I continue to find much inspiration in the small details from this photo, previously featured here and here. On the side table next to the lamp (and oh how gorgeous and divine is that lamp!) there is a small wooden soroban, better known in English as an abacus. A counting tool still common in Asia, even in the age of electronics, abaci (or abacuses, depending on who you talk to) are still sold and their use is taught in Japanese elementary school.


Abaci are not unique to Japan and actually were imported from China around 1600 and this one is actually Chinese (so it is really a suanpan). Originally, the upper part of the Japanese abacus had two “heavenly” beads and the lower part five “earth” beads just like this. Around 1850 it was improved and changed to 1 and 5 beads, and then again in 1891 changed to 1 and 4, which continues to be the common modern abacus used in Japan. Personally, I find these dates to be a little rigid and I don’t think they date pieces exactly, but rather roughly.


Hand colored late 19th-early 20th century photos confirm its use in transactions at all kinds of businesses. I couldn’t resist this kimono shop photo – just look at those amazing rolls of fabric!


Like I said, abaci were used in many countries, and while we are on old photos, here’s one of a young Russian abacus seller. You can see quite clearly the difference in their style – there is no separation of heavenly and earthly beads – and as a result the method of calculation.

russian abacus seller

So do I know how to use one? Of course not! But I think they make charming additions to vignettes in the home.

abacus vignette amanda wright via design sponge abacus vignette via belle brocante abacus vignette via pinterest pinterest.com:pin:575405289860988289:

I see one peeking out from behind the lamp in this project by Lauren Liess.

lauren liess abacus

Even Pottery Barn and CB2 have jumped on the abacus bandwagon, although neither of these are still available.

abacus via FYNCT pottery barncb2 abacus

I run across abaci at the shrine sales quite frequently. I tend to look out for the older or more unusual ones as a general rule.

abacus at nogi shrine sale

I found a particularly giant one designed for classroom teaching or shop use at Kawagoe last spring. It was featured in the article by Lisa Jardine now on the CNN Travel website. The beads are bright yellow to make it easy to see at a distance.


In 9 years I have only seen a few of these huge ones, and never outside of Japan, except in this photo of Sibella Court’s Sydney shop The Society. Somehow I’m not surprised she managed to get her hands on one along with many other Japanese goodies.

giant abacus via an indian summer

So I just happened to stumble across two recently – how is that for luck?. You can get a sense of how big these really are by comparing them to the regular sized abacus propped up along the yellow one. It’s interesting that the beads on these teaching abaci stick where you move them to facilitate lessons.

abacus soroban

Tons of potential! I could see the yellow one in a kids room or den, but it is the wooden one which calls my name!

abacus soroban detail

What would you do with one?

My heart goes out to everyone in Boston today. I am counting my blessings and sending out love to all those affected.

Related Posts:
Tokyo Jinja on CNNgo Today
Takamakura…A Geisha’s Hard Night Sleep

Image credits: 1, 10, 13-14. taken by me, 2. via The Slide Rule Museum (gotta love that name!), 3. William Carrick via National Galleries of Scotland, 4. via Design Sponge, 5. via Belle Brocante, 6. via Pinterest, 7. via Pure Style Home, 8. via Pottery Barn, 9. via CB2, 11. Lisa Jardine for CNNgo, 12.The Society via An Indian Summer.