Diplomatic Reception Rooms

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Object Details

Maker
Unknown
Date
ca. 1784-1785; and later
Geography
China
Culture
China, for export
Medium
ceramic; porcelain with underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels
Dimensions
Overall: 1 in x 9 5/8 in; 2.54 cm x 24.4475 cm
Provenance
Mrs. Ludwell L. Montague; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase.
Inscriptions
None
Credit Line
Funds donated by Mr. H. Richard Dietrich, Jr.
Collection
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number
RR-1972.0027

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Object Essay

The story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the selfless Roman farmer turned soldier in defense of his beloved Rome, stirred the imagination of Henry J. Knox (1750–1806) and his colleagues and led them to organize the Society of the Cincinnati (see Acc. No. 94.13). George Washington’s “greatest pride now,” wrote a visitor to Mount Vernon in 1785, “is to be thought the first farmer in America. He is quite a Cincinnatus, and often works with his men himself.”1“An Account of a Visit Made to Washington at Mt. Vernon, by an English Gentleman, in 1785. From the Diary of John Hunter,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 17 (1893): 76–81, quoted in Detweiler 1982, 81.

The society was organized in May 1783, with Washington as president general and Knox as secretary general. During the first meeting, members chose the now-familiar design elements for the badge (Acc. No. 94.13) and membership diploma (Acc. No. 66.27). 

Earlier, Samuel Shaw (1754–1794), an aide-de-camp of General Knox and a member of the society, had set out for China as supercargo on the Empress of China, the first ship to enter the American China trade. Washington’s Cincinnati service, with the single Angel of Fame bearing the badge on a blue ribbon and proclaiming its importance, was the result of Shaw’s first efforts to obtain china related to the society. Bordered with the butterfly version of the Fitzhugh pattern in underglaze blue, the remaining pieces of this service are perhaps the most historically important of the early Chinese porcelains made for the American trade.2For additional examples in the Collection, see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 160 (Acc. No. 73.33, 87.13, 77.17).

Although Cincinnati tea sets were later made to Shaw’s order for specific persons, the service that was to become Washington’s arrived in his hands under less auspicious circumstances.3Shaw’s difficulties in procuring the earliest Cincinnati design are discussed in Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, 89–95. For the later set, see Conger and. Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 161 (Acc. No. 68.11.47–51, 54–57). Washington had been searching for Cincinnati china for more than two years when his friend, Colonel Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee (1756–1818), reported in July 1786 on a large set available in New York City. In August, Lee purchased “1 Sett of Cincinnati China Contg, 1 Breakfast, 1 Table, 1 Tea Service of 302 ps.” The china arrived at Mount Vernon in September.4Washington’s Cincinnati service was passed on by Mrs. Washington to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who used the service at Arlington House. Following the Civil War, the china that remained in the government’s possession (after damage and pilfering during removal from Arlington House by Union troops) was released by order of President William McKinley to Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of General Robert E. Lee, and Mary Anna Randolph Custis. There is also evidence that some pieces were given away as gifts by descendants of Mrs. Washington. In 1928 Henry Francis du Pont acquired the more than sixty pieces remaining in the possession of the descendants of Mary Custis Lee. Most other examples from the service have as yet unknown provenances. For a discussion of the argument that there was more than one service with the trumpeting angel bearing the Cincinnati badge, see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, 95–96. Feller, 762, and Templeman, 758–59, suggest that Henry Lee bought a second service with identical decoration.

Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.