All the Tea in China - All the Ginseng in America (October 29, 2005)
It is a scarcely noted fact of history that the U.S. had a booming business with China in the late 1700s, exporting ginseng to the Middle Kingdom. After the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the fledgling nation had by treaty been restricted from trading with the British West Indies. Eager for both tea and trade (yes, Americans were huge consumers of Chinese tea, and remain so to this day), one enterprising capitalist outfitted a ship, named it The Empress of China and loaded it with animal skins, a few barrels of pepper, and 30 tons of ginseng root, which grows wild in wide swaths of North America.
As you can imagine, the ginseng was welcomed in China, and the trader made $30,000 profit from the year-long voyage, big bucks in those days. Others followed to such a degree that the market for ginseng fell due to oversupply. (Here's a link to a paper posted on columbia.edu.) Imagine that--the U.S. suppressing the price of ginseng in China due to its vast exports of the medicinal root.
According to the fascinating little illustrated book All the Tea in China, the tea trade between America and China also inspired the development of the clipper ships, the sleek merchant ships designed for speed. The trip from New York to Canton which had taken 180 days in 1785 was cut to 75 days by the late 1840s. So brisk was the trade between New England and China that by 1850, a fifth of all household goods (porcelain, furniture, silk, etc.) in Salem, Massachusetts was of Chinese origin.
Trade between the U.S. and China, and the accompanying rising and falling fortunes of manufacturing and commodities, has a history stretching back to the very founding of America.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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