Below the stocked china cabinet in the dining room at Forty Acres sits a heavy platter, sturdy yet embellished with delicate blue designs and scenes. It is octagonal, with a thick blue cross-hatched band and a scalloped edge that envelopes a tranquil landscape with boats, pagodas, islands, and soft waves. This piece entered the possession of the Stearns family some time before 1820, and would have originated in Guangzhou, China, the country’s one port open to trade with the West and the center of porcelain manufacturing and exports. The landscape scene would have involved the work of many hands—the painted designs were completed assembly-line style, with each artist adding one aspect of shading or line before passing on the porcelain. This platter belonged to the Stearns, the family of museum founder Dr. James Lincoln Huntington’s grandmother, Lucy Gellineau Stearns. The Stearns were from Salem, one of the largest hubs of porcelain trade outside of New York. Given the platter’s dating to the early 19th century, it most likely would have been purchased by William Stearns and Sarah White Sprague, Dr. Huntington’s great-great-grandparents. The Stearns were a merchant family; William Stearns (1754-1819) was an apothecary and grocer. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries in New England, Canton ware such as this platter was both ubiquitous and accessible, especially as factories were established in England and the Netherlands to produce cheaper pieces in the Canton style that would be purchased by families like the Stearns. These cities on the Eastern coast began receiving mass quantities of Canton ware in the early 19th century, around when the platter came into the family’s possession, so much so that cargo ships counted the porcelain as part of the weight of the ship itself.
This demand for Canton ware in New England blossomed partially out of the status that the imported pieces symbolized, as well as the exoticized nature of the content of the scenes they featured. This platter features the typical content of Canton ware-- shan shui (hills and streams), showing pagodas, rivers, boats, fishermen, walled pleasure gardens that bordered mansions. For families like the Stearns and Huntingtons, these tranquil scenes were their only exposure to Chinese culture-- by the time Chinese migration to the United States began in the mid 19th century, the popularity of Canton ware had already died down. However, these stylized landscapes reflected the Western imagination’s conception of China rather than the country’s reality of political and social turmoil at the time. This craze of “orientalism” and its idealized, alluring vision of China went hand in hand with the West’s ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority” over the country itself (Haddad 55). Thus, the foreign fantasy of the shan shui scenes depicted on the platter at Forty Acres represents the lack of awareness of China and its politics at the time that prevailed in the West—the destructive role of England in the Opium Wars, for example. However, the American perception of China as an exotic mystery eventually faded. As the intellectual and economic barriers between the West and China eroded over the course of the 19th century, the demand for Canton ware diminished. This platter remains as a relic of the Stearns and Huntington’s family’s interaction with a romanticized myth of China.
Cooney Frelinghuysen, Alice and Clare Le Corbeiller. “Chinese Export Porcelain.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1-60.
Haddad, John. “Imagined Journeys to Distant Cathay: Constructing China with Ceramics, 1780-1920.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 41, no. 1, 2007, pp. 53-80.
Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, on deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.
Stearns and Sprague Family Papers, MSS 192, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
For further reading on the Stearns family, see:
Heath, Douglas L. and Alison C. Simon, "The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells," History Press, 2017. ISBN 9781 4671 36679.
Gilder Cornelia Brooke. Edith Wharton's Lenox. The History Press. Charleston, South Carolina. 2017
Thorsen, Linda Jean. "The Merchants' Manufacturer: The Barrett Family's Dyeing Businesses in Massachusetts and New York, 1790-1850" Thesis. Harvard University, May 2015.