• Salem Maritime National Historic Site

    Salem Maritime

    National Historic Site Massachusetts

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Salem's International Trade

Boxes, bags, and barrels stacked in the Public Stores carried exotic goods

The items pictured here are from the exhibit in the Public Stores.

NPS photo

By the end of the 18th century, Salem was one of the leading international trading ports in the United States. Ships from Salem left from the town’s wharves on the way “to the farthest ports of the rich East,” as the city’s motto states. The goods highlighted on this page are a few of the popular items that were brought to Salem, stored in the Public Stores, and sold in shops like the West India Goods Store.
 
china was shipped in barrels packed with straw

NPS Photo

Ceramics
Ceramics were in great demand in the new United States in the form of tea and coffee sets, dinner services, basins and ewers used to hold water for washing, and decorative items, such as vases and canisters. The finest porcelain was manufactured in China, but ceramics made in England, Germany, and France (sometimes with Chinese-style designs painted on them) were often more popular because of their cheaper price.

 
A large alabaster urn sits next to a red and black lacquered Chinese cabinet

NPS photo

Furniture and Decorative Arts
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Chinese lacquered furniture and decorative objects were highly valued additions to the fashionable American home, adding an exotic touch to its decorations.
 
artificial flowers of pink, red, and white in a shipping crate

NPS photo

Artificial Flowers
Artificial flowers made of silk were used to trim ladies' bonnets and dresses, as well as to decorate homes. Boxes of artificial flowers were part of the cargo of the brig Britannia that arrived from Malaga, Spain in 1820.
 
a box of brightly colored red, blue, and purple silk cloth

NPS photo

Textiles
Since the first silk came to European markets, it has been one of the most expensive and sought after fabrics for clothing and household decoration. Beginning in 1789, Chinese and Indian silk products imported into the United States were taxed at twenty percent of the original cost, Turkish and European silks at ten percent. By 1842, the Customs duty on most silk imports was thirty percent or $2.50 per pound if not otherwise identified in the tariff schedule.
 
a box of different types of cloth

NPS photo

Brightly colored cotton fabric from India was very popular for clothing, as well as bed hangings, window curtains and upholstery. In the eighteenth century, the finest Indian cotton calico (painted cotton fabric) was as expensive as silk. The other two fabrics in the box are nankeen, a heavyweight cotton cloth originally from Nanking, China, used for men's breeches and coats; and duck, another term for cotton canvas.
 
A box of cinnamon sticks.

NPS photo

Spices
Cinnamon, a very popular spice, is the bark of the cinnamon tree. Most cinnamon came from Ceylon or Cochin, China (now Vietnam). Spices were some of the most profitable cargo a captain could bring in. Pepper was one of the most sought-after spices.
 
a box of indigo

NPS photo

Indigo
Indigo is a deep blue dye derived from the indigo plant. Large quantities were imported from India and the East Indies and used to color homemade fabric as well as the cotton cloth made in local factories in the early nineteenth century.

Did You Know?

The octant is a navigational tool based on the curve of one eighth of a circle. It measures angles for solar and celestial navigation.

In 1799, Salem native Nathaniel Bowditch revised John H. Moore's New Practical Navigator, the standard navigation manual of the 18th century. Bowditch discovered and corrected over 8,000 errors in Moore's manual! In 1802, Bowditch published the New American Practical Navigator.