American businesses import billions of dollars worth of merchandise from China annually. Selecting any random item at a retail store and looking at the bottom will likely reveal a stamp on the object that reads “made in China”. Upon learning this, many Americans would likely consider the product to be of poor quality. The United States has not always had this attitude towards Chinese imports, however. Before and during the nineteenth century, Americans viewed many Chinese imports as luxury items, of which porcelain was considered one of the most valuable.

            This particular porcelain teacup was likely imported from China between 1800 and 1890, judging by the detail of the glaze and the lack of a stamp indicating its origins, which the McKinley Tariff required of all imports after 1890. Though little other information exists on this particular piece, its importance can be determined by looking at the value nineteenth-century Americans placed on their porcelain sets.

final teacup

Handless Tea Cup, ca. 1800-1890, porcelain, (H: 2.0625 in. x W: 3.625 in.). New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of M. Gertrude Davenport, Rochester, New York, N.0529.1942. Photograph by Luke Murphy.

Tea wares had been viewed as luxurious by Americans since the colonial period. It was not until after the Revolutionary War, however, that Americans began to purchase large amounts of goods directly from China. Between the conclusion of the War for Independence from Great Britain and the beginning of the nineteenth century, many Americans still lived comparatively humble lifestyles. That being said, if families owned or displayed Chinese commodities, such as porcelains, like this teacup, they would be looked upon with distinction.[2]

teacup 1

Handless Tea Cup, ca. 1800-1890, porcelain, (H:2.0625 in. x W: 3.625 in.). New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of M. Gertrude Davenport, Rochester, New York, N.0529. 1942. Photograph by Luke Murphy

By the 1820s, the classical blue-and-white porcelain, known as Canton ware, became more abundant. In addition to the practical side of having to use, many Americans bought Chinese export porcelain largely out of a simple pride of ownership. As travel and trade became easier, people from across the United States observed the beauty of Chinese porcelains and the demand for porcelain goods, including tea sets and tea cups, increased.[3]

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the love Americans had for their porcelain tea sets continued to grow.  By this time, most Americans elevated the status of their porcelains, especially Canton ware, well above the level of mere utility. For many owners, porcelain sets became nostalgia pieces of the early history of the United States. Many families cherished their porcelain wares, and they became family heirlooms that passed from generation to generation.[4] While today, Chinese imports are often considered low quality, not long ago, they were considered items of luxury.

[1] Clare Le Corbeiller and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, “Chinese Export Porcelain,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 60, no. 3 (winter, 2003): 37, 55. 66.pdf. Accessed November 18, 2015.

[2] John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture: 1776-1882 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 7.  

[3] Corbeiller and Cooney, “Chinese Export Porcelain,” 57.

[4] Corbeiller and Cooney, “Chinese Export Porcelain,” 59.