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New York's China Trade

by Michael Begun

New York's merchants profoundly felt the effects of liberation from colonial rule. Following centuries of ownership under both the British and the Dutch, in which these powers severely "burdened them with restrictive mercantile regulations [and] limited the city's prospect for oriental trade," the position that these merchants found themselves in was wholly unfamiliar.i Nonetheless, many brave New Yorkers welcomed the opportunity to conduct trade with China despite the risks posed by such a venture and the lack of successful precedents. For instance, the person who physically planted the American flag in Canton was a man by the name of Samuel Shaw. He would eventually become America's first consul at Canton. A native Bostonian, Shaw came to New York in his early twenties while serving in the Revolutionary War. The following quotation from his journals expresses no strong affection for the city or its residents:

The honest sincerity, kindness, and hospitality, for which the inhabitants of our once happy town [of Boston] were so remarkable, are not to be found here. So far as one has money, so far he may have friends. The people of this place are a motley collection of all the nations under heaven.

A portrait of Samuel Shaw by H.R. Burdick after the original attributed to John Johnston.

Perhaps, however, this dog eat dog attitude that Shaw refers to, along with his emphasis on the city's diversity, constitute two characteristics of New York that facilitated its success in the China trade. New York was both a psychologically and logistically feasible center for the trade's heyday, a period which would be marked by fierce competitiveness and a distinctively intercultural flavor. Shaw also happened to be appointed manager of the Empress of China's cargo. The Empress was the first American vessel to dock at Canton for the purposes of trade. Although the 360-ton ship was built in Baltimore, financed in Philadelphia, and administrated by a Bostonian, she had most importantly set sail from the port of New York on February 22, 1784.ii The Empress would be the first of many high profile departures during New York's China trade. "Loaded chiefly with ginseng, the Chinese medical panacea" she was able to successfully initiate a direct trade with China, while turning a handsome profit on her return cargo of "mostly tea, also a quantity of silks, muslin and nankeens and chinaware"iii along with fans, like the example pictured below, which bares an illustration of the ship executed by a Chinese artist. A sketch of the vessel is on the right, also the work of a Canton artisan.


The second American vessel to ply the China Trade, The Experiment, also left from the Port of New York on December 18, 1785 to very little fanfare; the ship itself was incredibly tiny for a China Trade vessel, weighing a mere 85 tons. In fact, the small size of the Experiment would cause headaches for its investors; when the ship docked at Canton on June 13 1786, it was charged the same port tax by Chinese officials that a much larger vessel would have been required to pay. As a result, future vessels built in New York's shipyards for the China trade would be built much larger, including the famous Beaver, a 427 ton full-rigged ship with two decks built by Henry Eckford at his Jefferson Street shipyard in 1805.iv Despite the fact that this weighty tax cut into the Experiment's profits, she managed to return to New York harbor on April 22, 1789 to unexpectedly grand fanfare (including a multi-gun salute), where she was able to sell her cargo for a moderate profit; this cargo was predominantly made up of tea and porcelain.

While American taste for Chinese goods remained constantly fixed at mostly tea and porcelain, the Chinese were often prone to trends. The market for ginseng, which had sold incredibly well in China at one point, was drying up as early as 1785. Therefore, the Experiment was given a more mixed outgoing cargo than the Empress, containing "the pelts of ten different species of animals" along with "seventy one barrels of tar turpentine, rosin, tobacco, wine and spirits, ginseng, and silver dollars."v Among these, silver turned out to be the most valuable in the long term, as the other commodities tended to fluctuate in value based on consumer demand. Wisely, the Experiment's managers had insured that silver dollars composed 80% of the Experiment's outgoing cargo; without this provision, the voyage could have been a financial disaster. As it had during the much earlier Roman silk trade, silver would come to serve as the basis of trade with China until the early nineteenth Like the Roman senate, many American politicians would see this outpouring of silver for exotica as frivolous, even dangerous, expenditure. As a committee report to the House of Representatives warns in 1819:

The whole amount of our current coin is probably not more than double that which has been exported in a single year to India, including China in the general term.

With so much currency behind it, the history of the early China trade was marked by extreme competitiveness.vii Many New Yorkers lost a great deal of money on investments in the trade when disasters such as shipwrecks and assaults on merchant vessels by natives or hostile forces occurred rather often. At the same time that individual ships competed with each other for a share in the Canton trade, American ports competed between one another for shares in the control of commerce. In fact, at the turn of the 19th Century, both Boston and Philadelphia exceeded New York in the number of ships involved in the China trade. However, by the 1820s, New York assumed unquestionable dominance of this commerce, paving the way for the South Street Seaport's heyday.

New York Chine du Commande: Eternal Dreams Realized on Porcelain

One important question remains: what exactly were New Yorkers living near the Seaport receiving in return for all this silver currency? More importantly, why did they even want these objects, aside from basic Oriental fetishism?

In Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, Jean McClure Mudge identifies the four major types of goods from China that sold well in the American market: spices, textiles, tea, and porcelain.viii Among these, Mudge argues that only porcelain has a special nature exalted above the other three in terms of symbolic value for four distinct reasons. Porcelain is personal; it conveys a sense of ownership that the other three types of items do not. Similarly, porcelain is not perishable, as the other items are. Thirdly, porcelain items tended to be more useful than silks and other luxury items which were more expensive. Many New Yorkers of even limited means were thus able to purchase simple Chinese porcelain items to add a touch of practical oriental flair to their homes. Porcelain principally satisfied New Yorkers' desires "for the practical and second[ly], her enjoyment of the luxurious."ix This underscores the fact that the number one concern of merchants "was commercial profit from useful itemsin the early, precarious years of the new nation.x The forced popularity of porcelain items is thus reflective of the competitive New York spirit that emerged for perhaps the first time in the early days of South Street Seaport's China trade.

The fourth reason Mudge provides for porcelain's significance presents an even more essential truth for New York and the Seaport. Porcelain intended for export to the America was often crafted as Chine du Commande, porcelain painted with western motifs and designs, rather than the traditionally Chinese blue and white patterns.xi These pieces reflected the type of relationship that American merchants usually had for the hongs that they dealt with in Canton. These relationships were typically marked by an atmosphere of "mutual suspicion and contempt," in which both sides tended to view their opposite as culturally inferiors who regrettably needed to be dealt with for the sole purpose of transacting business.xii Due to these attitudes, supercargoes often ordered porcelain "chiefly with Western forms and decorations" while the Chinese in turn refused to sell these westerners their finest or even second finest grade of porcelain items.xiii

For ships intending to sell their wares on the New York market during the early China trade, supercargoes often ordered porcelain with a very familiar design. The significance of this design unifies the two strands of history presented here together to create something that is more symbolic and meaningful than the sum of its parts.


Designs similar to the three variants above appeared on numerous bowls, plates, cups, vases, milk pitchers, teapots, and coffeepots made in China's porcelain capital of Chi'ien Lung exclusively during the years 1790 and 1810.xiv These dates coincide with the early years of the China Trade, in which the port of New York was still struggling to compete against numerous eastern seaports, such as Boston and Philadelphia, for supremacy in the China Trade. Many of them are initialed but unfortunately, very few of them can be identified by owner. One recovered teapot that was crafted c. 1800; however, it belonged to John Greenwood and his wife, who lived together after the Revolutionary War only a few blocks away from the Seaport near present day City Hall. Dr. Greenwood is most famous for serving as George Washington's dentist, providing the first president with numerous uncomfortable pairs of dentures made out of various human and animal parts (including exotic hippopotamus ivory) as well as lead and gold. Even the foremost of our founding fathers could not escape from the vanity of desiring a shiny (albeit functional) pair of teeth.

The New York Seal: An International Symbol?

The image that appeared on so many pieces of porcelain exported to the port of New York during the early years of the China Trade is indeed the seal that appears on the New York State Flag. Although the flag itself did not become officially adopted until 1902, the Great Seal itself was devised in 1777 by a committee consisting of "Messrs. Morris (the leading investor on the Empress of China's maiden voyage, interestingly), Jay and Hobart, and was to be used for all the purposes for which the Crown Seal was used under the Colony."xv Although it underwent many small revisions in the preceding years, the important elements of its design were not drastically altered. Of these components, the shield probably has the most direct relevance to the Seaport, as its surface depicts a portion of the Hudson River overlooked by Mount Beaconxvi, not far upstream from the New York port, on which two vessels alight: a triple-mast, square rigged ship and an iconic Hudson River schooner. These two ships represent both international commerce and regional commerce respectively; the way in which these two types of trade acted in tandem with New York as their meeting point lends to South Street Seaport's early importance as a center of world commerce. Notice the way in which the sun is shining upon the River as if to suggest that the dawn of a new age begins with the rise of the New York port. The way in which the eagle perches above a globe orientated toward the Western Hemisphere, as if to say that China and the East are not included in this new system, reinforces this notion of ideological supremacy that comes with being American or European. In fact, it is mentionable that nearly all the Chinese porcelain designs of this seal obscure the globe, morphing it into something like a crown jewel on which a bird (sometimes more of a phoenix than an eagle!) perches; the Chinese, it seems fought back subtly with their own ideas of cultural superiority, or at least refused to depict a world vision in which they were recognized as inferiors. Lastly, the two women on either side of the field represent Liberty (on the left) and Justice (on the right). The image of Justice personified in female form should be self explanatory to any American but perhaps the image of Liberty needs some clarifying. The English crown at her feet plainly represents freedom from the repressions of an English crown in terms of both personal liberties and, more importantly for this essay, the ability to conduct freer trade. The rod she supports with her left arm, however, conveys a message that goes significantly further back in history. Back tosay, Roman times. The object at the end of the rod, which looks like some sort of wizard's hat, is actually a type of cap the Romans referred to as Phrygian.

Yet Another Variety of Hat...

The Phrygian cap came from a group of people who lived in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) as far back as 1200 BC. During the heyday of the Athenian polis, the cap had connotations of foreign depravity; Phrygians were simply considered Eastern barbarians. After centuries of rule under Lydian, Persian, and Hellenic forces, Phrygia passed to Roman control around 133 B.C. During the late years of the Roman Republic, former slaves who had been liberated wore the cap as a symbol of their freedom. Later on during the years of the Roman Empire, it was worn on festive occasions such as the Saturnalia, as a symbol of celebration. The cap fell out of style for a brief period before reemerging during the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe without much symbology at all, roughly contemporaneous with Marco Polo. In fact, he may be wearing a medieval variant of the Phrygian cap in this painting executed during Polo's lifetime:


The Phrygian cap that appears on the New York State Seal can be construed as both a symbol of liberty and celebration, as it was adapted with a more symbolic meaning akin to the Roman usage. In addition, its symbolism serves as a testament to the links between "Westerners" of all ages and their ties with "Easterners" as well, whose items they tended to both covet and utilize for new ideological purposes, only some of which were fickle. Some items, such as the Phrygian cap and the New York market chine du commande, took on profound ideological symbolism while other trade goods, such as silk and tea, promoted trends which led to increased trade and cultural exchange between the East and West. Nowhere is this type of thriving multiplicity more evident than modern New York, where individuals from all over the world exchange ideas, products, and services to create a truly global urban environment. Although the South Street Seaport no longer facilitates this exchange as an active center of commerce, its history nonetheless serves as a vital link in this chain of international exchange that continues to the present day.


i. McKay, R. South Street; A Maritime history of New York. Haskell House, 1971. p. 6

ii. Writer's Program, New York. A Maritime history of New York. Haskell House Publications. 1973.

iii. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society, 1984. p. 23

iv. Brouwer, Norman. John Jacob Astor's Beaver

v. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society, 1984 p. 25

vi. Ibid. p. 25

vii. Ibid. p. 29

viii. Mudge, J. M. Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade: 1785-1835. p. 64

ix. Ibid. p. 65

x. Ibid. p. 66

xi. Boxer, C.R. The Dutch East India Company and the China Trade, p. 744-745

xii. Mudge, J.M. Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade p. 66

xiii. Ibid. p. 66

xiv. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984.

xv. New York Department of State.

xvi. "Flags of the World."

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