kinds of decorative objects. The teapot might have been made in Japan for export to the American market, or could be a copycat piece made by an American or British pottery. It also may have begun life as a plain, black luster teapot, which was then decorated by an officer’s wife or daughter, as painting pottery was a common hobby of well-to-do ladies in the nineteenth century, and Japanese-style designs were obvious favorites.

Furniture and other decorative objects were also influenced by or imported directly from Japan. Also discovered at the Lowell Boott Mill Boarding House site was this sheet of zinc with a stamped pastoral scene:

Stamped metal piece made in Japan. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Stamped metal piece made in Japan. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

This artifact may once have rested in the lid of a wood or metal box, or could even have been part of a wall hanging. On the reverse side, it bears a partial mark reading “Made in Jap”. After the Tariff Act of 1891, all goods imported to the United States must be marked with their country of origin. Japanese goods were frequently marked as “Made in Nippon” or “Made in Japan”, with the later in use exclusively after 1921. This mark continued to be used until after World War II, when imported goods were marked “Made in Occupied Japan” until 1952. The context in which this artifact was found indicates that it was disposed of after 1910 (when the privy was likely filled), and before 1918 (when the site was no longer actively in use), when interest in Japanese goods was waning in America.

Though the popularity of Japenese style decorative arts faded in the early 20th century, both trade and the exchange of ideas continued. Eventually, modernist art historians would nearly obliterate the period from museum collections, disdainful of the lack of authenticity present in exported fine and decorative arts. Regardless of our opinions on the artwork itself, the influence of Japanese artistry on Victorian America is undeniable, and a fascinating window on the interaction of two disparate nations.

Beaudry, Mary C. “A Pernicious Influence? Japanese Water Drop Ware” in Ceramics in America, 2004.
Hosley, William. The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America. 1990.
White, Carole Bess. The Collector’s Guide to Made in Japan Ceramics: Identification & Values. 2002.


About Jenn M.

Jenn is the Archeology Lab Manager at NMSC. She holds a BA in Archeology and American Studies from Boston University and a MA in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University. She has worked in a diverse bunch of collections, ranging from Native American basketry to agricultural history to modern physics archives (and an awful lot in between), but her favorite has always been 19th century material culture.
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