Investigations into Chinese Export Lacquerware: Black and Gold, 1700-1850

Maria João Petsica

Dressing table, brought to Salem for William (Billy) Gray (1750-1825), 13300, c. 1800. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Chinese export pieces that feature the black lacquer and gold decoration are commonly designated as Canton lacquer in a clear association with the place from whence they were shipped and believed to be manufactured. Lacquer decoration referred to as Canton lacquer was produced in gold painted decoration or miao-jin. In this technique, the decorative motif was painted in gold, by means of fine brushes, over several layers of black lacquer. Objects of this kind were brought home by merchants and sea captains to furnish their homes or as gifts to family members and friends (Image 1). During the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, a considerable number of lacquered pieces reached Europe and the US due to the trading activities with China. The Peabody Essex Museum has several remarkable examples of this production brought back from Canton (today’s Guangzhou) on the ships belonging to private traders and members of the East India Marine Society. The primary goal of my Ph.D. research is to characterize Chinese export lacquer production from 1700 to 1850 and understand how these objects were created and traded.

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Mapping the Diffusion of Imported Cloth into East Africa, c. 1830-1900

Kate Frederick

Cloth imports into East Africa, 1836-1900. Aggregated shipping records from MH 23, MH 235, MSS 901, and MSS 24 series (Peabody Essex Museum, Phillips Library), “Arrival and Departure of American Vessels,” RG 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts, Zanzibar, vol. 84 (National Archives and Records Administration), and government-published trade reports of Bombay and the United Kingdom. British and Indian sources include exports to both Zanzibar and Mozambique. American merchants in East Africa focused almost exclusively on Zanzibar-based trade.

The development of cotton textile production has formed the backbone of numerous industrial takeoffs, including Britain’s industrial revolution and, more recently, the catch-up of several East Asian countries. A seemingly perpetual disappointment of textile industries in East Africa, however, has prompted frequently renewed debates about the role that foreign competition may have played in impeding growth of existing domestic production in the region, particularly as East Africa increasingly opened up to global trade during the nineteenth century. However, insufficient empirical evidence has precluded substantive conclusions. My current project bridges the gap between theory and historical empirical reality to shed light on this piece of the African textile puzzle. Specifically, mapping the diffusion of foreign-produced cloth into nineteenth-century East Africa provides crucial insights into the nature of regional demand and consumption, along with related implications for domestic production Read more

The Logbook as Timekeeper

Kate Wersan

A Journal of a voyage from Salem to St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape de Verd Islands in the Brig Augusta 1803 and 1804, Log 1067.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, captains and navigators, even those educated in the most cutting edge navigation practices, struggled to translate what they knew at their “finger ends” into generalizable maxims or—perhaps more crucially— accurate navigation.  The extensive collection of ships’ logs in the Phillip’s Library collection testify to the frequent sense of disorientation, frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty that plagued navigators as internal perceptions of space, time, and movement clashed with astronomical observations, soundings, or observations of the natural world. In these entries we can see mariners weighing what they know about their local environments and geographical and temporal locales, seeking reliable patterns, and trying to identify anomalies or outliers.  Read more