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Intro: The Jap Box ( or Japanese Box or Silk Production Box ) is a magic prop of Japanese origin, which showed up in the west in the 1870s. It is a square container with no top or bottom that fits on a small tray (with a finger hole to hold the box in place) in which items, usually silks, are produced or vanished. The term “Jap Box” can be seen in an ad in the very first issue of the Sphinx (March 1902, page 8) although no description of the box was provided. Donald Bevan, a retired editor of Abracadabra magazine and Eddie Dawes, a magical historian, research concluded that the box was originally made in metal and came from Germany. The models that were produced in those early days were finished in ‘Japanned Lacquer’, an artificial imitation of Oriental Lacquer. Glenn Gravatt, in his book “Jap Box Tricks” was of the opinion that the box was designed to simulate traditional Japanese rice boxes. Ton Onosaka said that it based upon stackable boxes for steaming rice. Hence the reason for the interchangeable top or bottom. Originally the lid was ‘lipped’ on both sides so that several boxes could be stacked. Professor Hoffmann describes a “Japanese Inexhaustible Box” in his book Modern Magic, but that box was tip-over type, which was not what is generally call the “Jap Box” today. – Credit: Genii Magic Magazine – MagicPedia
Inexhaustible Nomenclature by Jim Kleefeld:
Japan is more than the name of a country. It is also a noun which describes a hard black varnish used to coat wood and metal, and a verb which pertains to the process of applying that varnish to a surface. The core properties of japan include being durable and having strong adhesion to a variety of surfaces. It has been used for centuries for both protection and decoration. The name is likely derived from its Asian origin, although both the product and the process were originally used in China and India as well as Japan.
Japanning was often a highly decorative process where gloss lacquers with an asphalt base were combined with other colors, notably gold, to produce an oil-painting-like effect. Tin and papier mache were common bases for japanning, though it was also applied to wood surfaces. The process was so durable that teapots made of japanned papier mache were used to hold hot water.
Although no date of origin has been established, product descriptions of japanned items are mentioned in Great Britain in 1718. Japanning made its way across the ocean and was a standard process in the making of household goods in early America. In The History of Wallingford, Connecticut written by Charles Henry Stanley Davis in 1870, he cites a dozen established businesses in the 1780s that sold japanned tin ware. In 1881, the Yachting Gazette magazine advertised lamps and lanterns that were made of japanned tin. Japanning was common in the 18th century, but continued even into the early 20th century. By then, it had been relegated to common utilitarian products such as tin cash boxes. The introduction of electroplating hastened it’s extinction, which was fortified by the introduction of plastics in the industrial revolution.
In regards to magic, as early as 1900, items were advertised in Stanyon’s Magic as being “japanned.” In Hoffman’s Later Magic, he describes a box with a folding bottom that is “metal, japanned.” When explaining a handkerchief vanish he describes two gimmicks, a thimble which is “enamelled, flesh colour” and a tin box which is “japanned black.” Both are meant to be unseen by the audience. The thimble gets hidden in the hand and the tin box hides under the jacket, or as he puts it “the performer may hook the vanisher to some part of his clothing.” Hence the flat black color.
The key factor in almost all of the available japanned magic products was something easily shaped from tin and then turned flat black in color. A japanned pull vanisher would not be seen tucked away next to your belt underneath a black jacket. For most materials, getting a durable flat black finish was difficult or impossible with paint. In 1900, paint simply did not stick to metal, particularly if that metal needed to be handled often. Tin was frequently used to shape many of magic’s odd gaffs and gizmos because it was readily available, cheap, and easily cut, folded and soldered. However, it was a difficult surface on which to apply a finish. The interior of a Flash Pan could be left untreated as it was never seen.
But a vest-pocket cigarette pull that shot under the coat could not be left a shiny silver color. Items such as these were japanned. Which brings us to the Handkerchief Vanishing Box. The wooden box with no top and either no bottom or a removable bottom is meant to be seen as a simple four-sided tube. The magical appearance and disappearance of the silks happens because the box appears to be a solid wood box with no place to contain items internally. The two ends of the rectangular box are actually solid wood, while the two sides of the box are actually containers which appear to be a single thick piece of wood. In fact, they are hollow, made by using very thin wood over an empty core. The outside of the box is wood, but the inside is a tin flap which can be opened and closed. When closed, it appears to be simply the other side of the piece of wood, painted black. This hollow side of the box can be made larger if the “door” section which has to open and close is made of tin rather than wood.
Tin could not be painted when these boxes were first being sold, and deception dictates that leaving it shiny so that it appears to be metal was out of the question. So the tin was japanned. Thus, the Handkerchief Vanishing Box had a rich wood exterior and was black inside.
These were often marketed with the name Japanned Box. Japanning, in every product, was a fairly expensive and time-consuming process, but left a good final result. The reason that the word was used in the name of the product was that sellers wanted buyers to know that the box was made well and would be deceptive. Buyers would recognize that a “japanned” product had a durable and flat black finish.
The long title of “Japanned Box” soon became shortened to Japan Box and later to Jap Box. It was so widely recognized as a proper product name that in 1937 Glenn Gravatt wrote a book about the prop and titled it simply Jap Box Tricks. In the introduction he refers to it as The Japanese Handkerchief Box, but he seems comfortable referring to it by its shorter name throughout the text.
Today, the name Jap Box sound vaguely racist and derogatory, and many magicians avoid referring to it. In fact, perhaps it is the politically incorrect nomenclature that has led to its decline in usage in modern times. My personal copy of Gravatt’s Jap Box Tricks was bought used through a magic auction and the previous owner had used a permanent marker to carefully blacken out the word Jap on the cover of the book so that the title appeared to read simply “Box Tricks.”
The Jap Box seems to show up first in March 1910 in Stanyon’s Magic as The New Inexhaustible Box. It is clearly described as a rectangular open-ended tube with one hollow side and a secret hinged flap. Although it is clearly described, it appears that the intention of Stanyon here is to entice the reader to purchase the prop through his business.
In Will Goldston’s Tricks You Should Know, published in 1930, The New Inexhaustible Box is advertised, but not described. By 1962 the box was so common that Rice’s Encyclopedia of Silk Magic had an entire chapter devoted to its use.
It should be noted that the term “Jap” was not always a negative or derogatory term. In the United States, people of Japanese ancestry were referred to as Japs from the 1900s on. It was an innocuous nickname, much the same as Brits for people from Great Britain or Ozzies referring to Australians. The term became offensive after the beginning of World War II when Japan became an enemy to the US, and anyone from Japan was seen by some as a threat to the nation. The word began to show up in newspapers and bulletins coupled with condescending and incendiary language. It soon became widely accepted as offensive and remains so to this day.
So modern day magicians may prefer to call it The Inexhaustible Box, but you would not truly be a bigot if you historically referred to it by it’s original common name, The Jap Box.
Jim Kleefeld is a performer, historian, mentalist, and fabricator and creator of some amazing effects many of which are available here at Stevens Magic Emporium.