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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Chinese influence on a Charleston bookseller

Here's an old bookseller's billhead from Charleston, South Carolina in 1883, which I find intriguing for its interesting and unexpected design.


Edward Perry, Bookseller, Stationer, and Printer, is pretty much lost to history except for a few brief references to pamphlets he printed in Charleston. What is memorable about this billhead is the Chinese design that borders the top portion of the paper. Not quite what I would expect to find in an old colonial city of the American South (my ignorance of Charleston history).

Curious about the choice of design, I wondered if it were just the peculiar personal taste of Perry or if a greater influence was at work here. A culturally influential Chinese aesthetic in 19th century Charleston did not come immediately to mind, but began to seep in as I entertained ideas about Perry's taste in Asian-inspired design. I had to make only a few queries online before finding my answer.

The Society for Historical Archaeology, Volume 33, Number 3 (1999), contains an article by Robert A. Leath titled, "After the Chinese Taste:" Chinese Export Porcelain and Chinoisene Decoration in Eighteenth-Century Charleston.

The journal provides the following abstract of that article:
Chinese export porcelain is one of the most commonly found ceramics in the Charleston area, constituting as much as 24% of the overall ceramic assemblage at many archaeological sites. Chinese porcelain was but one pan, however, of a broader stylistic language known as Chinoiserie in the 18th century. As international trade expanded, the complete range of Asian export luxury goods silks, Indian cotton textiles, Chinese lacquer and hardwood furniture, Chinese wallpaper, and reverse paintings on glass popular throughout the European world. The European enthusiasm for Asian export goods inspired western designers both technologically the invention of porcelain stylistically, as they combined Asian and European motifs in whimsical, Chinese-inspired designs for architecture and interior decoration. The more ephemeral objects, such as textiles and wallpaper, rarely survive in the archaeological record, although their presence can be established in period newspaper advertisements and probate inventories. As one of the wealthiest cities and most active trading centers in 18th-century North America Charleston, South Carolina, provides rich documentation for the presence of Asian export luxury goods and Chinese-inspired designs in the American colonies. By importing these goods and ordering locally crafted objects in the Chinese taste, Charleston's colonial gentry demonstrated their ability to emulate their European counterparts and adapt the latest European fashion to their own domestic interiors.
The line about Chinese-inspired designs for the more ephemeral objects would include a creative printer-bookseller's business papers such as billheads and letterheads.


As such Charleston ephemera rarely survives in the archaeological record, according to Leath, I would suppose my Edward Perry billhead qualifies as rare. Equally rare, or unusual, in my estimation, is the fact that an 18th century influence survived well into the next century to influence the design of an ephemeral piece of business correspondence. I can't help thinking about how many other businesses in 18th and 19th century Charleston were similarly influenced and how much of their ephemera has been lost.

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