American travelers today are accustomed both to convenience and speed. A journey to the other side of the world can be accomplished in a day, with as much luxury as the budget allows.
But in the late 18thc, international travel was neither easy, fast, nor luxurious, especially for Americans who wished to engage in the lucrative trade with India. All such journeys were made under sail. Voyages that began in Boston or Salem would continue across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then across the Indian Ocean. The length of a voyage depended on winds, storms, seasons, the captain and crew, and a great deal of luck.
For example, Benjamin Carpenter left Boston on December 24, 1789 (Christmas Eve!), and did not arrive in Madras until August 16, 1790, after nearly eight months at sea. Dudley Pickman Salem was more fortunate; his voyage from Salem, MA to Madras in 1799-1800 took only 111 days.*
There were plenty of perils, too, including shipwrecks, illness, accidents, and pirates. If those were avoided, passengers still faced a repetitive and limited menu, lack of exercise, homesickness, and boredom. Even for an affluent traveler, quarters were cramped, often little more than a closet-sized cabin. The best (sometimes only) company would be books, which, like everything else, would have been carefully chosen with space at such a premium.
All of which leads to the ingenious mahogany sea chest shown here, now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Benjamin Joy (c1755/57-1828) was a merchant from Newburyport, MA. Experienced in trading with India (he was one of the rare Americans at the time who had also lived in India), Joy was appointed United State Consul to Calcutta and other Indian ports by President George Washington in November, 1792. According to the chest's placard:
"Joy arrived in Calcutta in April 1794, where the British East India Company refused to recognized him as Consul, but permitted him to reside there as a 'commercial agent.' This marked the beginning of America's official relationship with India.
"Portable chests like this were indispensable on long sea voyages. This chest provides a felt-covered desk, secure compartments to hold inks and other liquids, more compartments for brushes and a sewing kit, drawers, a mirror, washbasin, chamber pot, and even a bidet."
The chest is a marvel of efficiency masquerading as an elegant piece of gentleman's furniture. Curator Anne Bentley demonstrated its various quick-change functions, and even over two hundred years after its creation, every drawer and compartment still fits snugly and perfectly into place. Meant for a tiny shipboard cabin, the chest would have made the most of the limited space. It's the Swiss Army knife of furnishings.
The origins of the chest are now unknown, but it's believed to have been made not in Salem, but in India, in preparation for the voyage home. Perhaps Mr. Joy used all that time on the outbound voyage to decide exactly what was required (and what he was lacking), and from uncomfortable experience was able to have the cabinetmaker create the perfect sea chest. Necessity can often be not only the mother of invention, but splendid design as well.
There is a similar chest in the collection of the Adams National Historic Park that belonged to another diplomat and frequent traveler, John Quincy Adams; his is referred to as a "traveling chest." Beyond that, however, the MHS staff isn't aware of any other surviving examples. If you know of another (no matter its origin), please leave a comment, and I'll pass it along.
* This information comes from another of our wonderful friends of the blog, Dane Morrison, author of True Yankees: Americans, the South Seas, and the Discovery of National Identity, 1784-1844, Johns Hopkins Press. Follow his blog here.
Many thanks to Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art and Artifacts, Massachusetts Historical Society, for her assistance with this post.
Sea chest, maker unknown [India?], 1790s. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Photographs ©2017 by Susan Holloway Scott.