British Imports in the Chesapeake

Fine locally made furniture was available in most Chesapeake towns by the mid-eighteenth century, but some wealthy householders continued to order a portion of their cabinet wares from Britain. Why the gentry chose British wares over more readily available local ones is not entirely clear. Some planters found it convenient to have their British agents make purchases on credit the Virginians derived from tobacco sales. Certainly cost was a factor in some cases. When ordering English furniture, George Washington described local cabinet work as “very dear,” or expensive. He also complained about quality in a 1757 letter to an English agent: “I have one doz'n Chairs that were made in the Country [America] neat but too weak for common sitting.”

On the other hand, there were problems with imported cabinet wares, as Washington pointed out in 1761 when he was charged £17.7.0 for a mahogany bottle case made by Philip Bell of London. In anger, Washington wrote to his agent: “Surely, here must be as great a mistake, or as great an Imposition as ever was offerd by a Tradesman. The Case is a plain one, and such as I could get made in this Country (where work of all kinds is very dear) of the same stuff, and equally as neat for less than four Guineas ”[i.e., , 4.4.0].

When the supplier was three thousand miles away and delivery took months, the dissatisfied colo
nial customer was usually powerless to change the situation. It is worth noting that, despite his complaints, Washington's expensive English bottle case is still at Mount Vernon.