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Oriental China for the Western Trade

The story of Oriental Lowestoft involves patient Chinese potters in an inland city on the Yangtze River, hard-headed Cantonese merchants, avid western traders, sailing ships and well-appointed Occidental houses, some of them located on the New England coast and built with a "widow's walk."

European traders began knocking at the reluctant gates of Canton and other Chinese coastal cities before Columbus set out on his quest for a shorter and better route to the Indies. By the sixteenth century, commercial value of this traffic with the Orient gave rise to various East Indies companies. England established hers in 1599 which was soon the most powerful of all.

An important part of the cargoes which European merchants and later those from America assembled in Canton was china, especially a porcelain of bluish white cast with Oriental designs delicately brushed on in cobalt blue, gilt, and other colors. The earliest examples were Chinese in shape and decorative feeling. But much as Europeans might admire Oriental products, they had their own ideas about tableware and it was not long before this porcelain took on western shapes and decorations.

While the Chinese government accorded European traders scant welcome, the shrewd Cantonese merchants ordered potters in Ching-te-Chen, a potting city famous from the ninth century, to produce this porcelain, known in its day as East India china, in shapes acceptable to the European trade. Glazed but undecorated, it was then brought overland and by river routes some 500 miles to Canton where the designs were applied in the porcelain-decorating shops.

These designs included monograms, coats of arms, ship decorations, sporting and country scenes, patriotic and fraternal motifs, and sometimes merely a floral medallion with a narrow band of blue enlivened by star-like marks in gold. The usual custom was to send the pattern over by sailing ship with an order for dinner service, tea set, or the like, and in six months or a year it was completed and ready to be put on board another ship for its eventual destination. The whole transaction might take two years.

This East India china was sold to the traders at a ridiculously low price, each piece averaging about a penny. Packed in bales, it was used as ballast for the homeward trip. It brought high prices in the home market, the profit being so great that the long dangerous voyage was a worthwhile risk.

During three hundred years, quantities of this china arrived safely at European and American ports. The high point was reached in the eighteenth century, with American ships joining the traffic-stream bound for Canton during the 1780's. By the turn of the century, our commerce outstripped even that of the powerful English East India Company and some of the Cantonese merchants were advertising in American newspapers.

Demand for East India china continued to the middle of the nineteenth century, but after 1825 there was less use of European patterns and more of the Chinese motifs. The Fitzhugh pattern is an example of this trend,this service was brought from China between 1830 and 1840. It had wonderful blue decoration.

The name Oriental Lowestoft is based on an error. In the early days of antique china collecting, East India china became confused with the output of a small, comparatively short-lived pottery in Lowestoft, England. Consequently it was misnamed and, despite various attempts to restore its right name, the misnomer has persisted.

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