It might seem like a strange leap from a Chinese porcelain plate to a neighborhood in downtown Baltimore, but the distance is really not that great if you stretch your imagination a little. In August of 1785, seafarer John O’Donnell sailed his ship, the Pallas, into Baltimore harbor (Scharf 1874:238). Loaded with export goods like tea, porcelain and silk from China, this ship was the first to directly import Chinese products into Baltimore. In 1786, O’Donnell purchased eleven acres to the east of the city and named his plantation Canton, after the Chinese city that was the source of his wealth. Within ten years, O’Donnell had expanded the plantation landholdings to 1,941 acres.
This porcelain plate, in a style commonly known as Canton, was found along with three others just like it in a brick-lined privy discovered in 1980 during the construction of the Federal Reserve Bank on Sharp Street. The privy had once stood on a tavern property operated by Robert Williams from the turn of the nineteenth century until the 1840s (Basalik 1994:356). Tavern customers could enjoy their evening repast served on a plate that had traveled halfway around the world. Who knows, perhaps this very plate arrived on one of O’Donnell’s ships! Continue reading