This elegant fan depicts the Empress of China, the first American merchant vessel to trade with China. The ship departed from New York harbor in the winter of 1784, carrying a speculative cargo of furs, lead, wine, Spanish silver dollars, and ginseng. The ship returned the following year, laden with porcelains, silks, and teas for the US market.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the new and nearly bankrupt United States viewed the China trade as a means to settle war debts. The Empress of China proved that trade with China could enrich backers, funnel customs duties into the national treasury, and make the US a competitor on the world stage.