Artifact Corner: Episode 22 – Cantonware

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to our first Artifact Corner of 2021! We hope you all had a wonderful holiday season. We are heading in to 2021 with a whole bunch of new artifacts for you to see. Today we will be looking at some beautiful Chinese porcelain that we have in our collections. This set is called Canton ware. In the 18th Century it was called “China Trade ware.” So, how did the Delord’s end up with a porcelain set from the other side of the world? Let’s explore Canton ware.

Canton ware was fired in the kilns at the Provence of Ching-Te Chen. It was then shipped via the East India Trading Company to Canton. Canton is a seaside port city, perfect for the export of goods. There were many fine painters and enameling shops in Canton. The unfinished porcelain pieces were brought there to be decorated before shipping. This lead to the porcelain pieces being called Canton ware. From this port the ware was shipped to Europe and America in the hulls of ships. Because of this, the porcelain was also called “ballast ware.” Ballast refers to a heavy material that is placed low in the vessel in order to improve it’s stability.

So, how is porcelain like this made 300 years ago? It all starts with the craftspeople. Just like any trade in the 18th and 19th century, you would start your career as an apprentice, and work your way up to becoming a master. In the workshops in China, each person did one job, and became extremely skilled at just that one job. If you were a painter of porcelain, that was your only job in the workshop, and after years of doing it, they could get to the point of painting a small bowl in less than a minute. The bowls started by being thrown on a potters wheel. There was no electricity, so the potter would sit above the wheel, and start it spinning by using a long wooden rod. This is called throwing the pot. Once the pot is formed, it will then be shaped and made uniform by another crafts person. It then has an initial firing. Then it moves on to glazing. Then to decorating, and then to a second firing. Firing the pot gives it it’s strength and durability, and the glossy texture we all recognize today.

In the 18th and 19th Century demand in America for porcelain from the East was extremely high. Members of the merchant class really desired Canton ware, and George Washington was said to be a big fan of it as well. It was very high fashion to have Canton ware, or blue and white porcelain on your dining room table. Since Henry Delord was a merchant, who operated a store, it’s probable that he imported this set for he and his wife. Henry and Betsey entertained a number of high profile people in their home. They served Thomas MacDonough after his victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh, and President James Monroe when he visited Plattsburgh. It’s amazing to think that these two important historic figures probably ate from our Canton ware! We hope you enjoyed this look into a very special assemblage of pieces in our collection. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot