By Rachel Lovett and Barbara Goyette

“Globalization” is a buzzword these days, with international commerce an everyday fact of life. Today we can visit Ikea and World Market as well as high-end marketers to purchase goods from around the globe, but did you know that our colonial forebears also sought out everything from furniture to paint to exotic spices that were imported from faraway lands? As one of the primary ports in the colonies, Annapolis had an economy based on globalization — and a population eager to support international commerce.

The exhibition “Decadent Decor: Global Imports in an Early American Port City,” on view at the Hammond-Harwood House museum in Annapolis, showcases examples of the imports that wealthy and not-so-wealthy citizens enjoyed. 

In the 1760s Annapolis became a political stronghold and magnet for Maryland’s wealthy tobacco planters, who appreciated and desired sophisticated society, stylish architecture and imported goods. Maryland’s wealthy planters wanted to be near the political hub of Governors Horation Sharpe and his successor Robert Eden. Men like William Paca, Matthias Hammond, and Edward Lloyd IV, commissioned large townhouses in the city, creating a building  boom of 14 such houses between 1764 and 1774. 

These new houses required furniture and other items — both necessary and beautiful. Between 1769 and 1774, the number of vessels carrying imported goods to Annapolis almost tripled from 90 to 269. By 1783, there were 13 merchant stores carrying imports. Silver from England, tea and porcelain from China, mahogany and sugar from South America, spices from India, linen from Ireland, wine from Madeira, and ivory from Africa became status symbols sought by citizens of Annapolis during this Golden Age.

Some beautiful furniture was made in Annapolis by highly skilled artisans like John Shaw and Archibald Chisolm. They referred to pattern books produced by English furniture makers — so their designs were based on European styles — and they used various woods, including the prized mahogany, imported from South America. The Hammond-Harwood House exhibition includes furniture pieces like a lovely pie-crust table that set a high style for Annapolis homes.

Tableware was an essential part of late 18th century homes. Silver was the metal of choice, and these precious objects were a treasured source of pride meant for display. Custom silver reveals the individuality of the original owner’s character and values. Signer of the Declaration of Independence Samuel Chase was a fiery Annapolis patriot, yet he chose his Aunt Margaret’s noble English maiden name, Townley, for the coat of arms on his silver urn imported from England in 1700. 

The popularity of tea and coffee created a need for sturdy porcelain. British poet John Gay wrote about the admiration of Chinese porcelain in 1725: “How her eyes languish with desire…China’s the passion of her soul; A cup, a plate, a dish, a bowl, Can kindle wishes in her breast, Inflame with joy, or break her rest.” Tea, spices and silks were the core exports from China, yet hard paste porcelain is what survives for us to see today. The colonies received shipments via Britain until after the Revolutionary War in 1784, when direct trade between China and the U.S. was possible. By 1800 nearly 60 million pieces were exported from China. For clients across Europe and America, the vast majority of Chinese pieces were blue and white porcelain, known as Canton or Nanking wares. European soft paste porcelain was inferior in quality compared to the Chinese pieces. 

The exhibition contains a number of porcelain pieces with intricate and colorful designs. Annapolis clients commissioned pieces from China. Samuel Chase, for example, ordered a set of more than 300 customized tableware pieces in 1784. The wares of English potter Josiah Wedgewood were also popular in the colonies. George Washington ordered a set, and politician-planter Edward Lloyd IV ordered four complete sets of customized Wedgewood to entertain in his lavish Annapolis townhouse. Non-custom Wedgewood was affordable to the less-than-wealthy as the past year’s patterns became discounted.

Visitors and newcomers to Annapolis during this era noted the city’s cosmopolitan flare. British-born Reverend Jonathan Boucher of St. Anne’s Church said: “On my removal to Annapolis the scene was one more almost quite new to me. It was then the genteelest town in North America, and many of its inhabitants were highly respectable, as to station, fortune, and education. I hardly know a town in England so desirable to live in as Annapolis was then.” Certainly, the international trade that brought imported goods to the harbor played a major role in the early quality of sophistication in Annapolis. 

Rachel Lovett and Barbara Goyette can be contacted through the website at the Hammond-Harwood House Museum, or by phone 410.263.4683.

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.