Archive for September, 2010

How to Survive a Shipwreck

September 26, 2010

Despite Hollywood’s glamorization of sunken treasure ships, few galleons sank during the lucrative China Trade era.  But on January 3, 1752, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Geldermalsen went down near the straights of Malacca en route from Macao, China to its home in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

At sunset a reef tore the Geldermalsen’s keel apart.  The surrounding waters were shark infested.  Most sailors then couldn’t swim.  Miraculously, several crew members made it to shore.  But piracy was rampant in those waters, and the survivors were strangers in a strange land.  So even more miraculously, they evaded capture and returned home.

Their trial began two months later.  It was VOC policy to charge any crew who abandoned their ship with “gross treason.”  A guilty verdict meant death.  Fortunately for the hapless crew, they were let off.

Fortunately for us, their ship was discovered 233 years later with most of the 150,000 pieces of porcelain on board intact.  Buried under a blanket of tea.  When combined with the VOC’s scrupulous archive of invoices, this find offers a priceless record of 17th and 18th century China Trade porcelain.

The VOC was one of the first international trade cartels.  As such, they cared only for profit (ie: volume vs. fancy, difficult to pack items).  Huge returns were made on teacups alone.  Ships could carry over 100,000 teacups in a single load, with room to spare for other orders.  Teacups could be densely packed because they didn’t have handles.  Only chocolate cups did until around 1750.

To fill these massive orders, some factories in Jingdezhen were entirely geared toward European designs.  Enameling workshops popped up around European trading posts in Canton and Macao to quickly decorate plain porcelain – a Chinese version of cheap Chinese knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.

East Indiaman sailors were allowed small personal purchases of more elaborate work on the side, in quantities corresponding to rank, as compensation for relatively poor wages.

During the Trade’s heyday, porcelain generally functioned as the ship’s ballast.  Above that went bales of tea.  The best tea went in lead-sealed crates to preserve freshness.   (During America’s China craze, “tea chest lead” was a prized source of glaze material for redware potters.)

The Geldermalsen’s load was typical: simple teacups, bowls, plates, etc.  But hardly any teapots.  The salvage crew didn’t mind, though.  After sifting through tons of decayed tea to get to the porcelain, most said they’d never drink tea again.

Geldermalsen cargo Recovered cargo from the Geldermalsen.

Reading:

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg. Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

China-Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

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1840

September 12, 2010

Years ago I would have yawned at the pitcher shown here. 11″ tall,  slip-cast, transfer print yellow ware, made by David Henderson’s American Pottery Company in Jersey City, NJ, 1840.  A crass, stuffy, Victorian frivolity.  Now it stops me in my tracks… Harrison Transfer Print Pitcher

One reason; it’s a technical tour-de-force.  This pitcher was essentially made out of scratch.  With a few notable but limited exceptions, we had no ceramic supply companies in 1840.  Henderson and his contemporaries were tenacious geniuses.

Liverpool had previously flooded the US with similar wares.  Many here tried to duplicate them.  Henderson, himself a cast-off of the English pottery world, claimed first success – initiating America’s mass-produced pottery era.  Others contested his claims.  But they were all operating at roughly the same time; they were all on the cutting edge of what was possible in American ceramics in the early decades of the 19th century.

Another reason for my reaction; the pitcher’s iconography.  The imagery relates to William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential bid.  A log cabin, a slogan “The Ohio Farmer,” Harrison, and an eagle.

Previous candidates lobbied party bosses in smoke filled rooms, public speeches being uncouth.  Harrison didn’t just “speechify.”  He hurdled insults at incumbent Martin Van Buren (“Marty Van Ruin”).  He re-invented his own background (“born in a log cabin”).  He coined slogans (“The Ohio Farmer”).  He milked alliances with big business (whiskey magnate E.C. Booze bankrolled his campaign and popularized a drinking term).  He pioneered the “whistle stop” train tour and plastered his face on newly available locally made transfer print ware.

Harrison won, then died of pneumonia a month after giving his inaugural speech in a blizzard.  The blue-blood Harrison probably never saw the inside of a log cabin.  He was an “Ohio Farmer” with thousands of acres, all managed by underlings.  In short, he was a multi millionaire posing as a good ol’ boy you’d want to have a hard cider with and vote for (they don’t all come from Texas).  Boisterous public self promotion, total self re-imaging, slander, spin, collusion – the inception of the modern presidential campaign.

Is there redemption in this story?  The Abolitionists noted Harrison’s success.  Soon they would flood the marketplace with ceramic nick-nacks decrying the evils of slavery.  And there at the beginning was our little pitcher…

…A Victorian frivolity?  More like a 500 pound gorilla.

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2002. Robert Hunter, Ed.  Chipstone Press/Hanover and London.  2002.

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1 Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860. Arman, David and Linda.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.(1998)

American Patriotic and Political China. Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.