I think my tracking down of literary shellac treasures is just like Indiana Jones’ quests for ancient artifactual treasures. Except without the alien and dangerous locales. Or the mega villains and the life threatening predicaments they inflict on the heroes. Or the femmes fatale.
Okay, it’s nothing like Indiana Jones. Well…, maybe a little like Indy’s adventures as this episode did involve traveling to a terrifying place, Hades-On-The-Hudson (cities absolutely creep me out, my temperament is much more suited to life in the boonies where my nearest permanent neighbor is a thousand yards away) and two lovely ladies instrumental in the discoveries. And there wasn’t really a mega villain, just a knuckleheaded academic, but then I repeat myself.
As my Shellac Archive grew into the thousands of pages it is now, it became clear that one of the brightest lights in the historic shellac research firmament was the Shellac Research Bureau of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, New York. In the 1930s, as the winds of war for the survival of civilization began blowing, much of the research function of the venerable London Shellac Research Bureau migrated across the pond to our shores, to Brooklyn Poly. As a result, perhaps the golden-est epoch of subject research emerged as the research output of the SRB-PIB soon overshadowed the breadth and quality of almost anything ever produced by the LSRB or their Indian counterpart. As both of these enterprises were part and parcel of an imperial, ossified mercantilist/socialist system, when SRB relocated to a new culture – albeit struggling mostly due to the collectivist FDR regime in Washington – of innovation, risk, and accomplishment, perhaps the outcome was predictable.
At its peak just before and during the war, SRB’s group consisted of several faculty and several dozen students, all working on original basic and applied research under the direction of the renowned William Howlett Garner (let us pause for a moment of respectful silence. Okay, we can move on.)
Over the years I had acquired a number of the literary products from the group, mostly research monographs, but I knew from the few Annual Reports I had that my holdings that these monographs were but the tip of the iceberg. I could not help but wonder how much more there was, and began to follow up on this speculation. About 15 years ago I contacted Brooklyn Poly to see how much of the shellac research archive remained. It took many, many phone calls before I finally spoke with Heather, the research archive librarian for the university. And what an enriching experience our interactions were!
Heather was one of these classic cataloguers and retrievers of knowledge, and my inquiries into scholarship from three generations ago simply raised her estimation of me. Enthusiastically she embarked on her own journey of exploration with a promise to call me back.
And she did.
I knew immediately from the tone of her voice that the news was not promising. Deeply apologetic, she informed me the Shellac Research Bureau’s records were gone. All of them.
All of them.
Assembling the pieces of the story in retrospect revealed the utter shortsightedness of even institutions of scholarship in a culture with the attention span of a fruit fly. In the third and final installment of this tale of woe and reclamation, of knowledge lost, found, and shared, I reflect on the sentiments of the university’s Chemistry Department Chair (or perhaps it was Chemical Engineering) from the 1970s as the Institute was forming its new strategic vision, “Shellac? Who cares about that? The future is all about polymer synthesis! Throw all that old stuff away.”
I realize with no small element of chagrin that between all the activities drawing on my time, energy, and concentration, I have been remiss in carrying forward the Shellac Archive (it seems as though I have posted only 10 of the documents from my collection, which at least volumetrically, leaves more than 95% to go). I will soon strive to make its nurturing a regular part of the Blog. My personal archive has now taken up residence with us in the mountains, so I can resume the scanning and editing of it for dissemination to you.
This reality was struck home to me this week as I was trying to find a particular picture I needed as I near the finish line for the upcoming HO Studley exhibit. As is my wont when I am weary, I just let my mind wander, and in concert with that began to browse the voluminous folders of images on my compewder. While doing so I ran across several hundred pictures I had taken many years ago, recording the pages of long forgotten academic theses from one of the nation’s great universities.
The titles are self explanatory, but the depth and breadth of the contents are not.
The Manufacture of Shellac Paint
Deterioration of Bleached Shellac With Age
Dewaxing of Shellac
Deterioration of Bleached Shellac With Age (different than the previous listing)
Some Studies on the Effect of Storage on Shellac
Plasticization of Shellac
A Study of the Methods for Determining the Properties of Shellac
A Study of the Solubility of T.N. Shellac in Aqueous Sodium Carbonate Solutions
I will post these theses, but not until tell you the amazing tale of how they came into my possession, thanks to the conscientious generosity of two determined archivists. It is a tale of worldwide fascist ambitions, flourishing scholarship in an unlikely time (ultimately abandoned and discarded), and finally the overcoming of a pronounced phobia to reclaim them.
March 14 I will be presenting “Historical Finishes” to the Tidewater Chapter of the SAPFM. The meeting will take place at Somerton Ridge Hardwoods (http://somertonridgehardwoods.com) in Suffolk, VA.
Hope to see you there.
I recently watched and approved the low resolution rough cut for my soon-to-be-released video, “Historic Transparent Finishes” (or is it “Transparent Historic Finishes?” I can never remember). Anyway, David Thiel and Rick Deliantoni of F&W Productions (The Popular Woodworking video folks) did a good job of capturing the action. If nothing else, we were efficient. As I recall, we shot about fours hours of video, and the rough cut is just under 3-1/2 hours long.
Here are a few snapshots of the computer screen from the video.
Not too surprisingly to anyone who knows my interests, the video will revolve around shellac finishes and wax finishes, including all the old favorites like polissoirs, brushing shellac, “French” polishing, and such.
The outline for this video, in fact the outline for almost everything finish-related that I do, is “Don’s Six Rules for Perfect Finishing.”
I think I might show it to the participants for the upcoming Professional Refinishers Group retreat at the barn in three weeks.
That’s another thing I can check off the list.
My most recent additions to the archive included some work by Gidvani, and this one will continue that theme.
In the 1930s especially various research bureaus produced several important monographs — to be sure, some esoteric — that were important additions to the body of knowledge.
Dr. Gidvani’s 1939 paper on the “Esters and Ether-Esters of Lac and Their Polymerization” is one such example. the importance of much of this information came to fruition in the growth of industrial usage of shellac as a binder and adhesive.
It’s been far too long, but here is the second half of Gidvani’s 1946 book Natural Resins, about industrially important natural resins, with a large shellac presence therein.
There is no doubt that perhaps the biggest player in the world of shellac literature is the consortium of interrelated Indo-British shellac institutions of which the London Shellac Research Bureau was prominent. B. S. Gidvani was the Director of the London Bureau when he compiled the volume Natural Resins as a treatise on the products from nature that functioned as raw materials for the emerging plastics industry. This book is especially valuable for seeing where chemical engineers saw shellac in the continuum of raw materials for manufacturing.
Here is the first half of Gidvani’s Natural Resins, with the second half coming in the next installment.
On the eve of the Second World War, much of the scholarly and technical research in the field of shellac moved from London to Brooklyn, NY. There it flourished under the watchful eye of the brilliant William Howlett Gardner, perhaps the greatest coatings chemist in history, at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s great academic centers for materials science. The output of this enterprise was nothing short of amazing as several faculty and numerous undergraduate and graduate students conducted what is in my opinion the finest research ever executed on the subject.
One of my lifelong goals is compile a complete archive of their work, but for now I must content myself with merely having the most complete record of their work in existence. (Remind me to tell you the story of how their archive was simply discarded years ago because they felt there would not be any more interest in the subject of shellac, and the heroic archivist who saved some of it.)
You might think an “Annual Report” would be sleep inducing. Au contraire! Each of the BPI/SRB Annual Reports is filled with impressive accounts of research I wish we knew better, glimpses into the possibilities for my own research, and nuggets of solid gold scattered throughout.
Here’s the Annual Report for 1937-1938. Enjoy!
Back in the day the London Shellac Research Bureau produced a lot of literature, sometimes in concert with shellac researchers in or from India. Such is the case here with their Technical Paper No. 16 from 1938, “Fractionation of Lac” by R. Bhattacharya and G.D. Leach. I presume them to be researchers or scholars but do not know exactly.
It is worth noting, as the authors do, that as a biological material shellac is not homogenous, and they describe methods of separating out various fractions of the lac, and some very useful implications about the performance of coatings formulated with the differing fractions.
This week’s addition to the Shellac Archive is a portion of an 1874 Calcutta-published small book by J.E. O’Connor, about whom I know nothing. The full title of the little book, and I’ll be you can deduce the portion I omitted here, is “Note on Lac and Vanilla.” I have no idea why the two were lumped together in this delightful natural history and commerce account of the bug and resin. I note with interest that in the decade of the 1864-1873 India was exporting 5 ½ million pounds of shellac per year. Clearly I have some catching up to do.
PS I had never encountered the word “ebullition” before and had to look it up.