International trade has changed a lot over the years, but one thing has remained a constant – the ocean. While air transit has made quicker deliveries possible across the world, there are still thousands and thousands of massive cargo ships carrying all sorts of goods across the ocean. These huge ships require gigantic, supersized ports in order to offload their thousands of tons of cargo. So while cargo is still often transported over the ocean, once-busy ports like Salem Harbor are now a bit more quiet.
A Leader in Trade
Salem was once on of the largest trading ports for international traders in the entire country. By the end of the 18th century, traders in Salem were doing more business than they ever could have imagined just 50 years prior. Ships from Salem traveled across the world, picking up and dropping off goods as they went.
Trade with the far East was such an essential part of Salem that it became the centerpiece of the town when it was incorporated in March of 1863. The town motto is “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” which means “To the rich East Indies until the last lap.” This trade with China made many traders, merchants, and sailors in Salem richer than they ever could have imagined. Several of them went on to establish the households and areas that now make up the Salem National Maritime Historic Site .
Demand Grows For international Products
Salem became known for its variety of imported offerings. These were stored on the harbor in store houses, and sold in popular shops like the West India Goods Store – which itself began as a storehouse for Captain Henry Prince. One of the most popular categories of goods bought and sold in Salem were ceramics, furniture and decorations, textiles, spices, and indigo.
The new United States was populated by people who were used to having nice things. Over the years in the new world, items like ceramics and china could become broken and damaged. This led to a high demand for new ceramics, like wash basins, decorative vases, porcelain, and tea sets. In an ironic twist from the modern day, ceramics from China were the most highly-sought and were far more expensive than those imported from Europe. This meant that traders could make a greater profit from going to China to source their ceramic goods.
Chinese furniture was also highly regarded in the new world and examples and pieces influenced by Chinese furniture makers can be seen all over historic homes in New England. Wealthy townspeople of the time loved to show off their wealth with unique, foreign products. Furniture was one of the most interesting examples and the styles varied immensely from piece to piece.
Silk was the most popular textile ever since it was first introduced in Europe hundreds of years prior. These soft, miraculous fabrics were unlike anything that the Americans had ever seen when first imported in 1789. Soon they became one of the most popular products for traders to bring back from China, despite the heavy tax on imported silk.
You can’t discuss international trade without bringing up spices. The vast majority of the world’s cinnamon at the time was sourced from Ceylon/Cochin, China (now a part of Vietnam). They were lightweight and highly desired, so ship captains often went out of their way to acquire it during their travels.
Indigo is one of the most famous types of dye because it’s used in something that most of us wear almost every day: denim. Traders would bring back significant quantities of it to use in dying all sorts of products and clothes that were popular at the time. Indigo has only become more sought after since that time, but Salem never returned to its roots as one of the primary American trading ports.
Link to Salem Maritime Historic Site blog