Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Featured Artifact: Varick Punchbowl

Varick Punchbowl. MORR 3757 (c. 1785) Photo: Morristown NHP

This past July this writer had the opportunity to research the life and times of Richard Varick at the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C. This opportunity was made possible through the generosity of a fellowship sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of that organization. The Society of the Cincinnati is one of the oldest establishments in America and the treasures to be viewed at its Anderson House headquarters just off Dupont Circle are vast. For a week I delved into the Varick Papers, exploring the career of this Revolutionary War officer, ardent Federalist, and New York City mayor from 1789-1801. 

Swords carried by Colonel Varick. Image: Keith Muchowski
One special day the Museum Collections and Operations Manager graciously showed me artifacts owned by Colonel Varick, including portraits of Richard and wife Maria, swords he carried during the war, ceremonial ribbons, and other items. The research trip was an extraordinary experience. While there I told the librarians about one of the treasures on display here at Morristown National Historical Park: the Chinese porcelain Society of the Cincinnati commemorative punch bowl owned by Richard Varick two centuries ago.

Portrait of Richard Varick by Henry Inman
(c. 1831) Image: Wiki Images
The Varicks were an Old Dutch family who traced their lineage back to the earliest decades of European settlement in the New World. The matriarch of the clan in North America was Margrieta van Varick, who in the seventeenth century lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn with her second husband, Rudolphus. He was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and she maintained a tidy home and small shop that sold decorative housewares imported from around the world. Margrieta died in 1695 when just in her mid-forties, and her children and their own families spread across the Northeast. Great-grandnephew Richard was born in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1753. Richard Varick grew up to become a successful New York City attorney. When the Revolutionary War came he served at different times under the commands of Generals Philip Schuyler, Benedict Arnold, and ultimately George Washington.

The Commander in Chief of the Continental Army recognized Varick’s organizing skills and in the later years of the war appointed him secretary of his voluminous documents. No one understood Varick’s contribution more than George Washington himself. On January 1, 1784—five weeks after Evacuation Day and eight days after the general’s return home to civilian life—Washington wrote to Varick from Mount Vernon: “The public and other Papers which were committed to your charge, and the Books in which they have been recorded under your inspection, having come safe to hand, I take this first opportunity of signifying my entire approbation of the manner in which you have executed the important duties of recording Secretary, and the satisfaction I feel in having my Papers so properly arranged, & so correctly recorded—and beg you will accept my thanks for the care and attention which you have given to this business. I am fully convinced that neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labour which have been employed in accomplishing it, unprofitable spent.” (“From George Washington to Richard Varick, 1 January 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives) That same day Washington signed Richard Varick’s certificate of membership into the Society of the Cincinnati.

Americans that winter was eager to move on with their lives, build their new nation, and—quite literally—get down to business. On February 20 Richard Varick was appointed Recorder of the City of New York. Two days later—George Washington’s birthday—the Empress of China sailed from New York Harbor on its way to Canton in search of riches. She was the first American trading vessel to sail to China. In her hold were thirty tons of ginseng and $20,000 in Spanish silver specie. Aboard too was Samuel Shaw, one of the Empress of China’s two “supercargos” whose task was to represent the ship’s investors and negotiate the exchange of money and goods between the American emissaries and their Chinese counterparts. Shaw was a fortunate choice. A former military aide to General Henry Knox and himself a member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, Captain Shaw was an astute intermediary whose skills helped make the Empress of China’s voyage spectacularly profitable upon its return in May 1785. Others recognized Shaw’s talents; within a year of Shaw’s coming home, Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay appointed him to the post of Consul of the United States at Canton. In this capacity Shaw oversaw 
American economic interests in China. Chinese porcelain was especially coveted by Americans. Besides representing American business concerns, Shaw commissioned scores of items in a personal capacity for members of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Close up, Varick Punchbowl, MORR 3757. Photo: Morristown NHP
Chinese porcelain was not new to North Americans in the 1780s; the British and Dutch had been importing Chinaware to the New World for well over a century. The trade picked up heavily though in the earliest years of the republic. So great was the American market in the early years of the nation that porcelain was soon coming regularly by the tonnage, used literally as ballast in cargo holds on voyages home. Porcelain was an ideal trade commodity: imperishable, immune to fluctuations in heat or cold, and impervious to any dampness in the hatch down below.

Of the thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain made specifically for the American market in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some were of simple decoration; others were elaborately painted to strict customer specifications. Richard Varick’s Society of the Cincinnati punch bowl fell into the latter category. Its provenance is unclear. It is not even known when the bowl was made, though most specialists agree that it was likely prior to 1790. Who commissioned it—Varick himself or someone else—is similarly unclear. Captain Shaw’s role, if any, in overseeing the punch bowl’s creation is also a mystery. Given Shaw’s own membership in the Society of the Cincinnati, his interest in both porcelain and creating an iconography for the fraternal organization, his job as a supercargo on the Empress of China, and later position as consul, it is safe to assume though that he was involved in at least some aspect of the process. At the very least Shaw would have been aware of its manufacture.

Close up, Varick Punchbowl, MORR 3757.
Photo: Morristown NHP

Varick’s punch bowl bears the text of his Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate, which means that either the original or a draft of it had to have been shipped to Canton for the artist to render. Because George Washington signed that document on January 1, 1784 and the Empress of China sailed six weeks later on February 22, it is entirely possible it was on that very first voyage. Still, that is entirely theorizing and conjecture. Whatever the details of the bowl’s creation, specialists agree that is one of the most exquisite examples of Chinese porcelain ever created. In her 1892 book “China Collecting in America” historian Alice Morse Earle declared that the bowl “is in perfect condition, and is one of the finest historical relics of early Federal times that I have ever seen.” (p. 223-24)

It must have been one of Richard Varick’s most prized possessions. A proud Revolutionary War veteran, Varick served as president of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati from 1806 until his passing in 1831. The bowl eventually fell in the possession of a grandnephew, Dr. Theodore Romeyn Varick of Jersey City. Upon his death in November 1887 the esteemed physician bequeathed the punch bowl and other items to the Washington Association of New Jersey. These caretakers of the Ford Mansion displayed it there until donating the historic house and all of the Association’s treasures to the American people via the National Park Service in March 1933. The Varick punch bowl has been loaned occasionally for public displays of precious Chinaware, most notably to the Newark Museum in 1979 to showcase Chinese porcelain held in New Jersey collections and the New-York Historical Society in 1984 for a bicentennial celebration of the Empress of China’s 1784 voyage. After that N-YHS exhibit the bowl was put in storage here at Morristown National Historical Park, where it sat for years until being rediscovered in the early 2000s by one of the trustees of the Washington Association. Since that time it has again held pride of place here in the museum for all to see.

Written by Keith J. Muchowski, Morristown NHP volunteer

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