China Trade


First pursued by the city’s merchants after the American Revolution, the China trade linked Philadelphians to the rest of the world through commerce. Alongside merchants in New York, Boston, and Salem, Philadelphians were pioneers in the trade, risking their ships and capital in new long-distance sailing routes that crisscrossed the globe to generate the silver coin and exotic commodities needed to make purchases in China. In exchange, the China trade provided Philadelphia and its hinterlands with teas, porcelains, silks, and spices, filling cupboards while boosting activity in shipbuilding, insurance, and banking. The global contacts the China trade provided defined Philadelphia as a cosmopolitan commercial center in the early American republic.

A drawing of the port of Canton with several tall ships in the harbor.
Until the end of the First Opium War in 1842, all foreign trade in China had to go through the port city of Canton. Traders found ways to circumvent this system to smuggle opium into the country. (New York Public Library)

The China trade was a complex system of commercial circuits linking economies in the Atlantic world to those of what early Americans called the East Indies—the wide zone between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, encompassing China, India, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. The traffic centered on Canton (Guangzhou), the biggest city of the Pearl River Delta and the only Chinese-controlled port open to Western traders. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Canton became the most important market for teas and Chinese manufactured goods. Lacking commodities in demand in Asia, westerners paid for their purchases in silver—usually Spanish dollars minted from New World silver mines—and accepted stringent regulations, including limiting their trading partners to a special guild of merchants, the Cohong, setting a specific season for all business, and confining them to rented factories (buildings that combined warehouses, offices, and living quarters) beyond the city’s walls.

Colonial Philadelphians, like other British subjects, developed a taste for Asian goods. However, access was mediated by the British East India Company, which held a monopoly on East Indies trade. In 1773, Parliament’s preferential treatment of the East India Company’s tea business helped spark widespread protests—most famously in Boston, but also in Philadelphia.

A black and white illustration of Robert Morris, seated, wearing a suit and vest.
The first American ship to reach China, The Empress of China, was partially financed by Robert Morris. Its success spurred other Philadelphians to join the China trade. (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia’s relationship to the China trade changed with the American Revolution. While the war gained Americans political independence, it cost them the markets of the British Empire, including the West Indian ports that Philadelphians depended upon as outlets for the region’s agricultural products. Faced with a dire economic situation, Philadelphians gambled on new trades—including with China. The first American ship to reach Canton, The Empress of China, departed New York harbor on February 22, 1784. It was a joint venture of Philadelphians and New Yorkers, organized by Philadelphian financier Robert Morris (1734-1806) and captained by Philadelphian John Green (1736-96). A financial success, the Empress’s voyage inspired imitators, which helped establish Philadelphia as a major center for U.S. trade with China.

The founding generation of Americans saw their new trade with Asia as a matter of national pride as well as a source of prosperity. Philadelphia politicians used the establishment of a new federal government in 1789 to aid the trade, passing legislation that gave special protections to American merchants shipping East Indies goods. Still, bereft of cheap silver at home, and without all the monopoly protections of their European rivals, Philadelphian merchants like Stephen Girard (1750-1831) had to adapt to compete. They used smaller ships and crews to save on operating costs and more nimbly respond to markets. They also persistently sought new sources of Spanish dollars as well as new commodities that might sell well at Canton, including ginseng, sea otter pelts, sandalwood, and bêche-de-mer (sea slugs).

A color advertisement for the Chinese Museum with Chinese motifs and a brief description of the exhibit.
Hundreds of thousands of people came to see Nathan Dunn’s Chinese Museum during its four-year life in Philadelphia. As this advertisement noted, it featured dioramas of Chinese shops and homes and life-size mannequins among the artifacts. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

These innovations, along with good timing and a relaxed approach to commercial legality, were crucial to the trade’s early success. The Napoleonic wars provided neutral American shippers with an advantage as suppliers of tea to Europe, but also risked British interference. Philadelphia merchant Benjamin Chew Wilcocks (1776-1845) helped inaugurate an American opium-smuggling trade in 1805, shipping the drug to China from Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey, and later from British India. Well known as a painkiller, opium had become increasingly valuable in Asia as the practice of recreational smoking spread. Seeking to curb this addictive habit, Chinese authorities had long banned opium importation, though with little effect on smugglers’ business (the drug was legal in the United States). While not every Philadelphia merchant was an opium trader—a few, like Quaker Nathan Dunn (1782-1844), refused it on religious grounds—the illicit market for the drug was robust, and by the late 1820s, opium outpaced silver as the main import exchanged for goods in China.

Opium smuggling’s profits proved to be the undoing of the old China trade. The elaborate networks that British and American merchants created to facilitate opium trafficking caused friction with Chinese officials, culminating in Britain’s invasion in 1840 (the First Opium War). Though not belligerents, Americans benefited from Britain’s 1842 victory, as the treaties the Qing Empire made in its aftermath eliminated trading restrictions and opened new ports. Conflict over opium also accelerated consolidation among American China firms, which increasingly shifted their operations to New York. Philadelphia’s participation in overseas trade decreased, as its merchants invested in manufacturing, transportation, and domestic commerce instead.

a color photograph of a white dish. The outer rim is decorated with a blue snake biting its tail. Inside this ring is a ring of fifteen chain links with the name of one state in each. In the center of the plate is a gold disk with a monogram and a banner with a latin phrase.
Martha Washington was given this Chinese dinner service by Dutch-American trader Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The China trade had a lasting impact on Philadelphia’s culture and society. Chinese goods were for decades markers of high status and fashion. China merchants were leaders in the commercial community, serving as bank and insurance company directors as well as members of the Philadelphia Board of Trade. Some of them, like Nathan Dunn and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739-1801), built country estates in the Chinese style, filled with chinoiserie, and occasionally staffed by Chinese servants. Their fortunes also helped fund major charitable and educational institutions, including the American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital, and Girard College. The trade also influenced popular perceptions of China and its people among Philadelphians, long before any significant immigration from Asia. Grocers’ advertising for teas commonly featured Chinese people and landscapes, and beginning in 1839, Nathan Dunn’s Chinese Museum gave thousands of visitors an experience of “China in miniature” through dioramas of daily life in the Middle Kingdom. Through the China trade, Philadelphia came to know the world—and it, Philadelphia.

Dael A. Norwood is an Assistant Professor of History at Binghamton University. His book project, Trading in Liberty: How Commerce with China Defined Early America, examines how the lucrative commerce between the United States and China shaped the politics and political economy of the American state in its first century. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Canton in the Eighteenth Century

New York Public Library

For about a century, foreign trade in China was conducted exclusively in the port city of Canton, shown in this mid-eighteenth-century illustration. There, a guild of merchant traders known as the Cohong had a monopoly on import and export. This Canton System was implemented in 1760 in response to increasing Western presence in Chinese ports. Chinese nationals were restricted under this system as well, barred from accepting employment or seeking information from the foreigners. Silver was the most desired commodity in Canton, though American traders also brought pelts and other items that might prove attractive to the Chinese.

As the popularity of Chinese goods increased in America, the available supply of silver dwindled. Merchants circumvented the Canton system by smuggling opium into other port cities. The drug, while legal in the United States, had been banned in China many years before. Attempts by the Chinese government to end the opium trade led the British to wage the First Opium War. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ended the war, put an end to the Cohong and the Canton System and opened new ports to foreign trade.

Stephen Girard

Library of Congress

Stephen Girard arrived in Philadelphia from France in 1776 while working as a sea captain. By his death in 1831, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. Girard was born in France and received little formal education, but showed innate skills in business and seafaring. He first apprenticed on a ship at the age fourteen and was promoted to captain less than ten years later. While Girard moved goods between the West Indies and New York, the British Navy blockaded the colonies, forcing Girard to sail to Philadelphia instead. He chose to settle in the city. Girard entered the China trade in 1787 after the British cut off American access to the West Indies trade. He initially traded in ginseng but by 1815 the bulk of his trade was in opium. He withdrew from the trade in 1824 after amassing a great fortune.

Today, Girard is perhaps best known for his philanthropy. During the devastating 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Girard established and attended to an emergency charity hospital at the former Bush Hill estate, even going so far as to transport the sick in his personal carriage. He is credited with preventing a total economic collapse during the War of 1812 by spending nearly his entire fortune on government bonds. As a final act, he willed much of his fortune to establish Girard College, a boarding school for orphaned or fatherless boys. It was the largest single act of charity in America at the time.

Robert Morris

Library of Congress

The first American ship to enter the China trade was financed by Robert Morris. Born in England, he was sent to Philadelphia by his father in 1748. He was employed at a young age by the banking-shipping firm of Thomas and Charles Willings and later made a partner. Morris and his firm supplied and paid the Continental Army during the American Revolution and financed the Bank of North America, the nascent country's first bank, in 1782. Two years later he and other investors financed The Empress of China, the first American ship to trade in Canton. It sailed out of New York on February 22, 1784. The Empress of China's success spurred other Philadelphians to enter the China trade.

Robert Morris held a number of political seats during his lifetime, including several terms in the Pennsylvania legislature and a seat in the Continental Congress. He was chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and two years later became a United States senator, a position he held until 1795. In his later years, Morris invested much of his fortune in land speculation. He was bankrupted when the land-speculation bubble burst leading to the Panic of 1797. He was arrested in 1798 and spent three years in debtors prison. He spent the last four years of his life as a private citizen.

J.C. Jenkins & Co. Grocer

Library Company of Philadelphia

One of the most popular commodities imported from China was tea. The J.C. Jenkins & Company grocery store on Twelfth and Chestnut Streets proudly displayed crates of Chinese tea in this 1847 illustration. To the left of the main entrance is a mannequin of a Chinese laborer carrying boxes of tea on a bamboo pole.

Advertisement for Nathan Dunn's Chinese Museum

Library Company of Philadelphia

Not all of Philadelphia's merchants in the China trade resorted to smuggling opium. Quaker Nathan Dunn rejected the drug trade on religious grounds. Instead, he imported British goods made specifically for the Chinese market. Between 1818 and 1831, Dunn collected a great quantity of Chinese art and goods. He established the Chinese Museum in 1838 to display his collection.

The museum, at Ninth and Sansom Streets, boasted faithfully recreated Chinese shops and buildings staffed with over fifty life-size mannequins in traditional Chinese dress. The collection moved to London in 1842, but not before many thousand people viewed it, some drawn by advertisements such as the one shown here. After Dunn’s death, his collection was displayed at the Great International Exhibition in London and subsequently auctioned to collectors.

Nathan Dunn's Cottage

Quaker merchant Nathan Dunn was one of the few to refuse the lucrative opium trade in China. He instead traded in silver and goods tailored specifically for the Chinese market. This acceptance of Chinese law kept him in good standing in Canton. He amassed a large collection of Chinese art and artifacts that he displayed in his Chinese Museum when he returned to Philadelphia in the 1830s. After a brief stint in London, Dunn retired to Mount Holly, New Jersey, where he built this Chinese-style cottage. The building, heavily modified over the years, was used by the Sacred Heart School and Church as classroom space and a rectory.

Saltcellar by Canton-based Silversmith Lynchong

Philadelphia Museum of Art

American demand for Chinese goods outpaced the supply of silver in the late eighteenth century, but the Chinese had little desire for American goods. To keep the lucrative China trade in motion, Philadelphia's merchants turned to smuggling opium.

Benjamin Chew Wilcocks was one of the men who inaugurated this trade by importing fifty chests of Turkish opium in 1805 and smuggling it into China. Wilcocks was born into a prominent shipping family in Philadelphia and served as the United States consul in Canton. He promoted American merchants' interests in China until he returned to the United States in 1827. This glass-lined silver saltcellar was made for Wilcocks in the early nineteenth century by the Canton-based silversmith Lynchong.

China Designed for Martha Washington

Philadelphia Museum of Art

After the Revolutionary War, America began to trade with China independent of the British East India Company. This plate is part of a dinner service designed in Canton by the Dutch-American trader Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest. Houckgeest worked for the Dutch East India Company trading in China before emigrating to the United States in 1783. In 1796 he sailed from Canton to Philadelphia and presented this dinner service to Martha Washington. The design features the names of fifteen states linked in a chain, a snake biting its tail to symbolize eternity, and Martha Washington's monogram. Houckgeest settled north of Philadelphia in Bristol, building a fifteen-room estate, “China's Retreat.” He remained in Pennsylvania for only two years before returning to Europe.

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Related Reading

Christman, Margaret C. S. Adventurous Pursuits: Americans and the China Trade, 1784-1844: An Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, March 16 to July 8, 1984. Washington: Published for the National Portrait Gallery by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984.

Dolin, Eric Jay. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Downs, Jacques M. The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1997.

Fichter, James R. So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Goldstein, Jonathan. Philadelphia and the China Trade, 1682-1846: Commercial, Cultural, and Attitudinal Effects. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Haddad, John Rogers. The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Lee, Jean Gordon, ed. Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784-1844. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984.

Morrison, Dane A. True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Smith, Philip Chadwick Foster. The Empress of China. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1984.

Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Additional Sources

Hunter, William C. The Fan Kwae at Canton Before Treaty Days, 1825-1844 London: K. Paul, Trench & Co, 1882.

Shaw, Samuel. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life of the Author Edited by Josiah Quincy. Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847.

Dunn, Nathan., and William B. Langdon. Ten Thousand Chinese Things: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection, in Philadelphia. With Miscellaneous Remarks upon the Manners, Customs, Trade, and Government of the Celestial Empire. Philadelphia: Printed for the proprietor, 1839.

Wood, William W. Sketches of China: With Illustrations from Original Drawings. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1830.

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