Foreign Influence

Given the overwhelmingly rural makeup of early America, we sometimes forget how sophisticated and worldly our ancestors were, particularly those who lived in or around port cities. Owning imported objects spoke of their status.

Although a fair amount of what we know about our colonial ancestors resides in the homes and records of the wealthiest colonists, most aspired to purchase foreign-made goods to decorate their homes, and they shared news of the world at the colonial community center we know as a tavern.

Several articles in this issue describe the type of fineries America’s early settlers imported from abroad. Decorative arts scholar Ware Petznick examines the origin and development of what most of us would call the chinoiserie style, although not all of it originated in China. Thousands of years before the start of the Christian calendar, the Japanese were producing the shiny lacquer finish we associate with chinoiserie.

Properly called “japanning,” the term defines the technique of applying multiple thin layers of lacquer on objects to give them that durable, usually black, protective coating. Some decorators added animal, floral, and figural motifs built up through additional layers of gold dust and lacquer, which gave “japanning” a second meaning as a style of decorating.

Lacking the proper species of tree from which to make Asian lacquer, Europeans devised their own formulas and decorated myriad household objects, from tall chests to tea caddies. In America, the tin boxes, coffeepots, and trays with precisely painted floral motifs that originated in New England in the early 1800s can rightfully be called our unique contribution to japanning.

Our ancestors also bought a surprisingly varied assortment of European-made bottles, coolers, decanters, and stemware for storing and serving their favorite (and also imported) wines. Especially elaborate is the montieth bowl meant to cool and rinse glasses. While most colonists drank wine only on special occasions or from the tavern punch bowl, many of our Founding Fathers stocked their homes—including the President’s House—with imported wines and the requisite accoutrements for entertaining frequent and important guests.

Tavern punch and assorted desserts on the holiday table relied on another exotic import—citrus fruits—to add sweetness and scurvy-stopping ascorbic acid to their diet. Tracing the route of citrus to America, Robert Moss writes that although some early Southerners grew and sold oranges and lemons, most colonists continued to rely on imports until Florida developed a viable citrus industry in the 19th Century.

The storied Randolph family likely furnished their plantation mansion in Henrico County, Virginia, with costly furnishings and fine wines. But when mounting debts forced them to sell the property a century later, they left few clues about their lifestyle beyond the house itself.

Wilton, as the family called it, is a gem of Georgian architecture and the only known home in Virginia in which every room—even the twelve closets—is paneled from floor to ceiling. When the Colonial Dames saved it from ruin in 1933, they furnished it with antiques from the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. That collection of more than 1,400 objects showcases fine imports as well as later American-made furnishings.

We invite you to savor the visual feast of decorative arts in the following pages.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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