Long before Chinese stepped foot on American shores, Americans desired Chinese goods. After the Revolutionary War, the newly independent nation hoped that trade with China could alleviate wartime debt and generate needed revenue. In 1784, Americans sent their first ship to China, the Empress of China. The ship returned the following year laden with silks, porcelains, and teas, earning investors a hefty profit and starting a robust China trade. The exhibit includes a sea-letter written by the Continental Congress in hopes of ensuring the ship’s safe passage, along with a fan depicting the Empress that was given to the ship’s captain by authorities in Canton.

Empress of China fan, 1784. Courtesy of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.

Empress of China fan, 1784. Courtesy of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection.