Platter, Order of the Cincinnati, c. 1785

George Washington's dinner service is one of the first porcelain patterns made in China for the American market. It is decorated with the badge of the Order of the Cincinnati, an organization founded in 1783 as a fraternity of American and French officers who had served with General Washington during the Revolution. The Society's badge is a gold medal in the form of an American bald eagle.

While in China, Major Samuel Shaw, a member of the Society and supercargo for the Empress of China, the first American mercantile ship to trade with Canton, met with Chinese artisans and directed the placement on the chinaware of the trumpeting figure of Fame suspending the Cincinnati badge by a ribbon.

Financed by Philadelphia and New York merchants, the Empress of China sailed from New York City on Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1784. Laden with an impressive cargo of 30 tons of Appalachian ginseng, 2,600 furs, specie, pig iron and woolen cloth, Captain John Green of Philadelphia passed his ship in review before The Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan as she fired off a thirteen-gun salute and received a twelve-gun reply.

During the six-month voyage to Canton, the ship and its crew encountered frequent storms. Once it entered the Pearl River, it navigated its way to Whampoa for anchorage, 12 miles downstream from Canton, the only city permitting western traders.

Arriving on August 28, 1784, the Empress became the first American vessel to open direct trade with China. The vast quantity of ginseng, used by the Chinese as a cure-all and aphrodisiac, gave occasion to a hospitable reception to the Americans in Canton.

The Empress of China departed Whampoa on December 28, 1784 and returned to the city of New York on May 11, 1785 to a thirteen-gun salute.

The ship Pallas was chartered to bring additional cargo back from the Orient including $50,000 in teas, 120 chests of porcelain, silks, nankeens, muslins, satins, bamboo, walking sticks, and fans.

Washington's blue and white Fitzhugh border Cincinnati porcelain service arrived at Baltimore from Canton on the Pallas in August, 1785 and was sent to New York City, where Colonel Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee purchased the set in August, 1786. The 302-piece dinner and tea service was delivered to George and Martha Washington's Mount Vernon plantation in September, 1786.

 

References:

Goldstein, Jonathan, Philadelphia and the China Trade: 1682-1846, London, 1978

Howard, David Sanctuary, New York and the China Trade, New York, 1984

Smith, Philip Chadwick Forster, The Empress of China, Philadelphia, 1984.