Zinsser on Friday

Obama and the Lac Bug

By William Zinsser | December 31, 2010


I’m glad to see 2010 depart because the newspapers will finally stop summarizing the year for me, wrapping it up in handy 10-packs. The 10 best books. The 10 best movies. The 10 best everything else. Now can we please get on with living our lives?

One recent list, in The New York Times, was devoted to words or phrases that entered the language in 2010. One word was refudiate, courtesy of Sarah Palin. Another was vuvuzela, the South African plastic trumpet that whacked the eardrums of spectators at the World Cup matches in Johannesburg. Some of the new usages (retweet) were born of new technology. Some (containment dome) washed ashore with the Gulf oil spill; some (put-backs) crawled up from the sewer of mortgage foreclosure. Enhanced pat-down was a gift from Homeland Security.

But I was puzzled to see shellacking on the list of new arrivals, prompted by President Obama’s comment that he took “a shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections. As a synonym for defeat, shellacking has long been a sportswriters’ darling, and as for its root word, shellac, I first heard it when I was barely out of the crib.

My great-grandfather Wilhelm Zinszer, who came to New York City as a young man in the great German emigration of 1849, had been foreman of a shellac factory in Mainz, the center of the German furniture industry, which depends on shellac to coat and finish its products. Americanizing his name, he founded William Zinsser & Company and built a small shellac factory and a small house far “uptown” at what is now 10th Avenue and 59th Street. I have a photograph of those two buildings, alone in a field sloping down to the Hudson River; the only visible form of life is a goat.

The business stayed on that block for 125 years, finally moving to New Jersey in 1975 when progress forced it off its hillside. Even in 1954, when my wife entered the family and was shown around the factory by my father, she couldn’t believe that such a Dickensian agglomeration of pipes and vats still existed in industrial America.

But the end product of all those pipes got our family through the Depression and would put my three sisters and me through college. At an early age we knew the life cycle of the lac bug, which secretes a resinous cocoon onto the twigs of trees north of Calcutta, and we could recite the many wonderful uses of that insect’s resin. Shellac famously went into phonograph records. Shellac gave stiffness to playing cards and felt hats. Depression-era families stayed home and listened to a lot of records and played a lot of cards, and every American man wore a fedora–even when he was standing in a breadline, as photographs of that period poignantly remind us. Because shellac is a natural substance, unlike varnish, it could be swallowed without harm and was therefore used to coat pharmaceutical pills.

In its second generation, William Zinsser & Company faltered, and my father left college in 1909 to rescue it. A born merchant who loved his business, he built it into the position of leadership in the industry that it has occupied ever since, the name ZINSSER calling out to customers from the shelves of every hardware store. I often meet people who recognize my name and can’t wait to tell me about the blissful afternoon they spent  refinishing their basement with a shellac-based Zinsser product.

Although I was the only son, I didn’t go into the business, my ready-made future, but followed my own dream to become a newspaperman. My father gave me his blessing and recruited a son-in-law to replace me, and the firm was finally sold out of the family in 1986. But I’ve never stopped feeling its residual tug. I still get messages on my answering machine left by homeowners seeking product advice.

I’ve never known how the benign shellac became the fierce shellacking, lodged in the headline writer’s lexicon of verbs signifying the many gradations of humiliating loss: vanquish, drub, rip, rout, thump, thrash, trounce, pummel, wallop. I don’t buy that usage for President Obama and his administration. I’m a big Obama fan, and I hope he gets many shellackings in the years ahead. I want him to be coated and protected from all the nicks and scrapes of adversity, his leadership sealed against the harsh winds of contumely by the lowly lac bug.

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