China Trade Trunks

A China Trade camphorwood and red painted leather trunk

p4A ItemID E8884168
A China Trade leather covered camphorwood trunk with brass tack decoration and original maker's label inscribed Aihoe No 5

p4A ItemID E8879796
A Chinese Export brass bound sea chest in black paint labeled Capt. Hall Jackson Tibbits

p4A ItemID E8852262
China Trade painted leather trunk, mid 19th century

p4A ItemID F7980859

China Trade Trunks

These trunks are often called Sea Captain’s Chests as they were commonly purchased in Canton or Hong Kong by sea captains engaged in the China trade during the nineteenth century. The captain’s used them for their own personal purchases in the Chinese port, particularly for their wives and family back in New England. For their time they could be real treasure chests, filled with rare silks, tea, blue and white porcelains, delicate watercolors and carvings in ivory, jade and other exotic materials such as cinnabar.

These trunks came in two basic types. Relatively unadorned camphorwood or teak trunks, sometimes called campaign chests, sported brass corner guards and flush-set brass locks and handles. These trunks were designed to be carried in a ship’s hold if necessary. The other type of China Trade trunks were typically smaller than the teak chests, made of camphorwood and covered with leather decorated with designs in brass tacks and, sometimes, hand-painted floral designs. Their leather coverings are known in black, red, yellow, blue and green, black being the more common by far. The trunks range in size from approximately 25″ to 45″ inches in width, with numerous examples in between.

Once safely back in the captain’s homeport these decorative chests became cherished editions to the family’s bedrooms and upper hallways where they could be used to store seasonal clothing and other items of occasional use. Today, many generations later, they still perform similar functions in period settings and better examples have even been promoted by designers to more formal settings for use as cocktail tables and accent pieces.

Reference note by p4A editorial staff; August 2011.

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