Lac is the resinous secretion of a kind of almost microscopic tiny insect, popularly known as Laccifer Lacca.
The antiquity of the use of lac in India goes as far back as several thousand years. The Atharva Veda bears the title 'Laksha' and gives a brief account of lac, the lac insect, the medicinal use of lac and a prayer chum addressed to the female lac insect personified as a beautiful young maiden. It is interesting to note that even in those early days, a fairly accurate knowledge of the biology of lac insect was available.
Reference to lac also occurs in the grammar of Panini (550 B.C). The Vinaya text of Buddhists also describe in detail the method of extraction of lac dye and its application in dyeing. In Mahabharata there is mention of Yatugriha (house of lac) which was built by the Kauravas. The Ain-i-Akbari (1590), a chronicle of Emperor Akbar's reign, mentions the polishing and lacquering of wood with lac.
Trade with Western Europe began with the lac dye for use as a substitute for cochineal for dyeing wood. By 1825, it became an important export commodity exceeding Rs. 7 lakhs in value. However, after the advent of synthetic dyes, the demand for the dye declined rapidly and export practically ceased from 1898.
On the other hand the trade in the resin continued to expand as shellac began to find many uses in the rapidly industrialising West - in the making of varnish, stiffening of hats, grinding wheels and for insulation in electrical industry. The invention of grammophone records with shellac (1895) led to a greatly increased demand for shellac. Exports of lac from India reached a quantitative peak in 1956-57 totalling 42,840 tonnes valued at Rs. 23.4 million.
Lac is in fact the parent of modern plastics. In the attempt to produce a resin resembling lac, we saw the beginning of the modern plastic industry.