In the White House, there is a room set aside for the display of fine china. Conceptualized in 1917 by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, the China Room commands a significant role in the social life of the First Lady, by playing host to her teas, meetings, and smaller receptions.
Porcelain from nearly every presidency is represented in the China Room, starting chronologically from the fireplace right. The more recent presidential china was manufactured by makers fairly well-known to the American public today: the Reagan china by Lennox, and the Linden B Johnson set by Castleston China (both being major American porcelain manufacturers.)
However, at the beginning of the presidential timeline is a decidedly more “foreign” presence:
A notable share of porcelain in the George and Martha Washington collection were crafted in Jingdezhen China, enameled at Canton, and imported to the United State via maritime trade in the 1780s-90s (see plate and sugar bowl, pictured above). Most of the Chinese potters who handcrafted these porcelain were impoverished and illiterate, and would have had little understanding of the text, symbolism, and imagery garnishing these pieces, nor a full grasp of the 15,000-mile oceanic voyage traveled before the pieces could be transported from Canton to a port along the American Atlantic seacoast.
Many familiar with early American history consider Chinese export porcelain a staple of old Americana. Indeed, much the early Sino-American trade evolved against the spirit of American Independence. After signing the Treaty of Paris fall of 1783, Congress plotted for China all winter, and sent the first American merchant ship to Canton as soon as New York harbor thawed the following spring (1784). The ensuing ship, christened Empress of China, was headed by officers who fought in the Revolution, and departed for Canton on February 22, (Washington’s birthday) to ceremonial gun salutes, all while another ship (The Edward) carried a ratified Treaty of Paris to London. There was celebration not for the new nation’s hard-fought independence— but also for her entry onto the stage of international commerce.
The china trade’s induction to the pantheon of old American heritage has much to do with the romance of its narratives. Major sites of activity included old sea ports in Salem, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Tales of maritime engagements invoked something of the Yankee spirit, sketched around lone-wolf merchant ships, championing American free enterprise against old European corporatism (e.g. East India companies).
Drawing upon American maritime history, Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick’s opening chapter,
“Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries … some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China.”
But there too were elements of controversy to early America’s fascination with Chinese porcelain.
Chinaware had made its debut in North America as a European fad, fueled by the Old World’s mania for all things exotic, ‘oriental’, and chinoiserie. Colonial-era Americans had no direct access to Chinese goods, and all porcelain had to be purchased through the British East India Company prior to 1776. British-market Chinese export porcelain generally feature ornate decorations in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels, as well as an excess of native- Chinese scenes and motifs. The overall look is gorgeous, extravagant, and very fine (see picture below).
American socio and political culture experienced something of a paradigm shift when Revolution and Independence birthed a nascent republican commonwealth which demanded far more “morally” from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In the years following 1783, many Americans questioned the place and legitimacy of Chinese luxury goods (by then categorized as “ruinous” finery) in an era of Republic simplicity. Mercy Warren Otis, for instance, likened fine china to “Medea’s poison”, which Americans must forsake to “save the nation from the curse of standing troops; or name a plaque still worse.” The 1780s and 90s also saw various attempts to manufacture American-made porcelain when the homespun movement was at its full height.
Nonetheless, with the 1784 voyage of the Empress of China, Chinese porcelain and products (e.g. silk, tea, textiles, etc) secured a place in the new nation’s consumer economy. Independence, though initiated by revolution, was never a violent and complete rejection of pre-existing British traditions. Rather, the new Republic re-adapted British inheritances into an American mold. Sino-American trade was thus framed as another revolution of its kind: a rejection and subversion of British monopoly of the high seas and of international trade.
And afterall, decorative material goods are pliable and can be easily refashioned to reflect new ideologies and politically relevant imagery:
When the Empress of China established direct trade with Canton, the Founding Fathers took advantage of the opportunity to re-design Chinese porcelain and curb its “anti-republican” undertone of luxury consumerism. On the appearance of Chinese exprot porcelain, George Washington wrote:
“I think it of very great importance to fix the taste of our Country properly … Every Thing should be substantially good and majestically plain; made to endure.”
The initial movement towards revamping Chinese export porcelain can be traced to Samuel Shaw, who, serving as senior supercargo in Canton, wished “to have something emblematic of the institution of the order of the Cincinnati executed upon a set of porcelain” (see image above). Noting in his journal that it’s difficult to regard his design “without smiling,” Shaw went on to supply custom ordered Chinese porcelain for many members of the Society of Cincinnati (an exclusive and elite order of men who fought in the Revolution).
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two other giants from the pantheon of Founding Fathers, were both notable consumers of Chinese export porcelain, as demonstrated by the following survival examples:
Young America thus bargained with itself not to eschew Chinese finery. Fears and anxieties had been primarily focused on goods and commodities derived from European taste. But as American-taste Chinese export porcelain came to its own, even republican simplicity acquired its own modes of dignity, class distinction, and prestige. Owning a dinner service of Chinese porcelain, decorated in the “correct” republican taste, became a mark of elite status and good taste, and was an indispensable presence in the mantles and dining rooms of Founding generation Americans.