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An American in Canton

Updated: Feb 16

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with John Albertini, a descendant of the 19th century Boston businessman Sam Caverly. Sam was involved in many aspects of trade in the first half of the 19th century, and John recently published, “Sam Caverly’s Journal and Travel Notes – Traveling and Trading in the Early Republic”.

While all of Sam’s entries are fascinating for those interested in early American history, the chapter covering Sam’s trading venture to China in 1815 – 1816 struck a chord with me.

With the Treat of Ghent in 1815, the trade embargo of Americans had suffered under was lifted, and pent-up demand for all sorts of imported goods could begin to be met. Sam was among a number of American traders who sought to satisfy this.

Among the desired items was Chinese porcelain. Sam’s inventory of goods acquired in Canton includes a number of items of “China Ware” acquired from a dealer named Powchong, whom Sam describes as: “… as a man very desirous of establishing himself a character as a fair dealer, & sells his goods as reasonably as anyone…”

Powchong would not have been a Hong merchant, but rather an independent “China Ware” dealer. It was these dealers who met the needs of the supercargoes, ships captains and others like Sam who engaged in what is referred to as the “Private Trade”. (The role of such independent dealers based on recent research is discussed in great detail in a doctoral thesis by Tang Hui, “The Colours of Each Piece’: Production and Consumption of Chinese Enamelled Porcelain, c.1728-c.1780“, Warwick University (2017) and available on the internet at .)

Sam’s inventory is illuminating. While roughly 60% of Sam’s China Ware purchases were of simple blue and white pieces, primarily 200 180 piece dinner sets, the remaining 40% was composed of high value enameled and gilt wares. While there is no further description of the patterns, presumably they were intended to satisfy the demands of fashionable Boston at the time.

Unlike England and European markets where much of the enameled ware was armorial, post-Revolution Americans tended not to use family armorials on their porcelain. (A notably exception is the Manigault family of Charleston, South Carolina). Consequently, determining whether a pattern was intended for the American market is difficult.

Americans did decorate pieces with their monograms. By examining catalogues of exhibitions of export porcelain by local historical societies, such as the 1968 “An Exhibition of China Trade Porcelain” by The New Haven Colony Historical Society, I’ve collected an index of these monograms and have noted the patterns of the porcelain on which they appear.

Jean McClure Mudge in her book, “Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade 1785 – 1835” believes that pieces decorated in the Fitz Hugh pattern in colors other than underglaze blue, like the mug from my sold archive illustrated above, were primarily for the American market. In Sam’s inventory these could well have been part of the enameled wares.

Other patterns for the American market included pieces decorated with bands of blue with gold stars. Might these have been some of the gilt ware? The saucer with the arms of New York State is an example of this type of border.

Following the death of George Washington in 1799 many decorative items in and for the American market incorporated symbols of mourning, such as mourning doves and urns. The illustrated creamer is an example of this type of decoration.

While it is difficult to definitively identify a piece of Chinese export porcelain to the American market without documentary records, an identified monogram, or that rare armorial, with research you can come close.

R.J. Ruble

Ericsson Street Antiques

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