Wednesday, February 1, 2012

6 Sarah Smith Emery: Smuggling English Cottons

A View of Newburyport in 1835

Sarah Emery (1787-1879) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, had been married a little over a year when the war began. Her husband owned a tavern---combination hotel, restaurant and bar in the town on the Merrimack River.
Few in that area with an economy based on international shipping profited during the war or the earlier embargoes, but David Emery’s tavern prospered once the war began. High unemployment allowed customers more time and more reason to drink. Most important--- the tavern was situated on a road used by smugglers.
A nostalgic look at "the carrying trade," as roads replaced waterways.

“We could not have engaged in a more lucrative business,“ she wrote in her memoirs. “British manufacturers having quantities of goods upon their hands, ran cargo after cargo into their eastern provinces [in Canada], thence they were passed across the border and taken South [to Boston] by ox teams; as our accommodations were excellent, the teamsters made ‘Emery's tavern’ their headquarters.”
She recalled a steady stream of drovers throughout the War.
“At sunset I have often counted a dozen or fifteen drawn up by the sidewalk, opposite the long barn, their motley coverings of patchwork quilts, coverlets etc., presenting a gypsy-like, semi-barbarous appearance.” Under the quilts covering the ox-carts were the luxuries New Englanders were not producing. Sarah listed them: flour, sugar and molasses, gloves, muslins, laces, ribbons, crockery and glass. 

British china in America

 “All imported goods commanded an exorbitant price. Flour rose to fifteen and eighteen dollars per barrel, brown sugar was twenty-five cents a pound…. I paid a dollar a yard for calico.” She remembered one shipment in particular, a load of cotton prints and shawls. Soon the young Emerys were smugglers themselves.

A Massachusetts tavern keeper could hope to look as fashionable
 as this French woman in a white paisley shawl with a high-colored border---
 a painting from 1810 by Francois Henri Mullard
“The shawls were quite pretty, having white or buff centres and high-colored borders; they sold for four dollars apiece. I took calico for a dress and a shawl; two other shawls were sold in the house; the remainder of the goods were slyly conveyed in the evening to the store of Miss Dolly Carnes. This new stock brought a rush of custom to that spinster's establishment… Shawls were in great demand.”
So much trade went through Newburyport that it had a custom house, this one built in 1835.
Sarah entertained the customs inspectors while the men loaded smuggled goods.

One night a knock at the door:  “Mr. Emery hastily dressed, when it was found that Capt. Bartlett had a stagecoach at the door, filled with merchandise… These were hastily placed in my best bedroom, from whence they were gradually taken to the stores in town. Capt. Bartlett continued to bring goods for some time. We often had bales of valuable cloth hidden in the hay mow.”

Bales of imported cloth....
Maybe we should be checking the barns around Newburyport

While David drove the goods to warehouses Sarah entertained the customs officials in the tavern.  Everyone was in on the plot. Her other job was to keep the rest of the tavern customers from giving in to an “unseemly outburst of merriment.”
Sarah’s memoirs were published in 1879 and were actually written by her daughter Sarah Anna Emery, a novelist who probably embellished the tales. (Were patchwork quilts so commonplace they could be used as wagon covers?) In The Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian Sarah Anna explains:
"This volume, as its title implies, has been chiefly derived from the recollections of my mother; but recitals by my father, grandparents and other deceased relatives and friends have aided the work, and I have obtained many anecdotes and facts from several aged persons still living… My desire has been to give a graphic history of 'Ye Olden Time'…”

Newburyport a century after the War of 1812
Yet Sarah's memoirs of ye olden time give us enough detail to realize how imported cottons, barred by embargoes, got into the eager hands of American quilters. Smuggling went on up and down the Atlantic coast and across the Canadian border. As diarist Minister William Bentley of Salem wrote in 1813: "The public mind much interested in the schemes of smuggling." He described one modus operandi. An American vessel meets at sea an English ship, which has agreed to be a "prize," a captured ship brought to shore with its goods declared forfeit. "We are already the greatest adepts at smuggling in the Universe."

Variations of these "palm trees and gamebirds" printed in England were popular with Americans

We see many variations. Jeremy Adams in the catalog Calico & Chintz summarizes the dating of these prints: "From about 1814 to 1816 and during the decade 1825-1835, designs containing exotic and game birds were popular patterns on English chintz."

We see them as borders, as wholecloth quilts and as cut-out chintz applique.

Quilt by Violet Elizabeth Alexander, Charlotte, North Carolina, Date-inscribed 1830, Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Read more about Violet's quilt by clicking here:

Center of a North Carolina quilt by Cynthia Clementine Johnston.
See the whole quilt and more information at the Quilt Index:
The fabric seems to have been printed in England, much of it at the printworks known as Bannister Hall in the teens, and used in quilts here from about 1810 to 1860.

In February we'll consider English prints---the bales of imported cloth in Sarah Smith Emery's hay mow.
Read The Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian  here at Google Books

And if you want to read a day-by-day account of life for a bachelor minister in Salem during the war see The Diary of William Bentley, volume IV (Salem: The Essex Institute, 1914)


YankeeQuilter said...

I grew up in Massachusetts. There was a large house up on the hill overlooking a river that led to Boston Harbor. Local lore claimed there were tunnels leading up from the river to the house that had been used by smugglers...maybe there is some truth to it. But try and we might we never found those tunnels...

Barbara Brackman said...

I bet tunnels weren't necessary. Sarah implies everybody was in on the scheme except the customs inspector.