History of Canton China

For centuries, the Chinese kept the formula for hard porcelain secret by not allowing foreigners into the country. All trade by ships was carried out in the port of Canton (now Guangzhou), which was reached after passing by Macau and Hong Kong and traveling up the Pearl River to Canton. Only the captain of the ship was allowed on land, and the trade was conducted in Hong buildings located close to the river. The Hong master was key to the trade in accepting goods for trade in Chinese desirables such as tea, silk and porcelain.

The new country of the United States’ first successful trading voyage to China was by the ship Empress of China in 1784. Prior to the Revolution, all porcelain arrived by way of English trade via the British East India Company. It took about two years for an order of porcelain to be carried to Canton, the order placed, the ship to sail back to America, return for the completed order and carried back to the buyer. This made the cost for porcelain too high for most Americans. Thus the Canton pattern porcelain, which was generic and not of special order, was readily available to those living near seaports. A trading ship was able to purchase the less expensive Canton ready made when in port. On the return trip, it was used as ballast in the damp hold of the ship as the salt water would not damage it. When a trading vessel returned to home port, anyone could purchase Canton directly from the ship. It became known as “kitchen china” and was very popular.

Canton porcelain was the only hard porcelain available to early Americans until the mid-1800s, and it is estimated that over 2.5 million pieces were exported from 1784-1850.

The use of the term “Canton” can thus refer to all porcelain passing through the port of Canton, but it now specifically refers to the special pattern we refer to as Canton (as distinct from the Nanking pattern).

There are several distinct periods of Canton decoration for the American market. Beginning with the first period of 1784-1810, the finest decorated Canton was produced. The blue cobalt color, beautifully molded forms and finely developed motifs in the pattern were at their height.

With the passing of Emperor Qianlong in 1796, who demanded the highest quality porcelain, the quality began to diminish until 1839  as the China Trade ships increased in number. Demand for porcelain increased and short cuts were taken to speed up production. With less precision in decoration, the Canton pattern took on more of a folky appearance, the shade of cobalt varied a good deal from dark to light blue and the decoration became skimpier. This is considered the second period and what is most commonly collected and available today.

With the beginning of the first Opium War in 1839, production and trade ceased for nearly 20 years. Traders had begun bringing opium from India with which to exchange for Chinese goods, and the Emperor finally made it illegal to use in trade. There were two wars between the governments of Britain and China during which the kilns to produce porcelain were destroyed and the trading system altered with the cessation of the Hong system. Once the treaty between China and the French, British and Russian governments was signed in October of 1859 ending the second Opium War, the production of porcelain for trade restarted.

After the Opium Wars, the porcelain was altered in appearance and decoration as it became thinner and had sparser decoration. The rain cloud border sometimes became straight line and many forms not available earlier were produced, such as candlesticks.

In 1890, the United States passed the McKinley Tariff Act, which required that all goods imported into the United States be identified by the country of origin. Pieces of Canton were thus marked “China” on the bottom for about 20 years, when the use of paper decals was introduced and there was no permanent identification of China after that. The importation of Canton porcelain continued uninterrupted thereafter until the beginning of the Second World War.

Here is a quote we found on page 195 in a 1892 copyrighted book: China Collecting in America by Alice Morse Earle. “But the every-day china, the common table-ware, of all these good American citizens and patriots–Knox, Hancock, Paul Revere, the Otises, Quincys, and a score that might be named–the plates and dishes of china from which they ate their daily bread, were not of Lowestoft, but of honest old blue Canton.”

Note: History of the A. A. Vantine Store-NYC to be added