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Founding fathers of U.S. & Chinese Porcelain

The Founding Fathers of the United States and Chinese Porcelain Ware

Dr. Dave Wang

The Chinese porcelain ware, also called Chinaware, was very important to colonial life in the North American colonies. How important was it? From Benjamin Franklin’s “beautiful simile of the ‘fine and noble China Vase the British Empire’” we can tell its importance in colonial Americans’ mind[1]. By comparing the North America Colony as a “noble china vase,” Franklin warned the British parliament it should deal with the colonial issue with a fair attitude and reasonable policy; otherwise, sooner or later, the colony would no longer belong to the Empire.

Long did I endeavour with unfeigned and unwearied Zeal, to preserve from breaking, that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire: for I knew that being once broken, the separate Parts could not retain even their Share of the Strength or Value that existed in the Whole, and that a perfect Re-Union of those Parts could scarce even be hoped for.[2]

After the sign of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the colonists won their desired independence and became the owners of the “noble china vase.” Franklin told the American people, who were joyous over their victory, that now the colony was yours. “There is sense enough in America to take care of their own china vase.”[3]

Benjamin Franklin’s simile indeed reflected the historical reality of the treasured nature of Chinese porcelain ware in colonial America and the fledgling United States. In the following I will introduce you to the founding fathers’ fondness of and their effort to obtain Chinese porcelain for it is believed that their love of chinaware "attested to individual and national taste in a pivotal period of American cultural history."[4]

If you visit Colonial Williamsburg you will find that the Chinese porcelain ware distinguishing the name of China in world civilization had been in North American colonies through Europe during the eighteenth century. In the mid -eighteenth century, New Englanders also learned about Chinese porcelain wares. The direct trade between China and the United States opened the channel that allowed the flowing of the large quantities of chinaware into North America. Chinese porcelain, "standing preeminent in its picturesqueness and grace," almost "wholly displaced all other wares, whether metal, leather, or glass."[5] For instance, in Elias Hasket Derby's house, almost every corner "was adorned with Chinese pottery, while one closet contained china estimated as worth $371."[6]

A personal story that Benjamin Franklin told in his well read autobiography reveals us the chinaware’s popularity in the colonial society.

Being call’d one Morning to Breakfast, I [Benjamin Franklin—writer] found it in a China Bowl with a Spoon of Silver. They had been bought for me without my Knowledge by my Wife, and had cost her the enormous Sum of three and twenty Shillings, for which she had no other Excuse or Apology to make, but that she thought her Husband deserv’d a Silver Spoon and China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbours. This was the first Appearance of Plate and China in our House, which afterwards in a Course of Years as our Wealth encreas’d augmented gradually to several Hundred Pounds in Value.[7]

Together with Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also showed their affection for Chinese porcelain. Throughout his life, Washington loved Chinese porcelain. The history of his fondness for Chinese porcelain can be traced back as early as his youth. Prior to the founding of the United States, from 1757 through 1772, he sent orders for Chinese porcelain to Bristol and London.[8] During this period Washington had bought Chinese porcelain from a famous Chinese dealer[9]. A survey of the invoices sent to Washington by Robert Cary (1730-1777), Virginia merchant of London and Hampstead, from 1759 to 1772, reveals that Richard Farrer (1692/93-1775) supplied an extraordinary range of Chinese porcelain to Washington.[10]

Washington’s use of Chinese porcelain ware for his wedding ceremony at his wedding at "White House” on the Pamunkey River[11] set "the vogue for men of means to celebrate their wedlock with beautiful collections of chinaware."[12]

Among Chinese porcelain ware, Washington had a special fondness for blue-and-white porcelain. I have found at least nine recorded references to his purchase of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain in Washington's Papers.[13] Samuel Fraunces (ca 1722-1795), realizing that Washington loved this, found an assortment of blue-and-white china for Washington.[14] As the War of Independence came to an end and the focus of American officers and troops turned toward their civilian futures, Washington began to search for a large set of chinaware for Mount Vernon. He wrote to Daniel Parker (a partner with William Duer and John Holker in a company formed to provision the Continental Army) in occupied New York and requested "a neat and complete sett of blue and white table China."[15] With the help of Samuel Fraunces, Parker collected 205 pieces of blue-and-white porcelain before September.[16]Edward Nicole, Jr. also provided some blue-and-white pieces for Washington.[17] Washington learned through an advertisement in The Maryland Gazette and Baltimore Advertiser on August 12, 1785, that the Pallas, which was coming directly back from China, would be selling its cargo, including blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. He wrote to Tench Tilghman, his former military aide, and asked him to inquire about the conditions of sale and price.[18] Five days later Washington, at Mount Vernon, learned that "the Cargo is to be sold at public Venue, on the first of October," and wrote a letter to Tench Tilgman in which Washington asking him to buy “a set of large blue and White China Dishes with the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati" and the best Hyson Tea, one dozen small blue-and white porcelain bowls and best Nankeens.[19]In July 1790, when two ships had just arrived in New York from Canton, Tobias Lear asked Clement Biddle to purchase and send to Mount Vernon blue-and-white china tea and coffee services for twenty-four persons with three or four matching slop bowls for tea dregs. A week later Biddle sent to Mount Vernon a box marked GW containing 3 dozen china cups & saucers, 2 dozen coffee cups & saucers, & 4 slop bowls by the sloop Dolphin, Captain Carhart, on 6 August, 1790.[20]

Washington used Chinese porcelain as precious gifts to his friends and guests. In 1797 he gave Mrs. Samuel Power a Chinese porcelain cooler, liner, and cover, underglaze-blue river scene with gilt handles and rims.[21] On June 9, 1798, Mrs. Washington made Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish journalist then visiting Mount Vernon, a gift of Chinese porcelain cup with her name and the name of the United States.[22]

As Washington’s reputation in then North America during the formative age of the United States, his appreciation for Chinese porcelain ware produced a great influence on other people since a stream of visitors to the headquarters had been served with the ware at the Commander in Chief's table. George Washington once called his home as a well-resorted tavern” and existing records confirm his statement. According to household documents, Washington dined with his wife alone only twice in the last 20 years of his marriage. Ordinary American citizens and friends “flocked to see the President, and with customary grace, he welcomed them to home, not only for meals but to spend the night.” [23]

Before the direct trade between China and the United States, Europe was the main source of Chinese porcelain for Americans. Thomas Jefferson made a good use of his opportunity in France to acquire Chinese porcelain wares. On May 7, 1784, Jefferson was appointed to the European commissioner, replacing John Jay. In August 1784, Jefferson went to take his position in Paris. As soon as he arrived in Paris he bought some Chinese porcelain wares including one dozen coffee cups, saucers, and teacups when he still lived “in temporary quarters."[24] In the following year he ordered more Chinese porcelain wares.

On March 6, 1786, Jefferson left France. Before departing he acquired "larger quantities of Chinese export porcelain" in Paris. Among the things he wanted to take back with him to the United States, included "a set of table furniture consisting in China, silver & and plated ware."[25]

Like most who ordered stock Chinese porcelain in the eighteenth century, Jefferson relied on the tenacity of the middleman, and the nature of the current inventory in China. After he came back from Paris, Jefferson gave a "second large order of Chinese export porcelain."[26]

The process that Thomas Jefferson transported Chinese porcelain from Europe to North America served as an indicator of demonstrating the value of the Chinese porcelain ware. Interestingly enough, in order to protect Chinese porcelain ware from being broken in the process of transportation, Jefferson bought cream ware made by English potters. He clearly stated out that the purchase was to protect the Chinese porcelain ware from harm. Then he put them outside of the Chinese porcelain ware as protective layer. Jefferson's action led to the conclusion from an author that the role of English cream ware was changing and its "aesthetic and qualitative value was waning."[27]

Later, in 1789, Jefferson ordered more Chinese porcelain from Edward Dowse, a Boston merchant engaging in Chinese trade. In April 1790, Dowse sent the porcelain ordered by Jefferson to New York where Jefferson was serving as the first secretary of state.[28] In the interim, the porcelain wares he ordered in France arrived, including 120 porcelain plates, 58 cups, 39 saucers, 4 tureens, saltcellars, and various platters. He used these in New York and Philadelphia, and what remained was eventually shipped to Monticello.[29] In 1793, Jefferson had all his Chinese porcelain transported to Monticello.[30]

The above examination of the founding fathers’ attitudes towards and efforts to obtain Chinese porcelain ware reflects the importance of Chinese porcelain in the American’s life, which demonstrates how Chinese porcelain left a deep mark in the Americans’ life during the formative age of the United States.

[1] From Amelia Barry ,ALS: American Philosophical Society, Tunis 3d. July 1777. In the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. It is available at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp.

[2] Benjamin Franklin, To Lord Howe, Copy: Henry E. Huntington Library; other copies: British Museum; Library of Congress Philada. July 20th. 1776. In the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. It is available at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp.

[3] Benjamin Franklin, To David Hartley (unpublished) Passy, Oct. 22, 1783. In the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. It is available at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp.

[4] Susan Gray Detweiler, George Washington's Chinaware, New York: Harry N. Albrams, Inc., Publishers, 1982, p.8.

[5] Ping Chia Kuo . "Canton and Salem: The Impact of Chinese Culture Upon New England Life During the

Post-Revolutionary Era," in The New England Quarterly, vol. III, 1930. p.429.

[6] E. Singleton, Furniture of Our Forefathers, New York, 1901, II, pp.548-553.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Part Eight, in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. It is available on line at http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp ,

[8] Detweiler, p.9.

[9] The term was used in the eighteenth century to describe merchants who specialized in imported Chinese porcelain. There were over a hundred such Chinamen in London between 1711 and 1774. See Detweiler, p.43.

[10] Detweiler, p. 43.

[11] ibid. p.37.

[12] Ping Chia Kuo, p.430.

[13] Detweiler, p. 52.

[14] Samuel Fraunces was a keeper of the Queen's Head Tavern in New York. He used to serve as a steward to President Washington in New York and Philadelphia. See Detweiler, p.77.

[15] Ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, volume 30, (June 20, 1788-January 21, 1790), United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1939, p.223. (different volume)

[20] Lear to Biddle, 18, 25 July, and Aug. 1790, all in Phi: Washington-Biddle Correspondence; Biddle to Lear, 21, and 29 July 1790, and Biddle to George A. Washington, 8 Aug. 1790, all in P Hi: Clement Biddle Letter Book).

[21] Detweiler, p. 145.

[22] See Niemcewicz's letter of thanks for his stay at Mount Vernon, in Eugene Kuisielewicz, "Niemcewicz in America," The Polish Review V (1960), 71-72. As for the cup, see Samuel W. Woddhouse, Jr., MD., "Martha Washington's China and Mr. Van Braam," Antiquaries, XXVII (May, 1935), 186; Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Vine and Fig Tree: Travels Through America 1797-1799, 1805 with some Further Account of Life in New Jersey, translated and edited with an introduction and Notes by Metchie J. E. Budka, Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassmann Publishing Company, Inc, 1965, p.104.

[23] Anne Petri, George Washington and Food, see http://www.house.gov/petri/gw003.htm

[24] Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc. 1993, p.23.(Jefferson's Memorandum Books shows records of these purchases between August 21 and 6 September 1784.)

[25] Thomas Jefferson to Rayneval, 3 March 1786, in Jefferson Papers, 9:312-313; Susan R. Stein, p.27.

[26] Susan R. Stein, p.348.

[27] George L. Miller, "A Revised Set of CC Index Value for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from 1787 to 1880," Historical Archaeology 25, (1991): 1; Susan R. Stein, p.346.

[28] This china may be the double bordered Nanking pattern with an armorial shield with the initial "TJ" that was found in Boston in the late nineteenth century. It was acquired by Thomas Jefferson Coolidge. Jr.

[29] Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, 16 January 1791, Family Letters, See Susan R. Stein, p.68.

[30] Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, 23 June 1808, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, See Susan R. Stein, pp.86-87.