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4. China in Miniature: Nathan Dunn’s Chinese Museum


Tantalized by stories of huge fortunes acquired in a short time, Nathan Dunn of Philadelphia sailed to Canton in 1818 to eliminate a rather substantial debt he had amassed after several failed business ventures. In 1822, he was still relatively new to the China trade, but by then he had legitimate grounds for optimism. His fledgling trading enterprise had performed well, he had adjusted to life in the foreign factories, and he had forged a valuable friendship and alliance with Tingqua, a Hong merchant (a different person from the artist described in chapter 2). Yet Dunn knew better than to become complacent, because the China trade was prone to dramatic shifts without warning. He knew that an unforeseen disaster—a storm at sea, an attack by Chinese pirates on a cargo-bearing vessel, a sudden market fluctuation—could rise up and instantly erase his profits, hurling him back into the state of severe debt from which he had only recently emerged.

Late one evening in early November, sometime after midnight, a fire broke out in Canton, just a short distance from the foreign factories. As gusty winds blew through the rows of houses, the fire spread easily and soon rose to the level of a full-scale conflagration. The foreign community, observing that it was rapidly moving toward their factories, pleaded with the Chinese to raze a line of buildings in and so stop the fire from advancing. But their calls for containment were ignored. Chinese property owners reasoned that the fire was still some distance away. Why should an individual voluntarily sacrifice his own home or business for a threat that might never materialize? With no measures being taken to obstruct its path, the fire continued to spread, and foreigners resigned themselves to salvaging what they could before it destroyed their lodgings, offices, and warehouses.

Soon pandemonium broke out, as foreign and Chinese merchants made frantic attempts to transport their storehouses of goods onto ships anchored in the harbor. Adding to the mayhem, a torrential current of Cantonese citizens streamed out of the burning city to the water’s edge, holding their belongings. Amid the hysteria, Nathan Dunn was unable to find any Chinese laborers willing to move the contents of his warehouse—holdings valued at the substantial sum of $150,000—to a safe location. And so, as the fire began to encroach on the foreign factories, Dunn stood helplessly in the street, watching the brilliant red glow in the night sky. For the second time in his life, he faced the specter of utter financial ruin.

As the flames began to lick against the sides of structures close to Dunn’s warehouse, Tingqua recognized his friend’s dire situation and came to his aid by quickly dispatching about eighty of his own men along with a fleet of small boats. To Dunn’s amazement, the men proceeded to load crate after crate of his goods onto the boats, rendering them safe from the fire. Remarkably, while Tingqua’s men were busy saving Dunn’s livelihood, the Hong merchant’s own factory was severely damaged in the blaze. Yet Tingqua conducted business on a scale that dwarfed that of Nathan Dunn. But he knew that, whereas his deep monetary reserves allowed him to absorb the occasional pecuniary setback, the fire would have proved devastating for his friend. Tingqua had simply selected the only course that would permit both men to continue to seek prosperity. “All this is now gone by,” Dunn wrote a decade later, “and I shall ever remember with gratitude to him.” 1

Like many Americans in the China trade, Dunn went on to make his fortune. Unlike the others, though, he transcended commerce, converting his experience in China into something of educational value. While in Canton, he diverted a portion of his newly acquired wealth to the formation of the world’s largest Chinese collection. After returning to Philadelphia, he installed it in a museum and opened the doors to the public. From his personal experiences in China, his overall impression of the Chinese was quite favorable, and so Dunn used his exhibit to construct the Chinese as a people worthy of Americans’ admiration.

However, other factors besides warm feelings played a role in shaping the exhibit. Like Houckgeest, Dunn was animated by what we may call an ideology of Enlightenment science, which instilled in him a will to understand China comprehensively and categorically. He aspired to assemble a collection that was all-inclusive, covering the natural as well as the human world throughout China’s vast territory, not just in Canton. Blocking this ambition, however, was the Qing ordinance that restricted all Westerners to the foreign factories. Since the law precluded Dunn from undertaking the collecting himself, he appealed to his Chinese friends for assistance. Obliging his request, they helped him secure a team of agents who fanned out across the provinces for collection purposes. And so, although an American conceived of this grandiose project and set the general guidelines for its assembly, it was the Chinese who ultimately decided what went into the collection and what was left out.

In the end, Dunn’s ambition yielded a museum that was encyclopedic to the point where he could state, “It is China in miniature.” 2 Many of the visitors arrived possessing only scant knowledge of China; for them, a simple piece of willowware would have been sufficient to inspire dreams of Cathay. On entering the salon, they confronted a staggering number of artifacts, pictures, statues, and natural-history specimens all arranged systematically by a man who intended to challenge Americans’ groundless oriental fantasies with authentic Chinese objects.

The Gamble

Nathan Dunn was born in 1782 to a farming family in Salem County, New Jersey. His father died shortly after his birth, and his widowed mother remarried and became a well-known Quaker minister. In his father’s will it was stipulated that he learn a trade, but Dunn instead moved to Philadelphia in 1802 and entered the business community, becoming an apprentice to a merchant. In 1805, Dunn and a partner launched their own business, and that same year the Monthly Meeting of Friends in Philadelphia received him as a member. 3 However, over the course of the next decade, Dunn slowly slid into a quagmire of debt. 4 Although the details are not clear, the Monthly Meeting disowned Dunn in 1816 on the grounds that he had become “embarrassed in his affairs and unable to meet his engagements” and, more specifically, that he had “assigned his effects so as to secure some of his creditors in preference to others.” While the dismissal must have been hard for Dunn to accept, the Monthly Meeting did offer a chance for future redemption: “We testify that we no longer acknowledge him a member of our religious society; yet we desire that he may experience a qualification to be rightly restored.” 5 Heavily in debt and expelled from the Quaker society, Nathan Dunn by the age of 34 had reached bottom.


Looking for both a fresh start and a way to pay off his creditors, he decided in 1818 to enter the risky yet potentially lucrative world of the China trade. 6 His decision was far from uncommon, as many men mired in financial difficulty resorted to this burgeoning trade. Since a single voyage might earn a return of 400 to 500 percent, a fortunate merchant could accumulate wealth in a short time. 7 Yet, being in arrears, Dunn lacked the capital to secure a ship, purchase a cargo, and hire a captain and crew. For these he turned to his friend John Field, who had some past experience in the China trade. Field was also one of Dunn’s creditors, and apparently the failed businessman owed Field a substantial sum. “I proposed this voyage to him,” Dunn wrote, “and though he at the time had no intention to make another voyage to China, he finally acquiesced on the condition that the commissions accruing on the shipment should be applied in part to liquidate a debt I owed him.” Apparently, Field believed that financing his friend provided the only means whereby he might one day see his loans repaid. “This was all right,” Dunn wrote of Field’s terms. “I was willing to pay as much as I could of the debt of my previous misfortune.” The two men became partners, and Dunn began a career that would take him to China (fig. 4.1). 8

While Field remained in Philadelphia to oversee the domestic side of the business, Dunn embarked for Canton in the spring of 1818 in a vessel aptly named the Hope. Dunn acted as the ship’s supercargo, which meant that he was responsible for keeping the books and handling all transactions—both the sale of American goods to Chinese merchants and the subsequent purchase of Chinese commodities intended for the American market. On arriving in Canton, Dunn saw on his first day most of what he would ever see of China, as the strictly enforced Qing ordinance confined him to the foreign factories (fig. 4.2). Dunn and the other foreign traders lived, ate, slept, and conducted business in a space measuring just 400 yards in length and 300 in width—about one twenty-fifth of a square mile. 9 When Dunn’s curious niece wrote to him asking for a description of China, Dunn could not oblige her request, stating that “the limits prescribed to foreigners are through the jealousies of the officers of the Government, very much confined.” 10

While a trader’s movement was severely restricted, his life in the foreign factories was not always dull. Besides tending to business, he found plenty that was amusing just by walking into the public square between the factories and the waterfront. David Abeel, an American missionary whose residence in Canton coincided with Dunn’s, described the sights and sounds in vivid detail. “As the morning opens upon this scene,” he wrote, “silence retires and the ears of the stranger are assailed by a new and peculiar combination of sounds.” This “inharmonious concert” was composed of the “harsh, drawling tones” of human voices, the “cries of confined dogs and cats,” the “screams of roughly handled poultry,” and the “notes of feathered songsters.”

As the day progresses, the area rapidly becomes alive with “multitudes of natives,” who congregate daily “to transact business, gratify curiosity, or murder time.” Indeed, Abeel found many interesting people to observe: Chinese gamblers engaged in games of chance, itinerant barbers setting up shop for the day, “quacks” hawking remedies for all sorts of maladies, “idlers” who would gather in large crowds around jugglers and storytellers, and merchants out peddling meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, drugs, and manufactures. In addition, many Chinese would come from far away just to observe the strange outsiders for whom they harbored an “insatiable curiosity.” According to Abeel, a foreigner who appears on his veranda or enters the square immediately becomes the object of prolonged stares. The Chinese turn to look, he wrote, and then freeze in a fixed position, “approaching to statues,” and “continue to stare as though riveted by a magic spell.” 11

If Dunn were to extend his gaze past the square and into the water, new sights would unfold within his field of vision: the “water population.” In Canton harbor, one could find an entire civilization that lived on boats, with many people passing their entire lives without touching land. According to Abeel, these people enjoyed “every convenience of land as well as water.” In addition to “edibles,” one could find barbers, theatrical productions, shrines for worship, and “flower boats”—floating brothels that elicited Abeel’s outrage. 12 In sum, wherever Nathan Dunn chose to look, he was sure to find some interesting activity.

Despite these distractions, Dunn remained focused on his primary task, which was to build a successful business that would allow him to pay off his crippling debts and clear his name in the Quaker Monthly Meeting. As for the nature of this business, advertisements placed by John Field and Nathan Dunn in Philadelphia newspapers indicate that they imported mostly the usual Chinese commodities: crates of tea, nankeens (a durable yellow cloth), and silken goods. 13 However, although the American side of the trade was fairly standard, on the Chinese side Dunn was able to make one key innovation that would eventually place him on a trajectory toward economic prosperity.

The problem with the China trade had always been that, while Western consumers demonstrated a strong demand for Chinese goods, the Chinese showed only tepid interest in Western products. Hoping to bring balance to the trade, merchants were always hunting for goods that appealed to Chinese tastes. During his first sojourn in Canton, Dunn identified in the Chinese market a niche that traders had yet to exploit. “I soon found when in Canton that there was an opening for the introduction of the different kinds of British goods,” Dunn recalled, “and that by procuring them . . . better calculated for the Chinese wants . . . a fair profit could be realized” (emphasis added). In other words, if suppliers in England could tailor their manufactures specifically “to suit the Chinese taste,” the Chinese would respond by increasing their demand. Dunn’s next move was to sail for England, where he promptly lined up several British manufacturers, including James Brown and Company of Leeds, who commenced filling his unique order. 14

Writing to his brother and sister from Liverpool in November 1821, Dunn informed them that he was heading back to China soon and that “I may be detained a little in Canton.” 15 Unbeknownst to him at that time, that “little” stay in Canton would swell to over eight years as, starting in May 1822, his unique trading strategy would keep him exclusively in the Chinese port. In essence, he established what amounted to a triangular trade. American ships would convey American goods to England, where the cargoes would be promptly sold with the profits going toward the purchase of these specialized English manufactures, altered so as to appeal to Chinese consumers. The ships would then continue on to Canton, where Dunn had permanently stationed himself. When the ships docked in Canton harbor, Dunn would sell their British cargoes and then proceed to load their compartments with Chinese goods meant for the American market. 16

Dunn’s uninterrupted residence in Canton was a key component of this strategy. From this post, he could watch the fluctuations of the Chinese market and, when prices dropped, buy up Chinese goods and warehouse them until his ships arrived. The permanent residence also allowed him to forge alliances with the Hong merchants. As any American trader was well aware, Hong merchants were indispensable to any foreigner who wanted to succeed in the China trade before the Opium War. Some Hong merchants used their positions to become fabulously wealthy, but the responsibility of handling China’s entire foreign trade also carried formidable risks. If after a series of failures a Hong merchant were to accumulate a debt so severe that he could not recover, the Qing government would banish him to the frozen north of Tartary (Manchuria). That two unfortunate merchants had experienced this sad fate in Dunn’s time prompted another American trader, Robert Bennet Forbes, to write, “We wish no greater punishment to our worst enemy than that he might be made a ‘Hong merchant.’” 17

Always wary of this possible outcome, Hong merchants had to handle their business transactions in a careful, shrewd, and calculating manner. Likewise, American traders had to be circumspect in their dealings with them. To the captains, supercargoes, or younger merchants in their employ, experienced traders wrote admonitory letters filled with advice regarding the selection of the right Hong merchant to handle a cargo. These correspondences usually contained thorough character sketches of each of the twelve or so men, and they offered valuable information as to which ones could be trusted, which ones were devious, and which ones were financially unsteady. 18

Dunn established especially strong ties with two Hong merchants, the more prominent of whom was Houqua. In 1819, Charles Tyng, an American sailor, described Houqua as “magnificently dressed in silks and satins of various rich colours.” “He was an old man,” Tyng continued, “I think near seventy, not bad looking, with rather a long mustache, all the rest of face and head nicely shaved, excepting the queue.” 19 To this physical description, Robert Forbes added a caricature of Houqua’s intellectual and personal qualities. “He had a most comprehensive mind, and united the qualities of an enterprising merchant and sagacious politician,” Forbes wrote. “He was always a warm friend to the Americans, and through them was supposed to have carried on a considerable trade.” 20

In a business rife with deception and bribery, Houqua secured the lion’s share of the trade by maintaining a lofty reputation among foreigners as the most trustworthy and reliable of all the Hong merchants. 21 But his probity came at a cost, as he charged foreigners dearly for the right to trade through him. By 1834, Houqua had amassed such a vast fortune that his net worth was estimated at $52 million—making him perhaps the wealthiest commoner alive in the world. 22 As Forbes stated, Houqua possessed a special fondness for Americans and frequently held soirées for his American friends at his estate, known for its magnificent gardens. 23 With limitless wealth and connections, Houqua was in a position to provide Dunn with invaluable assistance both in commerce and in his later attempt to collect artifacts.

Besides the illustrious Houqua, Dunn also enjoyed good relations with a lesser-known Hong merchant, Tingqua, who handled Dunn’s ships when they entered the harbor and was relatively new to his position when Dunn arrived in China. On two separate occasions he acted to save Dunn’s career. Of course, the more dramatic of these incidents took place when the massive fire of 1822 threatened to destroy Dunn’s business. Tingqua’s timely decision to send manpower over to Dunn’s warehouse prevented Dunn from sustaining a huge financial loss that would have sent him spiraling back into debt. On another occasion, Tingqua risked his own economic future in order to protect Dunn from a colossal enemy intent on destroying his nascent enterprise.

In fact, it was Dunn’s triangular trading scheme that placed Tingqua’s business in a precarious position. Though clearly an impressive display of Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill, Dunn’s scheme depended heavily on forays into England. Since Dunn was somewhat audaciously treading on the territory of the British East India Company, his activity soon provoked the ire of the economic giant. “But here the East India Company’s jealousy was awake,” Dunn wrote, as “they were not to be interfered with by an American coming to China direct from England with British Goods.” Since Tingqua had been securing Dunn’s ships, the company employed a strategy of incentives and threats to convince the Hong merchant to sever ties with the troublesome American.

The company first called Tingqua into its offices to make him an offer. “Now you are a new house just beginning business,” a company representative stated, and “we will aid you if you comply with our wishes.” The company promised to channel $200,000 of its annual business to Tingqua if he would agree to cease handling “Mr. Dunn’s ship,” for “she has our kind of goods.” After Tingqua walked out of the office, refusing to make any kind of agreement, the company called on him later that day to issue an ultimatum: “If you secure this ship we will withdraw our business from you.” Even in the face of such pressure, Tingqua remained obstinate: “I will secure Mr. Dunn’s ship, and you may if you please take away your business.” Tingqua remained loyal to Dunn despite the great risk to his own commercial enterprise, and Dunn never forgot his friend’s sacrifice. He knew that, had it not been for this friendship, he would not have amassed the fortune that made his Chinese collection possible. 24

An Idea Germinates

Nathan Dunn’s experience in China was far from typical. “I was to be found at my post through all the seasons,” he wrote. “This I thought I ought to do, both to take advantage of the market in selling the goods, and in purchasing silks, teas, &., when no other persons were in the market. I never visited Macao until a short time before I embarked for Europe in 1831.” 25 That visit to Macao, which took place in June 1830, was noted in the journal of a young woman named Harriet Low, the niece of an American China trader who was residing there because Qing law strictly forbade the presence of Western women in Canton (a law she broke on one occasion). “After breakfast received . . . from Canton . . . a splendid comb, brought by friend Dunn, who has not seen a lady for eight years!” she wrote. “He has come down [to Macao] to do his countrywomen the honor of being the first ladies he has called on in China.” 26 From the amazement registered in Low’s tone, we can surmise that Dunn’s avoidance of Macao was somewhat extraordinary. Indeed, most traders passed the hot summer months in the Portuguese-controlled city, which had become something of a resort town for foreigners who were ill, craving entertainment, or in need of female companionship. Macao, its recreational opportunities, and its cosmopolitan society were a part of the typical trader’s China experience, but not a part of Nathan Dunn’s. 27


Why did Dunn remain aloof from the expatriate society in Macao for so many years when other traders partook of it regularly? The most obvious answer relates to Dunn’s past failures; he had suffered profound humiliation after both earlier misadventures in business and his subsequent expulsion from Monthly Meeting. Quite possibly, his decision to stay in Canton was motivated by a personal desire to achieve redemption by recovering his losses, paying off debts, and regaining his good name.

Yet one other possibility exists. Dunn chose to remain a bachelor throughout his life. And, as will be discussed below, Dunn faced sodomy charges in Philadelphia in 1841, a decade after his return from China. Though he was acquitted of any crime, the episode opens up the possibility that he was gay. 28 If so, his sexual orientation would help to explain why he elected to eschew the sensual pleasures of Macao to remain in Canton’s male-dominated society of Chinese and foreign merchants. It also would help illuminate Dunn’s strong affinity for and understanding of Chinese people, which far exceeded that felt by most merchants. Since Dunn was never able to see any part of China other than Canton, his Chinese experience was more interpersonal than it was geographic. In other words, he confronted China not through travel but through interactions with Chinese people. Though his close relationship with Tingqua might have been based purely on friendship, it might also have contained a sexual component. If so, we can begin to see how Dunn, by experiencing intimacy with a Chinese individual, was able to surmount racial, cultural, and linguistic barriers and see the true humanity of the Asian “other.” In short, through a sexual relationship, Dunn may have acquired for Chinese people a love and understanding that other traders were never able to experience. These positive feelings would later find expression in his museum.

Still, the monotony of eight uninterrupted years inside a small contained space did test Dunn’s endurance. At some undetermined point in the 1820s, Dunn began to collect Chinese things as a diversion from the daily tedium. His original plan, which was quite modest, entailed only the formation of “a cabinet sufficient to fill a small apartment.” It was meant both “for his own pleasure and that of his friends.” And so in the early stages he was gathering items “not with any view to its general publicity.” However, what began as a mere hobby quickly gathered momentum as Dunn proved unable to quench his ardor for collecting. As the Chinese collection grew, his “passion for accumulation” grew at a commensurate rate such that “every year his plan expanded wider and wider.” 29 Consumed with collecting fever, the scope of the project soon swelled to colossal proportions. Dunn was not alone in his ambition. Like his predecessor Houckgeest, he was attempting to assemble an all-inclusive Chinese collection.

Other parties interested in collecting soon discovered that success depended on more than just deep pockets and a desire to shop. Anyone desiring a collection that was representative of the entire nation faced the problem of access. The Qing government simply would not grant to any foreigner the permission to rove throughout the interior of China and hunt for artifacts. For this reason, the attempts made by each of the major contenders, all large companies or institutions, inevitably ended in disappointment. Even the East India Company—with its army of agents, the backing of the British government, and deep monetary reserves—tried to build a grand collection but failed. 30 According to one report, its entire Chinese holdings amounted to only about one tenth of what Dunn would ultimately acquire. The Dutch East India Company also made an attempt, but Dunn’s collection would dwarf this one as well. Finally, the members of the East India Marine Society hoped to include a substantial Chinese component in their museum in Salem, Massachusetts. They, however, netted only objects of a “souvenir” nature and blamed the failure on “wealthy mandarins” who, themselves connoisseurs of Chinese things, disdained to part with anything unique or of value. 31

Why was a solitary American trader able to succeed where large institutions found their efforts thwarted? Benjamin Silliman, a professor of chemistry and natural history at Yale, posed this question to Dunn during a tour of Dunn’s museum. He learned that Dunn achieved his goal in part because he had those “wealthy mandarins” working for him. They appreciated the way that he, unlike most agents of the East India Company, had learned to respect the “ingenuity” and the “intelligence” of the Chinese and to treat “all classes” well. 32

More important, at a time when few American traders openly objected to the opium trade, and some confessed to deriving one half their income from it, 33 Dunn held firm to the position that the trade was morally unjust, and he led the opposition to it in Canton. 34 “Opium is a poison,” he wrote, “destructive alike of the health and morals of those who use it habitually, and, therefore, the traffic in it . . . is nothing less than making merchandise of the bodies and souls of men.” 35 Brantz Mayer, who met Dunn during a trip to Canton in 1827, observed the positive effect of Dunn’s stance in the Chinese community. “Instead of dealing in OPIUM . . . and thus aiding (as too many Americans have done) in fixing on the Chinese all the curses which flow from the habitual use of that intoxicating drug,” Mayer wrote, Dunn received “presents . . . of valuable curiosities . . . from the natives” who sought to show their “thankfulness for the virtue which induced him to abstain from assisting in the ruin of thousands of their countrymen.” 36 Dunn, in short, cared about the health and well-being of the Chinese people whereas many other traders did not.

Dunn’s stance on the pernicious drug eventually reached the attention not only of local officials but also of the Chinese government in Peking and, finally, of the emperor himself. 37 As a result, Dunn was able to ingratiate himself with China’s elite. According to Silliman, he frequently entertained “the most distinguished officers of the Government” at his “house and table.” After winning their “esteem and confidence,” he “soon discovered that it was in his power to obtain favors not usually granted to strangers.” Of course, the two Hong merchants, Tingqua and Houqua, who were already in Dunn’s camp, also possessed the power and connections to provide him with invaluable assistance. 38

These powerful Chinese men transformed a seemingly impossible objective into a reality by providing Dunn with the means to circumnavigate the Qing restrictions on foreigners. In addition to giving him rare and valuable objects, they helped him hire Chinese agents willing to travel to other regions purely for collection purposes. 39 A guidebook to Philadelphia would later highlight this penetration of the interior and present it as Dunn’s greatest triumph: “When it is considered, that most of the CURIOSITIES of the Chinese Empire, are entirely beyond the reach, of even those who have visited her cities . . . the intelligent public will be able to appreciate the value” of the collection. 40 Likewise, the Philadelphia Saturday Courier credited Dunn’s “Chinese friends and agents” for the artifacts “brought from the interior of China, where foreigners rarely if ever penetrate.” 41

That newspaper also noted the efforts of “a young Philadelphia naturalist, Mr. W. W. Wood,” whom Dunn befriended in Canton probably because the two shared the same contempt for the opium trade and the British East India Company. 42 Like Dunn, William Wood had ventured to China to get rich, and in the 1820s he found himself clerking for the American firm of Russell and Company. Unlike Dunn, Wood lacked business acumen and never achieved any success that can be measured in dollars. He was, however, a true romantic, and his years roving across Asia proved to be anything but uneventful. The son of a famous actor, he possessed a deep reservoir of artistic talent. Another American residing in Canton aptly described Wood: “He abounded in wit, was well read, and of no fixed purpose.” Known as a clever poet, Wood would compose parodies of famous poems and base them on life in Canton. 43 Also a skilled draughtsman and caricaturist, he offered art lessons in the foreign community and even wrote and illustrated his own book, Sketches of China, published in 1830. 44

Wood also founded and edited the first English-language newspaper in China, The Canton Register, which he printed himself on a borrowed handpress. In his editorials, he frequently inveighed against the East India Company, sparking controversy in the foreign community and prompting a rival editor to challenge him to a duel. Wood protected his honor when the challenger not only failed to show but actually fled the country. 45 Ever the romantic, Wood fell in love with Harriet Low and made frequent visits to Macao, ostensibly to give her drawing lessons. When he secretly asked for her hand in marriage, she, enthralled by this brilliant and energetic figure, readily accepted. Unfortunately, her uncle discovered the engagement and objected to his niece marrying a “penniless adventurer.” Wedding plans were canceled, and Wood spent the rest of his life as a bachelor. Years later, perhaps while he was managing a coffee and sugar plantation in Jala Jala, he would introduce photography to the Philippines, and some sources credit him with doing the same in China. 46 It was this side of William Wood, that of the romantic adventurer, that Dunn would find so useful.

Collection Methodology

Anyone looking to capture the essence of a culture through the collection of artifacts must make choices as to what to include and what to omit. To guide the decision making, the collector formulates a methodology into which he incorporates his personal sense of what is important. For example, the naturalist hunts for specimens of plant and animal life; the ethnologist searches for artifacts that can illuminate human cultures; and the art connoisseur seeks the finest works of painters and sculptors. Dunn, however, resisted the imposition of any such limits on the scope of his collecting. According to Silliman, he eventually “conceived the idea of transporting to his native shores everything that was characteristic or rare . . . no matter how costly that might be” (emphasis in original). 47 Instead of specializing in one particular area, the collection would encompass all things in both the human and the natural realm in China.


This all-inclusive methodology, far from making Dunn an anomaly in his own time, was actually consistent with the ideas that he frequently confronted in his young adulthood in Philadelphia. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia stood as the intellectual capital of America. Thanks to its people and institutions, Dunn’s formative years were awash in the spirit of the Enlightenment. It was a period shaped by Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist. Through his system of classification he attempted to impose coherence and order onto the confusion of the natural world. Having studied this work, amateur naturalists would scour the New World for plant and animal specimens that could be given a Latin name and assigned their proper place in the Great Chain of Being. 48 In Philadelphia, one could find Charles Willson Peale, who aspired to stuff, mount, and display in his museum all the links of the Great Chain, from the lowest plant forms to the highest form of Homo sapiens. Since no one epitomized the latter better than Benjamin Franklin, Peale hoped to apply his skills as a taxidermist to the great founding father, who apparently would have agreed to the arrangement. Franklin, however, died two years before the museum was formed. 49

Also in Philadelphia, John Bartram tended an elaborate botanical garden composed of as many types of plants as he or anyone could find; it was a microcosm of North American botany. Alexander Wilson, a precursor to John James Audubon, sought to create a pictorial record of all the birds of North America. And George Catlin, who was a near contemporary of Nathan Dunn and received his artistic training in Philadelphia, hoped to do the same for some Native American tribes. 50 And of course Houckgeest contributed in his own way to this ambitious scientific community by creating the prototype for a Chinese museum, one that, through pictures and objects, essayed to cover all aspects of Chinese life. In sum, these naturalists, ethnographers, museum proprietors, and painters all composed epic works suffused with the belief that humankind could catalog the entire universe—or at least some corner of it. 51

However, though the principles of the Enlightenment provided the intellectual underpinnings for these scientific forays into both the natural world and non-Western cultures, the activities of the individuals behind them soon veered into romanticism. Although possessing the impulse to classify all new phenomena and to assign them their proper place in the Great Chain of Being, explorers, artists, and men of science encountered a world burgeoning with a variety that resisted any attempts at classification. The endless heterogeneity of cultures and of biological life overwhelmed the Great Chain and ultimately exploded its rigid hierarchies. For this reason, these individuals were really transitional figures between the Enlightenment and the Romantic Age. They headed out into the unknown world and returned with artifacts, specimens, descriptions, and paintings that appealed to the romantic imagination. Instead of the orderly and predictable mechanistic universe of the Enlightenment, here was a world that was vast, colorful, enchanting, infinitely diverse, sublime, and full of wonder. 52

Nathan Dunn’s formative years were steeped in the ideas and discoveries of these seekers. He adopted both their curiosity for the outside world and their methods for comprehending it. For this reason, he did not invent a new system for understanding China; rather, he simply embraced the preexisting methods and applied them to China’s human culture and natural history. After observing both Dunn’s final exhibit in Philadelphia and his collecting activities in Canton, Brantz Mayer could easily discern the influence of Enlightenment science. Dunn, he wrote, had succeeded in “enclosing a whole people in glass cases. . . . He classified the people as we classify the collections of naturalists. Their habits, their crafts;—their follies, their amusements;—their manners, costumes, dwellings, and implements of war or husbandry” (emphasis in original). 53

Opting not to confine his efforts to the human realm, Dunn covered the flora and fauna of China as well. To amass a sizeable natural-history section for his collection, Dunn employed the skills and ingenuity of William Wood, granting the latter carte blanche to spend whatever sum was necessary to procure the finest zoological, botanical, and mineralogical specimens. Wood was well aware of the similar ambitions of the rival East India Company, and he must have relished this opportunity to assist the American David in his duel with the British Goliath. Here was a chance to help one man triumph over the largest and farthest-reaching commercial institution the world had ever known.

Of course, to Wood’s great vexation, he too was confined to Canton. “The empire abounds with subjects of the greatest interest to naturalists,” he wrote, “and it is to be regretted that the obstacles opposed to research by the Chinese government, render our knowledge of the subject so limited and imperfect.” Making the best of the situation, Wood employed a scheme that depended heavily on the Chinese to supply the bulk of the natural-history section. Through “industry, money, flattery,” “kindness,” and “subterfuge,” he was able to convince a team of Chinese agents to undertake field work.

These men were willing, but Wood feared that their work would not meet his standards. Convinced of the virtues of the Linnaean system, he judged the field of natural history in China to be both flawed and lacking in scientific rigor. “The ideas entertained by Chinese writers on the subject of animals are vague and imperfect, fable and absurdity being mingled in the strangest manner with truth and good sense,” he wrote. “They possess no systematic arrangement of animated beings, and commit the most glaring errors in classification.” To make sure that the agents followed correct procedures, Wood devoted considerable time and energy to their training in the proper handling of the specimens. After acquiring these skills, they fanned out, traveling “by land and water,” in search of birds, fish, reptiles, insects, shells, animals, plants, and rocks. On returning to Canton, many were able to present “new and interesting animals” to a pleased William Wood. 54

Wood supplemented their findings both by collecting specimens of fish on the China coast and by making accurate drawings of them. In addition, he sometimes secured interesting species in unlikely ways. For instance, since Chinese exhibitioners would often capture wild animals for their portable zoos, Wood would attend their shows and, at the conclusion, offer to buy the animals from the owner. In this fashion, he acquired both a boa constrictor and a wildcat. 55 Even after Dunn returned to the United States, Wood continued this collection service by shipping specimens to Philadelphia at a tremendous cost. Fortunately, only the moths and butterflies, it was said, suffered over the course of these transcontinental passages. In the end, the natural-history collection earned the approval of some of America’s top scientists, including Silliman, who praised Wood’s thoroughness: “Mr. Wood was indefatigable for many months in completing the herpetology of China; the conchology is fully represented,” and there are “some remarkably fine carbonates of copper, both nodular and radiated.” 56 The exertions of Wood and his Chinese agents helped stock an exhibit that, quite impressively, could stimulate the minds of naturalists in their special fields.

Building the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia

In 1831, Dunn made preparations to depart Canton for good. That he was apprehensive about his return was evident in his response to a friend who had inquired about his apparent depression: “I am . . . returning to Philadelphia so changed in appearance that none will remember me, and certainly I shall know but a few when I land.” 57 According to Harriet Low, Dunn received a warm and festive send-off from the community in Canton: “Mr. Dunn took passage in the Canning for England, after having been feasted, toasted, and cheered to his heart’s content. He has the good wishes and good will of all who have ever known him in Canton.” 58 Although heavily in debt when he first left Philadelphia more than twelve years earlier, Dunn was now returning home one of the city’s wealthiest citizens. 59 One of his first actions following his return was to invite all his creditors to a sumptuous banquet, where he placed under each plate a check for the amount of his debt plus interest in full. 60


Despite his triumphant return, Dunn was not content. To the botanist John H. Reeves he sent a letter in which he complained that he did not like “the manner of living” in Philadelphia, that he was “freezing to death,” and that “the help is no help at all.” Dunn clearly missed the warm climate of southern China as well as the servants he employed there. 61 Perhaps in an effort to transplant aspects of his life in China in his new American setting, he commissioned an architect to design for him a mansion in the Chinese style. In 1832, at the corner of High Street and Bartram Avenue in Mount Holly, Dunn began to build his “Chinese Cottage” just as, 35 years before, Houckgeest had constructed “China’s Retreat.” 62 Up to this point, Dunn’s life as a China trader had yet to diverge from the standard pattern outlined by the travel writer Osmond Tiffany. “Men who had landed [in Canton] with scarce a dollar,” he observed, “by enterprise, industry, and patience have in a few years been enabled to carry home sufficient [wealth] to enable them to live in luxury all the rest of their lives, to build palaces, and astonish their old friends . . . with . . . curiosities.” 63

Yet unlike Houckgeest and others, Dunn did not long for the detached life of the eccentric millionaire who passed his remaining years showing off his possessions to friends. On the contrary, he wanted to integrate himself into American life and sought civic responsibility commensurate to his newly acquired wealth and stature. According to J. S. Buckingham, a traveler from England, Dunn was “rich enough to need no further addition to his fortune, and ambitious enough to desire that his labors should enjoy their deserved reputation in his native city.” 64 Though he returned home to a nation caught up in the market and social revolutions of Jacksonian America, Dunn continued to harbor ideals about the gentleman’s role in society, ideals that had been shaped by the mores of an earlier era. In the classical republican tradition, he believed that, after spending a number of years pursuing financial success, one could become a virtuous gentleman only by withdrawing from the business sphere and devoting one’s time and energies to the public welfare, whether that involved entering politics, engaging in scientific pursuits, or assisting in worthy philanthropic causes.

In this respect, Dunn followed the example of Benjamin Franklin, who, after amassing sufficient wealth as a printer, retired at the age of forty-two. Of course, during these years of “retirement,” Franklin entered a period of tremendous activity in which he served as a statesman, advanced scientific knowledge, made several remarkable inventions, and formed institutions for the public good. 65 Dunn’s impact on America’s political and intellectual life could not match Franklin’s, but on retiring from the China trade he did aspire to the same ideals. He joined the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences and became manager of the Philadelphia House of Refuge. Perhaps to redeem himself in the eyes of the Quaker community, Dunn bailed out the foundering Haverford College, a Quaker institution, with a timely gift of $20,000. 66

Most important, the Philadelphia Museum Company, formerly the museum of Charles Willson Peale, appointed Dunn to its board of directors in 1836. There Dunn joined a distinguished group that included John Kintzing Kane, the father of Elisha Kent Kane, who would later make a name for himself as an Arctic explorer. 67 In 1786, Charles Willson Peale had founded his museum on the concept of “rational entertainment.” He designed his exhibits so that they would amuse patrons while simultaneously offering them instruction about the world. However, his son Rubens Peale assumed managerial responsibility after 1810, and competition from various other attractions such as panoramas, small circuses, and theatrical troops forced the son to compromise some of his father’s ideals in order that the museum would survive. When Rubens quietly removed the museum’s more prosaic exhibits and replaced them with curiosities, the museum founded on the principle of “rational entertainment” was beginning to shift away from the “rational” and toward pure “entertainment.” 68 It was slowly transforming into what Neil Harris described as the typical antebellum museum: “indiscriminate assemblages” in which “paintings and sculpture” existed alongside of “mummies, mastodon bones,” “stuffed animals,” and other assorted oddities. 69

The museum was undergoing hard times financially as well, and George Escol Sellers, Charles Willson Peale’s grandson, believed it could stand to benefit from the invigorating influence of an entirely novel exhibit. Sellers conceived of a revamped Philadelphia Museum, to be housed in a brand-new building, in which Peale’s exhibits and the Chinese collection of Nathan Dunn would coexist under one roof. Dunn agreed to the proposition and immediately backed the project with the necessary capital. He then moved to secure the plot of land, at the corner of Ninth and George Streets, that Sellers thought a propitious location for the new edifice. On January 20, 1836, the purchase was made from funds from two sources: a loan of $32,000, from the Bank of the United States, and another, from Dunn himself, amounting to $20,000. In exchange for Dunn’s large initial payment, the Philadelphia Museum agreed not to charge him rent for a period of ten years. When construction was complete, Peale’s Museum moved into the upper floor, and on the lower floor Dunn began to install his collection. On July 4, 1838, Peale’s Museum opened in its new building with due fanfare. 70

Dunn was not ready. He along with Titian Peale and a team of artists were working furiously in the hope that they could complete the installation of the Chinese exhibit by the end of the year. 71 The job proved to be difficult because Dunn’s collection methodology had generated an exhibit of such enormous proportions that it exceeded the available space. China, it seemed, possessed a vast diversity that surpassed the holding capability of a museum. Unable to display everything at once, Dunn resigned himself to the disappointing conclusion that he would have to keep many items in storage and introduce them into the exhibit on a rotating basis. 72 He encountered the same problem in writing the Descriptive Catalogue, a booklet of 120 pages that would provide visitors with a guided tour. “A very large number [of exhibited items] have been omitted in the catalogue,” he wrote, “as, if all had been introduced, it would have swelled the pamphlet to an unconventional size.” 73 Despite these problems, Dunn and the others continued to work at a feverish pace. “The Chinese collection requires all my time,” he wrote to his sister in November 1838. “I find without great exertions it cannot be opened by Christmas.” 74

“A Panoramic Pageant of Oriental Life”

On the evening of December 22, Dunn held a large reception for distinguished citizens of Philadelphia to introduce his exhibit, which now bore the title “Ten Thousand Chinese Things.” A group of well over one hundred invited guests, composed of “artists, merchants, mechanics, editors, literati, military and naval officers, and a goodly representation from all the learned professions,” sipped a beverage made by adding sugar and cream to a juice extracted from a Chinese plant. Dunn also served a variety of tea that was so rare and of such high quality that the Chinese refused to export it. Among those in attendance was E. C. Wines, a former principal in a Philadelphia school and personal friend of Nathan Dunn. Wines described Dunn as glowing with gratification on this night as he beheld “his labours so happily terminated, and the long cherished object of his ambition crowned with so brilliant a success.” 75 A journalist granted early access to the exhibit predicted that “the wonders of China” would “absorb the conversation of all, even of the busy politician and the solitary book worm.” Up to now a “sealed book,” China was now revealed by the museum to be “the most extraordinary nation on the earth.” 76


The next day visitors paid twenty-five cents for admission (money which went to charity), and entered the spacious saloon that measured 163 feet in length, 70 in breadth, and 35 in height. 77 Twenty-two square pillars, each adorned with paintings, supported the ceiling. According to E. C. Wines, the initial sensory overload triggered a sense of wonder in the guests:

Here, as if touched by the wand of an enchanter, we are compelled to pause. . . . . The view is imposing in the highest degree. But it is so unlike anything we are accustomed to behold, that we are at a loss for descriptive epithets. . . . Brilliant, splendid, gorgeous, magnificent, superb—all these adjectives are liberally used by visitors. 78

Guests were initially struck by the ten-foot, multicolored Chinese lanterns that hung from the ceiling as well as by the two enormous rectangular screens facing each other at either end of the hall. Each measured fifty feet in length and was divided into compartments that offered detailed depictions of Chinese flowers as well as panoramic views of landscapes, seascapes, and river scenes. 79 They also encountered three colossal gilded idols that presided majestically over the saloon, a representation of the Buddha in his past, present, and the future manifestations (fig. 4.3). These were recreations of originals that had caught Dunn’s attention during a visit to a Buddhist shrine on Honam island, across the Pearl River from the foreign factories. 80

Waiting to greet the guests was Nathan Dunn himself. Sidney George Fisher of Philadelphia visited the museum and noted that “Mr. Dunn was in the room himself and explained to us the nature and uses of many things.” 81 In this effort, Dunn was assisted by a young Chinese man, whose job was to circulate throughout the museum and help guests understand the various displays. Of course, since most of them had never before met someone from China, the exhibitor doubled as a de facto exhibit. “What increases the interest of the scene,” wrote one reporter, “is a young Chinese, in full costume, who walks about the Hall, explaining things to the visitors in bad English, and with a most amiable manner that shows he is gratified in being useful.” Since no other account mentions the young man, he probably did not stay with the museum for a very long time. 82

Even without the young Chinese man, Dunn’s museum did not lack a human presence. No fewer than fifty life-size clay statues populated the salon, representing all strata of Chinese society: mandarins, priests, mourners dressed in white, tragedians, itinerant barbers, shoemakers, smiths, shopkeepers and their customers, boatmen, beggars, merchants, soldiers, and many others. J. S. Buckingham was impressed by how closely the statues and their settings approximated life:

They are all actual figures, as large as life, moulded in clay, with a resemblance to life . . . greater than that of the finest wax-work figures. They are placed in the most natural and appropriate attitudes imaginable. They have all actual dresses of the exact kind worn by the several classes they represent and are surrounded by those several auxiliaries and accompaniments which belong to their respective dwellings or occupations, and have a reality about them, which comes the nearest to actual life of anything I have ever seen. 83

Instead of placing rigid statues before a blank backdrop, Dunn employed dioramas. By posing the figures, providing them with the appropriate props, and situating them before colorful backgrounds, he was able to show the characteristic actions of the Chinese as well as the environments in which they lived and worked. He probably learned this exhibition technique from Peale’s Museum, whose innovation it was. 84

In the case of the scholar and his student, viewers could observe not just their respective garments but also the deferential pose struck by the student. In another case, they could see three literati discuss arcane matters while servants tended to their needs (fig. 4.4). And in Dunn’s reproduction of a silk shop, visitors could watch the customer as he scrutinized the silk fabric while the shopkeeper made quick calculations on an abacus. In the most impressive of these dioramas, two sedan-chair bearers carry a Chinese gentleman down a full-scale reproduction of a Cantonese street (fig. 4.5). Surrounded by statues, one guest felt he had traveled to China and found time mysteriously standing still: “The visitor must feel as if he were examining a country, where the breath of life and the noise of instruments had suddenly ceased, and every object animate and inanimate had been left unchanged.” 85 Brantz Mayer called the combined effect of all these statues and backgrounds “a panoramic pageant of Oriental life,” so eerily accurate that “we almost expect to hear them speak and see them move.” 86

That each statue was unique augmented the realism of the museum. Unlike mannequins, which are only as interesting as the garments placed on them, the Chinese statues each bore the exact likeness of some actual Chinese personage. Driven to provide Americans with an accurate portrayal of China, Dunn had spent three years supervising their production, employing sculptors who used a special technique to model the clay figures from the fifty “living subjects” he had selected. And to add a final touch of realism, his sculptors embellished the statues with real human hair. The effect was such that visitors to the museum who had previously sojourned in Canton could actually recognize specific people they had seen there. 87 Dunn’s statues have not survived, but the Rhode Island Historical Society possesses a statue that was brought from Canton at around the same time and that may be of the same variety (fig. 4.6). 88

After visitors recovered from the overall effect achieved by the museum’s interior, they next delved into the particulars contained in the fifty-three glass cases, each covered by a facsimile of a Chinese roof. In the cases were furniture; models of bridges, canals, pagodas, and boats; an actual boat; musical instruments; weapons; jewelry; varieties of porcelain and porcelain vases, some being six feet tall; lacquer-work; agricultural tools; a coffin; bamboo pillows; seventeen concentric ivory balls carved from a single block of ivory; spectacles with frames made of tortoise shells and lenses composed of rock; coins; a stuffed Chinese buffalo sent by William Wood; a thirteen-foot boa constrictor coiled around a wild cat of China (described above); and more than three hundred prints and paintings depicting almost every aspect of Chinese life. It was, wrote E. C. Wines, enough to “astonish” those who had previously seen only export wares. 89

Learning through Objects

According to Brantz Mayer, Americans based their mental picture of China on “a tea chest” or “a China plate.” 90 Clearly, Dunn saw his museum’s primary mission as being didactic. Guests might enter either wholly ignorant with regard to China or possessing only fanciful images derived from porcelain, tea advertisements, or the Arabian Nights, but it was imperative that they not exit so same poorly informed. To effect this beneficial transformation, Dunn employed several strategies, one of which a newspaper reporter attempted to explain:


Books describe and even give engravings; but the thing described is much more forcibly impressed on the mind when we see it; we learn geography by travelling and when a giraffe is presented to the eye, the perfect impression remains. So it is with other matters. We are not far wrong in saying that Mr. Dunn’s collection . . . at once transports us to China. . . . [E]ven [Dunn’s] highly coloured pictures would probably fail with many [guests], if they were not conjoined with the greatest portion of the very things they were meant to illustrate. 91

Dunn and his visitors subscribed to what historian Steven Conn has called an “object-based epistemology.” 92 That is, they believed that displays of objects could most forcefully convey ethnographic information. Objects were also deemed more trustworthy than words or pictures, both of which were merely representations of something real—not the real thing itself. Any verbal description or artist’s sketch necessarily had to pass through the subjectivity of the observer, an intermediate stage during which errors or exaggerations could seep into the presentation, tainting its accuracy. In contrast, Dunn’s museum eliminated this stage of distortion by placing the authentic objects themselves before the interested party, creating a sense of immediacy and therefore the feeling that one had been transported to China. 93

However, the presence of objects in a room did not in itself guarantee the successful transmission of knowledge. Many museums in Dunn’s era, though rich in tangible things, either failed at their attempts to teach or did not bother to try. J. S. Buckingham was so charmed by Dunn’s museum that he returned to it on numerous occasions, but he withheld his praise when commenting on American museums as a whole:

In America . . . Museums are almost always the property of some private individual, who gets together a mass of everything that is likely to be thought curious—good, bad, and indifferent—the worthless generally prevailing over the valuable. The collections are then huddled together, without order or arrangement . . . and there is generally a noisy band of musicians, and a juggler . . . to attract visitors . . . ; and mere amusement, and that of the lightest and most uninstructive kind, is the only object sought in visiting them. 94

Though entertaining, such eclectic assemblages of curious oddities, lacking in theme and organization, possessed very little educational value.

The one other institution in America that had a sizeable Chinese collection, the East India Marine Society of Salem, was marred by flaws of the kind delineated by Buckingham. From merchants who sailed “all over the world,” the Society received a “flood of objects, good, bad, and indifferent,” which included many things from “China, India, Zanzibar, the East Indies and the Oceanic Islands.” Instead of classifying these objects by nation of origin, the curators indiscriminately jumbled them all together, creating an oriental hodgepodge out of which even the ambitious visitor would have been hard-pressed to extract information on China. In 1830, when the curators decided to check their inventory, they found not only that rust and moths were destroying numerous artifacts but also that the museum lacked an organizational scheme. However, instead of erecting partitions between the various Asian countries, they elected to group the objects by function. They placed all cooking utensils together and did the same for hats and weapons. Buckingham found the museum worth visiting but observed how few people were inside. 95

Such museums failed to instruct because they extricated artifacts from their natural setting and placed them in exhibition halls. Once the integral parts of a human culture or natural environment, the objects became mere oddities in the eyes of visitors, devoid of didactic value. Dunn sought to remedy this situation by restoring the lost context, at least as much as was possible. The dioramas provided a colorful backdrop and gave guests a sense for how a tool was used or a body ornament worn. In addition, he hoped, visitors would purchase and consult his Descriptive Catalogue while they inspected the exhibits. This booklet was designed to enrich the overall museum experience by covering the macro as well as the micro: It attempted to explicate Chinese culture as a whole while also offering background information on many of the specific items on display.

But the Catalogue also addressed another of Dunn’s pressing concerns. He was aware that many visitors would enter the exhibition hall only to find themselves visually overwhelmed. He seems to have worried about the aimless guest, that individual who would wander about in desultory manner, constantly amazed yet never really subjecting the exhibits to serious study. Such a person was easily capable of spending hours in the exhibit without registering any detectable increase in knowledge. What’s worse, instead of discarding the willowware vision of China, this person might simply use the visually spectacular exhibit to inject color and detail into the bare blue-and-white outlines. In short, even after visiting the museum, a visitor might continue to conflate China with Cathay

The Catalogue was Dunn’s attempt to exercise control over a guest’s visit. Acting as a museum guide, it imposed structure onto the experience by directing the visitor’s movement through the entire exhibit: “The visitor is requested to commence with the screen at the entrance, and then, turning to the left, to take the cases in the order in which they are numbered.” Labeling cases with roman numerals and individual items with arabic numerals, Dunn established a specific sequence that visitors were encouraged to follow. And, as they moved through the exhibits, they could glance down at the Catalogue to gather further information about any object they found striking:

Case XIII . . . 214. Splendid cameo, presented to Mr. Dunn by Houqua, the Hong merchant. This cameo is of extraordinary size. It represents an extended landscape, including earth and sky, and embracing various rural scenes and objects.

So that Chinese characters would not mystify visitors, the Catalogue offered translations of anything in Chinese, such as the Chinese proverbs written vertically on the numerous wall hangings that adorned the salon. By equipping visitors with readily accessible information, Dunn hoped to obviate the usual vacuous utterances that could plague any exhibition of a foreign culture—that the objects were merely “strange,” “bizarre,” and “curious.”

If Brantz Mayer’s shifting perceptions of Dunn’s museum followed a sequence shared by others, then Dunn succeeded in his didactic mission. Initially, Mayer couched his impressions purely in the terms of magic and fantasy: “The spectator seems placed in a world of enchantment—the scene is so unreal and fairylike.” Though bewitched at first, he eventually shook off the trance and proceeded to use the exhibits to learn about China: “Never have I derived more instruction in the brief space of a few hours—never have I experienced more pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge—never has my imagination been more excited—never my mind more interested.” 96 Initially entranced by the idea of escaping to a “world of enchantment,” Mayer did, however, eventually use the museum for its intended purpose—“the pursuit of knowledge.”

Indeed, Dunn’s Catalogue did convey knowledge to visitors; however, knowledge is distinct from truth or fact. Instead, it is an understanding of a subject (here China) that is charged by ideological or personal circumstances. It was by viewing China through the ideological lens of Enlightenment science during his long residence there that Dunn acquired most of the knowledge presented in the Catalogue. Fittingly, it resembles in form Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, perhaps the quintessential document that describes a region from the perspective of the American Enlightenment. Like Jefferson’s Notes, Dunn’s Catalogue comprehended its subject by breaking it down into categories, which included government, the arts (literature, theater, music), religion (Daoism, Buddhism, and elements of Confucianism), education, natural history, military (“the army is little better than a rabble rout, mere men of straw”), population, women (it explains the practice of footbinding), marriage (a man could divorce a woman for her garrulity), funerals, costumes, festivals, sports and pastimes, vocations, diet, agriculture, manufactures, inventions (most notably, gunpowder, magnetic needles, and a printing press), transportation, architecture (including models of summer homes, pagodas, bridges, and the Great Wall), trade, justice and the penal system (including lingchy, the punishment for treason, that involved cutting the offender into ten thousand pieces).

But Enlightenment science could not account for all of the knowledge contained in the Catalogue. In fact, Dunn acquired his strangest notion when he applied to the Chinese people a pseudoscientific theory, one related to phrenology, which had not been in circulation when he had first embarked for China in 1818. Phrenology was founded on the belief that the human mind was not unitary but rather consisted of separate organs, thirty-seven in number, each of which determined a trait, ability, or proclivity toward a certain virtue or vice. Since practitioners claimed to know the exact location of each organ, they believed they could understand an individual by reading and then interpreting the contours of the head. 97 Though now discredited, phrenology in the late 1830s was growing not only in popularity but also in acceptance by experts, as many respected men of science joined its legions of converts in believing that it held the key to understanding human nature. In fact, John Davies, who has written on the phrenology movement in America, judged the brief span of years from 1838 to 1840 to be the high-water mark. 98

Being the intellectual capital of the country, Philadelphia attracted many prominent phrenologists who were extremely successful at convincing even the most educated and respected citizens of the scientific validity of their discipline. For this reason, phrenology and other fad sciences were an integral part of the cultural matrix in which the Chinese Museum was situated. In fact, Dunn undoubtedly knew several phrenologists personally. When the museum opened, Orson Fowler, who would become America’s greatest popularizer of phrenology, was giving lectures and head examinations just a few blocks away. And in even greater proximity, George Combe of Scotland, the world’s foremost phrenologist following the death of Joseph Spurzheim, was delivering a series of lectures in Peale’s museum and drawing audiences of five hundred people. Dunn’s exhibits occupied the same building, and Combe enjoyed a pleasurable tour of the Chinese Museum. 99

Also in Philadelphia, one could find Samuel George Morton, who was a professor of anatomy at the Pennsylvania College, the author of Crania Americana (1839), and the owner of the country’s largest collection of skulls. Morton’s most fundamental belief was that the human skull held the key to unlocking the intellectual capability of the various races of humanity. To measure the cranial capacity of each, he collected skulls from all over the world. His laboratory research involved inverting a skull, pouring white-pepper seed into its cavity, and recording how much it could hold. Missionaries in Canton, aware of his work, sent him several Chinese specimens, including the skull of a pirate and that of a criminal who had been hanged. Though not a phrenologist by definition, Morton recognized that his theories had much in common with those espoused by phrenologists, and hence his decision to include in Crania Americana a lengthy essay on phrenology by George Combe. 100 Dunn probably saw both Combe and Morton on a regular basis, since all three were active members in both the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Morton’s masterwork, Crania Americana, rested on Dunn’s bookshelf. 101

Dunn had formed his own views of the Chinese while residing in Canton, but after returning home to Philadelphia he allowed these new theories to influence, ex post facto, observations he had already made concerning the race. In fact, we can attribute to these theories one of the rare negative assessments of the Chinese included in the Catalogue—a bizarre blanket statement regarding the impact of a despotic government on the anatomies of its citizens. With these new ideas percolating in his mind, Dunn revisited the subject of Chinese racial characteristics by inspecting the clay heads of his own statues. He detected “a remarkable sameness of feature and expression running through the whole collection” and, in a dangerous extrapolation, went beyond his small sample of Cantonese people to ascribe these same “general characteristics” to “the whole empire.” Despite the great variation in “soil and climate” in the regions of China, he argued that a single set of physical traits prevailed: high cheekbones, black eyes, flat noses, and a yellow complexion. To explain this phenomenon, Dunn made recourse to the new pseudosciences. The subjects of a despotic regime like China, he asserted, are “all reduced to the same level, urged by the same wants, engaged in the same pursuits, actuated by the same passions.” Therefore, “through a long succession of ages,” they “necessarily assimilate, both mentally and physically.” In other words, when rulers compel their subjects to think alike, over time this inner homogeneity manifests itself on the human exterior; all faces begin to look alike 102

One might be tempted to dismiss Dunn’s fascination with pseudoscientific theories on the grounds that, for him, it represented merely an aberration, a single ill-advised turn into an intellectual dead end made by an individual who otherwise demonstrated all the attributes of a respectable amateur scientist. However, such an assessment fails to do justice to the situation. In Dunn’s mind, these theories were not separate from and unconnected to the other scientific methods of his day; rather, they existed as the logical extension of the latter and carried the same prestige. Dunn’s experimentation with these spurious theories, though yielding the most outlandish idea contained in the Catalogue, did emanate out of a desire to understand the world, the same desire that was also the inspiration for legitimate scientific inquiry. 103

Excepting this single instance, Dunn used the Catalogue to cast China in a positive light. Being a citizen of a republic that measured its age in decades, Dunn was fascinated by the amazing endurance of Chinese civilization over the centuries, a longevity he attributed to two effective strategies. First, since the “ambitious” who are thwarted in their aspirations “generally overturn governments,” the Chinese designed their examination system to encourage these men to expend their energies constructively through official channels. No man in China “inherits office,” regardless of his bloodline; instead, men are placed in positions of power solely through the examination system and on merit alone. In this way, the talented and ambitious are led to assist in the governing of China instead of to “the dreadful alternative of revolutionizing the country.”

Second, Dunn pointed to a complex set of duties and responsibilities that dictated an individual’s relationships with his family, society, and the government. This “doctrine of responsibility,” as Dunn called Confucianism, enjoyed universal acceptance because it was effectively inculcated at an early age: “The sentiments held to be appropriate to man in society, are imbibed with the milk of infancy, and iterated and reiterated through the whole of subsequent life.” In this regard, the Chinese “set us an example worthy of imitation” because, whereas we speak only of “Our rights,” the Chinese focus on “our duty” (emphasis in original). Here, Dunn appears to show concern for a potential problem in American society, one that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1830—that is, the need for a counterweight to offset rampant individualism. 104 Unlike in the United States, in China one could count on state-sanctioned Confucianism to hold the destructive selfish impulses of individuals in check. The early and constant education on “personal and political duties” functioned as a kind of social glue, Dunn wrote, lending cohesion for the whole nation. The result was “a country enjoying . . . a perpetuity of national existence unequalled in the world’s history.” 105

The Catalogue also contains Dunn’s appreciation of Chinese industry. “Whoever attentively examines the immense collection of Chinese curiosities,” Dunn claimed, “will need no further proof of the ingenuity of the Chinese in arts and manufactures” and in the “several branches of labour, both agricultural and mechanical.” As the United States was then in an early stage of industrialization, Dunn could appreciate the “various contrivances,” many being “simple, ingenious, and efficient,” through which the Chinese were able to “force nature to become their handmaid.” 106 He found an attentive audience in Benjamin Silliman, who saw the exhibits of “rakes, hoes, axes, shovels” and other implements to be particularly eye-opening. Whereas Silliman had been taught to believe that an American tool offered the only way to accomplish a given task, the museum showed him that a completely different tool of Chinese origin was just as good for the purpose. A given “operation,” he wrote, “is equally well executed by another of totally different figure.” In addition, Silliman noted a “thousand things” that proved that many of our “common usages” were derived from devices in China, a country that “we are accustomed to believe” is “centuries behind us.” Among these, he found especially amusing a Chinese mousetrap, of a design patented in America, “that has been used in China for ages.” In short, the exhibit proved to him that his preconceptions regarding China were wrong. 107

In favorably describing Chinese civilization as accomplished, durable, complex, and even innovative, Dunn was merely conveying his own true assessment to readers of the Descriptive Catalogue. Yet he also had a rhetorical strategy, as readers discovered when, on reaching the end of booklet, they met with his views on the opium trade. Even for a reader who had agreed with Dunn’s overall appraisal of the Chinese up to this point, outrage was the only suitable reaction to this dark side of the Chinese economy. It was true, Dunn wrote, that through the sale of opium the British had accomplished their objective in that a trade imbalance that had previously favored China had now reversed course: He estimated that $20 million flowed annually out of China and into the English economy. But what were the moral ramifications of this apparently effective economic strategy? “Yet if the sum were ten times as great as it is,” Dunn wrote, “it could not affect the question in its moral bearings. Opium is a poison, destructive alike of the health and morals of those who use it habitually, and, therefore, the traffic in it . . . is nothing less than making merchandise of the bodies and souls of men.” In short, as silver bullion moved from the East to the West, filling English treasuries with wealth, morality flowed in the opposite direction, leaving England morally bankrupt.

Though much of the culpability deservedly rested on English shoulders, Dunn was quite familiar with the trading practices of his own countrymen after living for eight uninterrupted years with them in the foreign factories. “But it is not England alone that is to blame in this matter,” he wrote. “Most of our own merchants in Canton are guilty in the same way, and to an equal extent.” In mentioning American involvement, Dunn hoped he could raise the ire of ordinary citizens. And to augment their outrage further, he explained the relationship between opium and the Protestant missions. Dunn was raised a Quaker and Quakers usually did not proselytize and certainly did not have any presence in China. Yet he knew that America was in the throes of an evangelical movement (now called the Second Great Awakening) and that the majority of the visitors to his museum were Protestants who supported the foreign missions. Acutely aware of this audience, he explained exactly why missionaries were encountering so much resistance in China. The “grasping avarice” of opium traders, he wrote, undermines the moral and spiritual message of the missionaries and “sets at naught every Christian obligation before the very eyes of the people whom it sought to convert!” The Chinese would never choose to convert to Christianity as long as the most visible emissaries from a Christian nation, the merchants, continued to inflict a blight on their society. 108

With Dunn’s emphasis on education, the museum soon acquired such an excellent reputation that people from other cities and towns began forming travel parties solely for the purpose of paying it a visit. 109 But just because the museum was, by mid-nineteenth-century standards, well-equipped to educate does not mean that it did. After all, education depends as much on the receptivity of the student as it does on the capability of the instructor. Also, the museum’s popularity did not mean that visitors swallowed whole Dunn’s generally positive views of China. They might have processed the exhibits in their own preconceived frameworks, or they might have eschewed intellectual engagement altogether despite the structured nature of the kind of visit advised in the Descriptive Catalogue. What do the jottings of visitors say about the reception of the museum?

Responses to the Exhibit

After returning from China, Nathan Dunn maintained a strong curiosity about distant lands, filling his shelves with travel narratives and histories of other nations. 110 In this sense, his interests mirrored those of his countrymen who were showing a penchant for seeking out the facts about foreign places. Carl Bode, in his work on popular culture, isolated “restlessness,” “a thirst for new experience and knowledge,” and a “desire to explore” as common American traits in the antebellum era. However, since most Americans were bound to their farms, places of business, or families, only a small number of people could actually act on these yearnings. The rest simply enjoyed what appeared to be the next best thing—the “vicarious experience” one could obtain by reading about the journeys of others. This appetite generated a “vogue for travel literature.” 111


But was reading truly the next best thing? In assessing the contribution of Dunn’s exhibit, one writer identified three modes of vicarious experience and ranked them in ascending order: reading travel narratives, seeing two-dimensional panoramas, and walking through the three-dimensional experience exemplified by Dunn’s creation. 112 Dunn’s all-inclusive collection methodology had yielded an exhibit composed of realistic statues positioned in dioramas, a plethora of paintings, and a prodigious number of authentic Chinese objects. In the minds of visitors, all of these combined to simulate an actual tour of China, and they voiced the near-unanimous opinion that a feeling of virtual travel made the museum experience remarkable. We will “long remember our last Saturday evening’s excursion to Canton,” wrote a reporter for the Public Ledger. 113 “Mr. Dunn’s collection,” agreed the Saturday Courier, “at once transports us to China.” 114 Another journalist expressed awe of a quasireligious nature at the illusion of travel: “You can hardly realize that you have not been transported by some superhuman power to the opposite side of the globe” because the many marvelous sights “combine to produce a most bewildering effect upon the startled gaze of the beholder as he enters, and it is long before he can realize that he is in the city of Penn.” 115

Some guests theorized that the exhibit had ushered in not only the next great stage in the evolution of tourism but also the final stage. For, quite ironically, just as the United States was entering into its transportation revolution, Dunn’s virtual travel had, or so it was thought, forever rendered actual travel obsolete. E. C. Wines chimed in on the theme of stationary sightseeing, proclaiming that one no longer had to “subject one’s self to the hazards and privations of a six months’ voyage on distant and dangerous seas, to enjoy a peep at the Celestial Empire.” 116 Another writer suggested that, by removing travel from the equation, Dunn had democratized the international experience. Although the new “locomotive facilities” afford some with the opportunity to travel, many “cannot avail themselves of these facilities” owing to financial considerations. But they “may yet obtain the most minute knowledge of distant countries” thanks to this concept of “presenting exact resemblances” of a country. Whereas the railroad can “annihilate distance,” the Chinese Museum “may be said to approximate places.” 117

The exhibit, then, raised an intriguing question: If one possessed the means to construct an exact replica of a place, was a journey to the actual place still worth the trouble? J. S. Buckingham believed that, for most people, it was not. The Chinese Museum, he wrote, “comes the nearest to actually traveling in the country, and communicating personally with the people, of anything that has yet been devised.” Moreover, the exhibit inspired Buckingham to envision a futuristic London that would be complete with exhibits from all nations and that would follow Dunn’s model. So that “the tour of the globe might thus be made” at home, he proposed that the British government part with one million sterling to acquire such hypothetical collections. 118

Brantz Mayer adopted this same theme in his description of the Chinese Museum, claiming that Dunn had placed China “within the reach of the remotest inquiring inhabitant of our Union.” “China re-existed in America,” he wrote, “as by necromancy.” Since Mayer had visited China in 1827, he felt qualified to vouch for the strong resemblance between Dunn’s fabricated China and the real place: “The verisimilitude is perfect and seems to be the prestige of magic.” 119 As these references to “magic” and “necromancy” suggest, the experience of seeing China in the United States was akin to the occult.

Mayer also went so far as to state that “a man may learn more of China . . . in a single visit to Mr. Dunn’s Collection, than could be acquired in a month’s reading, or even in a voyage to Canton.” 120 A guidebook for Philadelphia echoed this sentiment, declaring that “every one who takes pleasure in accurate knowledge, will here find, in a few hours, that which cannot be procured, from reading, views from engravings, or even an actual visit to China” (emphasis in original). 121 Similarly, J. S. Buckingham wrote that one could learn more about China in the museum than by “a month’s hard reading on the subject.” 122 And in what was clearly a common refrain, Joseph Sturge, another traveler from England, agreed that “by spending a few hours in his museum, with the aid of the descriptive catalogue, one may learn more of the Chinese than by laborious perusal of all the works upon them that have ever been written.” 123

While these claims that the museum surpassed both books about China and actual experience in China may seem like hyperbole, we must recall that foreigners at this time had access to only a small strip of riverfront land outside Canton. Just prior to the opening of the Chinese Museum, an American named T. C. Downing published The Fan-Qui in China in 1836–7, a book about his journey to China. In a review of it, the writer voiced a complaint that applied to all books on China: “Mr. Downing seems to have had no other scope for observation than that which is furnished by the usual passage from Macao to Canton.” The reviewer added that any “glimpses” from other parts of the empire, were they to become available, would be “greedily digested.” 124 Since Dunn’s museum actually provided the greatly anticipated “glimpses” of the country beyond Canton, one can easily understand the excitement it aroused.

The Exhibit in England

J. S. Buckingham, in urging Dunn to move the collection to London, noted how poorly understood it was in the United States. Americans, he insisted, lacked the proper “temperament” to comprehend the collection; they were inhibited by a “coldness and indifference” to the acquisition of knowledge. It was within their ability to comment only that this object was “neat” while that one was “pretty” and to guess the total value of the collection and the profits reaped by the owner. 125 Buckingham would have his wish, but the evidence does not support the charge of “indifference” he leveled against Americans. In nearly three years in Philadelphia, hundreds of thousands came to visit the Chinese Museum, and Dunn sold 50,000 copies of the Descriptive Catalogue. 126 By comparison, in London an enlarged and partially illustrated version of the Catalogue sold only 20,000 copies over a longer span of time. 127


The chain of events that resulted in the move to London began in November 1841. On the morning of November 6, a warrant was issued in Philadelphia for the arrest of Nathan Dunn on charges that he had committed “assault and battery, with an intent to commit an unnatural crime.” His accuser, a man named Lewis V. Curry, offered testimony that the “alleged transaction between the parties” took place in the pit of the Walnut Street Theatre. Nathan Dunn, apparently fearful of prison and the embarrassment of a public trial, agreed to pay his accuser $1,000 if the latter would drop all charges.

Although this resolution appeared to end the matter, the city magistrate, not certain that justice had been served by the hasty settlement, revisited the case for further examination. He deemed the alleged crime to be “far too gross for a recital” but identified at least two major problems with Curry’s testimony. First, in “so populous a city as Philadelphia,” Curry’s failure to produce a second witness was problematic. Second, his credibility suffered a serious blow when he at first identified the perpetrator as Nathan Dunn, “not the proprietor of the Chinese Museum, but some other Nathan Dunn,” before ultimately accusing the owner of the Chinese collection. In the end, the magistrate sided with Dunn: “To justify the binding over of a citizen of honest character on such accusations, the evidence should be unimpeachable.” It was not, and Dunn was summarily discharged. Curry, on the other hand, did not fare as well; the magistrate indicted him with extortion. 128

Dunn does not refer to this episode in any of his existing letters, but he may have believed that it had sullied his reputation to the point where he could not remain in Philadelphia. Whatever its impact, he had an economic reason for departing. In 1841, the financial ineptitude of the Philadelphia Museum Company reached his attention, and he promptly ordered a full investigation. The findings revealed that the company and the bank had never finalized the purchase of the land on which the museum stood. In addition, the new building had cost nearly $60,000 more than the contracted figure of $80,000. And so, not only was the magnificent new edifice resting on property to which the company had no title, but the company was mired in substantial debt. Dunn had had enough, and later that year he struck the decisive blow. He would follow Buckingham’s advice by moving the collection to London. 129

If Dunn was repelled by these two incidents, he was equally attracted by the unique benefits afforded by London. According to the London Illustrated News, “many influential scientific and learned persons” had been urging Dunn to show his collection in England. Indeed, the exhibit could draw a different kind of visitor in the British capital, it being larger and far more cosmopolitan than Philadelphia. 130 And more important, London provided a superior location for a man intent on effecting a specific kind of political change. With England and China now at war, Dunn hoped that, by demonstrating the beauty of Chinese civilization to English subjects and dignitaries, he could alter British policy in some way beneficial to the Chinese. If the indignant reaction of Joseph Sturge, an Englishman, offered any indication, Dunn had every reason to be confident. Sturge’s experience in the museum prompted a diatribe against his own country’s “cruel and unjust war” against a “highly cultivated and unoffending people.” Like the slave trade, opium trafficking was “hateful in the sight of God and man” and needed to be “suppressed.” 131

Perhaps sensing his exhibit’s political potential, Dunn declined the generous offer of Louis Philippe, the iing of France, to purchase the collection for $100,000. 132 Instead, he had all four tons of it loaded onto the packet ship Hendrick Hudson, and, in December 1841, he set sail for London. 133 The Chinese Collection had left Philadelphia for good, but it had not failed to make an indelible impression. “By the power of mneumonic association,” wrote Brantz Mayer, “I feel that after having seen the Chinese Collection—if I either think or speak of any part of the room . . . the whole salon will rise at once to my view—and I shall seem to survey, as in a mental panorama, all that is worthy or wonderful in the Chinese Empire.” 134

When Dunn settled in London in 1842, the English had just scored a decisive victory over the Chinese, had taken Hong Kong as part of their spoils, and were aglow with a chauvinistic euphoria. They also hungered for information on China, as no public exhibitions were available to satiate their curiosity. As recently as 1838, Londoners could have attended the nightly unfurling of a panorama of Chinese scenery (based on an original by a Chinese artist) painted by Robert Burford. Promoters claimed that the panorama could “equal what the most brilliant fancy, or glowing imagination, could have conceived of this extraordinary people,” but it actually supplied only a view of the foreign factories. 135 With almost no competition, Dunn could capitalize on the new popular interest in China and educate the public about the nation over which England now exerted a greater influence. 136 He moved his collection into a building at Hyde Park Corner that was specially constructed for its use. For a public that had only recently expressed tremendous enthusiasm for George Catlin’s Indian Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Dunn’s Chinese Museum promised a similar pleasure. 137

Following English protocol, Dunn gave private tours to important personages before opening the museum to the general public: first to the queen, then to the nobility, and finally to the “men of literature and science.” 138 Queen Victoria, in fact, contacted Dunn and “expressed her gracious intention of honoring the exhibition with her presence.” At the scheduled hour, Dunn escorted Victoria and Prince Albert through the exhibit, with Dunn presenting the contents of each case to his royal guests. That the queen had studied up on China before the visit was evident in her ability to describe a given article’s function without the aid of Dunn’s explanation. The queen arrived at a quarter to four and did not leave until half past five. 139 As for Dunn, he felt honored by her patronage and even saved the glove he had worn that day. 140

When the museum opened to the general public, large placards posted all over the city whetted the public’s appetite, and omnibuses made runs from all sections of London. 141 From the street, visitors first entered through a two-story pagoda with green roofs edged with vermilion, and next they walked beneath a grand sign written in gilded Chinese characters that read, “Ten Thousand Chinese Things.” They then passed into the main exhibition hall, which was 240 feet long, 50 feet wide, and dominated by the three imposing statues of Buddha. 142 At some point in the collection’s stay in London, the museum employed actual Chinese people with whom visitors could converse. Two children, A. Sheng and A. Yow, made a living at the exhibition after the death of their English sponsor, a sea captain. 143

Dunn had hoped the Chinese Museum would influence British policy, and in this regard he was probably disappointed. He tried to arrange an exclusive showing for both houses of Parliament by soliciting the aid of the duke of Wellington, who had made a previous visit. The duke, unfortunately, proved unhelpful. A special showing was unnecessary, he politely replied to Dunn, since any parliamentary member whom the museum might influence would undoubtedly make plans to visit on his own time. 144 Although the Chinese Museum failed to alter policy, it did at least show the victors of the Opium War the face of the vanquished. Many reporters expressed a heightened appreciation for Chinese culture; a columnist for John Bull wrote that “many of our preconceived notions were scattered to the winds by it.” 145

The exhibit captured London’s interest for nearly half a decade, netting $50,000 a year. 146 One publication hailed it as “more amusing, interesting, and instructive than any we have ever had in the British Metropolis.” 147 When the duke de Montpensier, the son of the king of France, visited England in 1844, he chose to see only one museum during his stay—the Chinese Museum. 148 As testimony to its popularity, James Robertson Planché, the playwright, composed Drama at Home, a theatrical production that spoofed Dunn’s Chinese exhibits along with the other attractions of London—Catlin’s Indians, Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, and P. T. Barnum’s prized midget, General Tom Thumb. The main character, Puff, describes the Chinese Collection in terms of virtual travel: “If only to see China is your care, / You needn’t stir a step—you have it there”(emphasis in original). 149

By the time the London audience at last tired of the Chinese Museum in 1846, their fascination had outlived even the owner. Nathan Dunn died in Vevey, Switzerland, on September 29, 1844. 150 Under the guidance of the curator, Dunn’s longtime friend William B. Langdon, the exhibit began a tour of the provinces. 151


Interestingly, some visitors expressed their sincere opinion that Dunn’s Chinese Museum would be the first as well as the last of its kind to ever grace an American city. It was “formed by a happy combination of circumstances,” wrote a reporter, “that may not, and probably will not, ever occur to an American again.” 152 Even if someone could muster a comparable effort, many questioned the need for a new Chinese exhibit. The Chinese, they reasoned, demonstrated so much pride and satisfaction in their cultural attainments that they would not ever see the need to make alterations. And since China would never change, another exhibition of its culture could only be redundant. Holding this view, Brantz Mayer conferred symbolic significance onto the three Buddhist idols, asserting that the Chinese Museum possessed “permanent value” because it represented the “PAST—the PRESENT and the FUTURE of the nation.” The Chinese were, he concluded, “a petrified people” (emphasis in original). 153


After Dunn removed the collection to England, the effects of the Opium War were already starting to consign Mayer’s predictions to obsolescence. In 1843, Nathan Dunn watched from his home in London as one ship after another set sail for Canton. British merchants and missionaries, no longer convinced that change in China was impossible, were heading there with newfound vigor. In Dunn’s opinion, their hope for finding China more open to British manufactures and evangelism was ill-founded. In a chilling prophecy, he augured failure for merchants and missionaries alike. The former dreamed of reaping a “golden harvest” from greater access to China’s markets in the wake of the war, but they would find only “straw,” as the opium trade was “draining that country of all the precious metals.” If the trade were not stopped, “in ten or fifteen years more China will [be] a poor country,” unable to purchase foreign goods. And as for the missionaries then “going out in great numbers,” Dunn predicted that they would confront a populace that associated their efforts to proselytize with the sins of the avaricious merchants. Missionaries would ultimately face the hard truth, he predicted, that “opium and the Bible cannot enter China together.” 154

Still, everyone agreed that the increased foreign presence in China would force China to change. One British reporter who wrote a piece on the museum, forgoing the standard rhapsodizing on the wonders of virtual travel, opted for something more elegiac in tone. “It is singular enough,” he wrote rather dolefully, “that to Mr. Catlin and Mr. Dunn . . . we are indebted for the most valuable assemblages of modern times: the one rescuing the memory and memorials of the Red Indians from oblivion; the other portraying China as it was five years ago, but, most probably, as it will never be again—for the European has entered its sanctuaries, and, the privacy of the Chinese once violated, they must become more assimilated to us in all things.” 155

China was indeed opening up to the world. Just a few years after Mayer’s pronouncements regarding the permanence of Dunn’s museum, the idea for a similar museum was already churning in the mind of America’s great showman. P. T. Barnum, residing in London in 1844 to promote his latest sensation, General Tom Thumb, witnessed firsthand the attractive power of Dunn’s Chinese Museum. According to one newspaper, he even reached an agreement with Dunn to purchase the Chinese collection. 156 This report turned out to be inaccurate (Barnum may have spoken with Dunn but the collection never changed hands), but Barnum would later acquire a different Chinese collection, which he displayed in New York. 157 And just two months after the Dunn’s death, word reached the United States that a second Chinese museum, one larger than his, was “about to be attempted by a gentleman in this country.” John Peters, an attaché on Caleb Cushing’s diplomatic mission to China, was in the process of assembling his own mammoth Chinese collection. 158 His story will be told in chapter 7.


Note 1: The events surrounding the fire of 1822 also impressed on Dunn a favorable view of China’s poorer citizens. For in the midst of all the chaos, an elderly Chinese gentleman walked away with about ten bags of silver belonging to Dunn, each worth $1,000. As well as being poor, the man had a large family, and he could easily have kept the small fortune without getting caught. However, in an act of honesty that, according to Dunn, “says something for the poor people of China,” he returned the bags of silver to the pleasantly astonished owner. Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, Defendant, February 1832, (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, printers, 1835; the only known account of this legal case is owned by the Library Company of Philadelphia), 34–35; and Joan Kerr Facey Thill, “A Delawarean in the Celestial Empire: John Richardson Latimer and the China Trade” (master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1973), 40.  Back.

Note 2: Nathan Dunn, “Ten Thousand Things Chinese”: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1839), 3.  Back.

Note 3: Philadelphia Directories. Nelson B. Gaskill Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  Back.

Note 4: Jean Gordon Lee, Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784–1844 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984), 14. Arthur Hummel, “Nathan Dunn,” Quaker History 59, no. 1 (1970): 34–38.  Back.

Note 5: Testimony against Nathan Dunn, 28 November 28–5 December 1816, Minutes from the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia, Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 6: Hummel, 34–38.  Back.

Note 7: John Curtis Perry, Facing West: Americans and the Opening of the Pacific (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994), 41. John Murray Forbes and John Cushing in just a few years each made enough money to retire and invest their substantial profits in American industry. Yen-p’ing Hao, “Chinese Teas to America—A Synopsis,” America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance, ed. Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank (Cambridge: Committee on American–East Asian Relations of the Department of History in collaboration with the Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University; distributed by Harvard University Press, 1986), 29–30. The trader Benjamin Shreve of Salem listed his priorities in life: “approving conscience . . . irreproachable character, good health, a good wife, and plenty of money!” Carl Crossman, The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver, and Other Objects (Princeton, N.J.: Pyne Press, 1972), 7.  Back.

Note 8: Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, 33.  Back.

Note 9: Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with Reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the Nineteenth century (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 49; and Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), 18–19.  Back.

Note 10: Nathan Dunn, letter, 13 April 1824, Quaker Collection, Haverford College.  Back.

Note 11: David Abeel, Journal of a Residence in China, and the Neighboring Countries (New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1834), 77–85.  Back.

Note 12: Ibid.  Back.

Note 13: Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (3 January and 16 February 1820).  Back.

Note 14: Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, 33–34.  Back.

Note 15: Nathan Dunn, letter, 19 November 1821, the Quaker Collection, Haverford College.  Back.

Note 16: Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, 33–34.  Back.

Note 17: The two banished merchants were Man-hop and Pac-qua. William Wood, Sketches of China (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1830), 221–22, 227–28. Robert Bennet Forbes, Remarks on China and the China Trade (Boston: Samuel N. Dickinson, 1844), 14.  Back.

Note 18: See Henry Hollinsworth to John Latimer, letter, 6 May 1815, Latimer Family Papers (col. 235). A similar list appears in the papers of William Bell (mic. 107) and in the 1804 “Sea Journal” of the anonymous supercargo of the ship Confederacy (Downs Collection, Winterthur Library).  Back.

Note 19: Charles Tyng, Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808–1833, ed. Susan Fels (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999), 67.  Back.

Note 20: Forbes, 14. Since Houqua could not speak English very well and Dunn knew only a few words of Cantonese, the two undoubtedly communicated using Pidgin English. Pidgin English was a hybrid language that involved the insertion of English, Indian, and Portuguese words into Chinese sentence patterns. One could learn this simple language quickly, and business interactions between Western and Chinese traders depended on it.  Back.

Note 21: Dennett, 59.  Back.

Note 22: Perry, 29. Elma Loines, ed., The China Trade Post-Bag of the Seth Low Family of Salem and New York (Manchester, Maine: Falmouth Publishing House, 1953), 300–1.  Back.

Note 23: Loines, 6. Houqua also used his American friends to invest in the stock market for him. Patrick Conner, George Chinnery, 1774–1852: Artist of India and the China Coast (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1993), 172. As well, Houqua was fascinated by what he had heard of American railroads. After his death in 1843, his family invested some of his wealth in this booming industry. Yen-p’ing Hao, 30.  Back.

Note 24: Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, 33–34. William Wood, a friend of Dunn’s, explained the economic situation and England’s retaliatory measures: “The extensive importation of British goods in American vessels had been materially detrimental to the Company’s trade in China, and, as they found it impracticable to prevent the exportation from England by Americans, they resolved to thwart them, by using their influence to affect their sales in Canton.” William Wood, Sketches of China, 64.  Back.

Note 25: Isaac Jones, Richard Oakford, and Samuel T. Jones vs. Nathan Dunn, 37.  Back.

Note 26: Harriet Low, journal entry, 22 June 1830, in China Trade Post-Pag, ed. Loines, 127.  Back.

Note 27: Dennett, 46–49.  Back.

Note 28: “Commonwealth v. Nathan Dunn,” Reports of Some of the Criminal Cases on Primary Hearing, before Richard Vaux, Recorder of the City of Philadelphia: Together with Some Remarks on the Writ of Habeas Corpus and Forms of Proceeding in Criminal Cases (Philadelphia: T. and J. W. Johnson, 1846), 4–12.  Back.

Note 29: For Dunn’s collecting, see Brantz Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell, pamphlet, Department of Rare Books, Library of Congress (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, 1841); E. C. Wines, A Peep at China in Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection (Philadelphia: Ashmead, 1839), 10; and J. S. Buckingham, The Eastern and Western States of America (London: Fisher, Son, 1842), 2:44.  Back.

Note 30: Benjamin Silliman, “Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection,” American Journal of Science and Arts (January 1839): 392–93; and Public Ledger (28 December 1838). Also see Dunn’s obituary in that same newspaper (24 October 1844).  Back.

Note 31: Walter Muir Whitehill, The East India Marine Society and the Peabody Museum of Salem: A Sesquicentennial History (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1949), 37–38.  Back.

Note 32: Benjamin Silliman, Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection in Philadelphia, pamphlet, Department of Rare Books, Library of Congress (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, 1841).  Back.

Note 33: Lee, 14–15; Jonathan Goldstein, Philadelphia and the China Trade, 1682–1846: Commercial, Cultural, and Attitudinal Effects (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 51–53; Loines, 7, 298. Perry, 41.  Back.

Note 34: Conner, 227.  Back.

Note 35: Dunn, Descriptive Catalogue, 119.  Back.

Note 36: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 37: Wines, A Peep at China, 10–11.  Back.

Note 38: Silliman, Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection.  Back.

Note 39: Buckingham, 2:44.  Back.

Note 40: Daniel Bowen, A History of Philadelphia . . . Designed as a Guide to Citizens and Strangers (Philadelphia: Daniel Owen, 1839), 85–86.  Back.

Note 41: “Chinese Collection,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (22 December 1838).  Back.

Note 42: Goldstein, 51.  Back.

Note 43: One such poem is reprinted in W. C. Hunter, The Fan Kwei at Canton before Treaty Days, 1825–1844 (London: Kegan Paul, 1882; reprint, Taipei: Ch’eng-wen, 1965), 109.  Back.

Note 44: William Wood, Sketches of China (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1830).  Back.

Note 45: For an account of the duel, see Harriet Low, journal entry, 30 April 1832, in China Trade Post-Bag, ed. Loines, 151.  Back.

Note 46: H. H. King, ed., and Prescott Clarke, A Research Guide to China-Coast Newspapers, 1822–1911 (Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Research Center, 1965), 15–17, 160. Wood’s exact role in the introduction of photography to China is uncertain, and other figures deserve attention. George West, an artist and photographer attached to Caleb Cushing’s mission to China in 1844, is discussed in a later chapter. And Eliphalet Brown, the daguerrotypist who accompanied Commodore Perry to Japan in 1854, helped Hong Kong become an important center of early photography. William H. Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: Penguin, 1986), 347–48.  Back.

Note 47: Silliman, “Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection,” American Journal of Science and Arts (January 1839): 393.  Back.

Note 48: Joseph Kastner, A Species of Eternity (New York: Knopf, 1977), xii–xiv, 3–5.  Back.

Note 49: Peale was organizing his museum in 1792, two years after Franklin’s death. Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art (New York: Norton, 1980), 60.  Back.

Note 50: William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination (New York: Norton, 1986), 15–35.  Back.

Note 51: The individual who summed up this age and whom many of these Philadelphians lionized most was Alexander von Humboldt, the great Prussian explorer. William H. Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men, 59.  Back.

Note 52: William H. Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men, 2–3, 59–60.  Back.

Note 53: Mayer, “China and the Chinese,” Southern Quarterly Review (July 1847), 6–7.  Back.

Note 54: William Wood, Sketches of China, 243.  Back.

Note 55: After stuffing the wildcat, Wood was able to sell the skinless body back to the showman, who used it to concoct “a panacea, an elixir of life” meant “to prolong the life of his father.” William Wood, Sketches of China, 197  Back.

Note 56: Silliman, “Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection,” American Journal of Science and Arts (January 1839): 398–99.  Back.

Note 57: Hummel, 34–38.  Back.

Note 58: Harriet Low, journal entry, 25 January 1831, in China Trade Post-Bag, ed. Loines, 135.  Back.

Note 59: According to Bowen’s 1839 guide to Philadelphia, Dunn was one of the city’s “most wealthy and respectable citizens.” Bowen, 82.  Back.

Note 60: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 273.  Back.

Note 61: John Reeves’s son to Harriet Low, letter, received by Low on 18 August 1832, Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 62: Hummel, 34–38.  Back.

Note 63: Osmond Tiffany Jr., The Canton Chinese; or, The American’s Sojourn in the Celestial Empire (Boston: James Monroe, 1849), 213. Tiffany traveled to China in 1844.  Back.

Note 64: Buckingham, 44.  Back.

Note 65: Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1992), 38, 85–86, 104. See also The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).  Back.

Note 66: Lee, 16.  Back.

Note 67: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 271.  Back.

Note 68: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 15, 19, 60, 215; Neil Harris, Humbug: the Art of P. T. Barnum (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 35; and Edward Alexander, Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence (Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1983), 5.  Back.

Note 69: Harris, 78–79.  Back.

Note 70: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 273–75, 280. See “Chinese Museum, Account of Financing of Philadelphia Museum’s Building,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (7 July 1838), Society Collection (1838), Historical Society of Pennsylavia.  Back.

Note 71: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 34–35, 92, 280. According to the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, “A great number of artists have been at work for three months in getting it ready, and really the labor performed in that period has been surprising” (22 December 1838).  Back.

Note 72: Wines, A Peep at China, 12.  Back.

Note 73: Dunn, Descriptive Catalogue, 92.  Back.

Note 74: Nathan Dunn to Rhoda Osborn (his sister), letter, 23 November 1838, Quaker Collection, Haverford College.  Back.

Note 75: Wines, A Peep at China, 10, 15; Public Ledger (28 December 1838).  Back.

Note 76: “Chinese Collection,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (22 December 1838).  Back.

Note 77: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 294–95.  Back.

Note 78: Wines, A Peep at China, 15.  Back.

Note 79: Chinese Repository (November 1843), 567–58. Since Nathan Dunn’s friends and acquaintances back in Canton were intrigued by his museum, he sent the Repository a packet of press clippings, which it then used as the nucleus of an article.  Back.

Note 80: Both David Abeel and William Wood described the same shrine. Abeel, 88–89. William Wood, Sketches of China, 87.  Back.

Note 81: A Philadelphia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher Covering the Years 1834–1871, ed. Nicholas B. Wainwright (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1967), 65–66.  Back.

Note 82: Public Ledger (28 December 1838).  Back.

Note 83: Buckingham, 2:46–47. Buckingham probably appreciated Dunn’s anti-opium stance, having himself brought before Parliament, on 13 June 1833, an invective on the demoralizing tendency of opium. Forbes, 51.  Back.

Note 84: Charles Coleman Sellers, “Peale’s Museum and ‘The New Museum Idea,’” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124, no. 1 (February 1980), 25–27.  Back.

Note 85: Chinese Repository (March 1840), 583–84.  Back.

Note 86: Mayer, “China and the Chinese,” 6–7; Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 87: Silliman, “Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection,” American Journal of Science and Arts (January 1839): 394; and Crossman, 205.  Back.

Note 88: In 1833, Isaac Bull sent this statue of a male, along with a statue of a female, from Canton to his uncle Edward Carrington, the former U.S. consul to China. Rhode Island Historical Society.  Back.

Note 89: Wines, A Peep at China, 80–81.  Back.

Note 90: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 91: “Chinese Collection,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (22 December 1838). The reporter chose the giraffe as his example because, in the closing months of 1838, Philadelphia was awaiting with great anticipation the arrival of a giraffe from Africa via New York—it was the first time a representative from this species had been exhibited in the United States (Philadelphia Saturday Courier [15 September 1838]). By the opening of Dunn’s museum, the giraffe had arrived (Public Ledger [25 December 1838]).  Back.

Note 92: Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 4. E. C. Wines, a former school principal, surely approved of Dunn’s use of objects. In a treatise (published the same year that the museum opened) on popular education, Wines stressed the instructive value of objects. E. C. Wines, Hints on a System of Popular Education (Philadelphia: Hogan and Thompson, 1838), 218–22.  Back.

Note 93: Brantz Mayer, in trying to assess Dunn’s contribution to society, pointed to the same educational philosophy: “It is somewhat difficult to assign to Mr. Dunn, precisely the rank which he is to assume among great and good men of the day; but, if he is to be considered as teaching instead of by book, and tame literary description, by palpable, tangible, and magnificent illustration not of pictures only, but of the people themselves. . . . Mr. Dunn should receive all the honor and station they can give him.” Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 94: Buckingham, 1:539.  Back.

Note 95: The Society also made little attempt to render their museum accessible to the public. In fact, in the 1830s, in an effort to keep “strangers” out of the museum, the Society passed a motion to limit visitors to those personally introduced by a member. Although the Society later revoked this resolution, that it even considered such measures suggests that its commitment to educate Americans was limited. Whitehill, 17–31, 37–38, 45–51.  Back.

Note 96: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 97: After the museum had moved to London, one guest performed a cursory Phrenological examination on the statue of a hairless mandarin official, which “being bald . . . presents a fair mark all over to the . . . phrenologist.” The inspector claimed to be “struck by the smallness and meagreness of the cranium.” “Wang Tang Jin Wuh,” Fraser’s Magazine (February, 1843). For a brief discussion of Phrenology in the United States, see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 246. For a more extensive analysis, see John B. Davies, Phrenology: Fad and Science: A Nineteenth-Century American Crusade (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).  Back.

Note 98: Davies, 21–22.  Back.

Note 99: Advertisements for the lectures and services of George Combe and Orson Fowler can be found in the Public Ledger (28 December 1838). For mention of the attendance for Combe’s lectures, see Davies, 21. For George Combe’s description of his visit to the museum, see his Notes on the United States of North America, during a Phrenological Visit in 1838–39–40 (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), 1:307.  Back.

Note 100: William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815–1859 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 31–32. Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839), 44–45. Catalogue of Skulls of Man, and the Inferior Animals in the Collection of Samuel George Morton, M.D. (Philadelphia: Turner and Fisher, 1840). See skulls numbered 3, 56, 94, 426, and 427.  Back.

Note 101: For a listing of all books Dunn owned at the time of his death, see “A Plain Copy of the Inventory and Appraisement of Nathan Dunn, Dec’d,” Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 102: For Dunn’s theory, see his Descriptive Catalogue, 33–34.  Back.

Note 103: For the respect accorded to phrenology by the scientific community, see Davies, x–xi.  Back.

Note 104: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 485–92. The original work was published in France in two volumes, 1835 and 1840.  Back.

Note 105: Dunn, Descriptive Catalogue, 7, 13, 97, 100.  Back.

Note 106: Ibid., 30–33, 105.  Back.

Note 107: Benjamin Silliman, Mr. Dunn’s Chinese Collection in Philadelphia.  Back.

Note 108: Dunn, Descriptive Catalogue, 118–20.  Back.

Note 109: Bowen, 86.  Back.

Note 110: “A Plain Copy of the Inventory and Appraisement of Nathan Dunn, Dec’d,” Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 111: Carl Bode, The Anatomy of American Popular Culture, 1840–1861 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 223.  Back.

Note 112: Chinese Repository (March 1840), 583–84. A panorama of China displayed in New York is covered in chapter 7.  Back.

Note 113: Public Ledger (28 December 1838).  Back.

Note 114: “Chinese Collection,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (22 December 1838).  Back.

Note 115: “Curiosities in Philadelphia,” The Farmers’ Cabinet (15 August 1840).  Back.

Note 116: Wines, A Peep at China, 13.  Back.

Note 117: Chinese Repository (March 1840), 581–82.  Back.

Note 118: Buckingham, 2:56, 72.  Back.

Note 119: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell; Mayer, “China and the Chinese,” 6–7.  Back.

Note 120: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 121: Bowen, 86.  Back.

Note 122: Buckingham, 2:55.  Back.

Note 123: Joseph Sturge, A Visit to the United States in 1841 (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1842), 62.  Back.

Note 124: Review of The Fan-Qui in China in 1836–7 by C. Toogood Downing, The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art (October 1838), 177–78.  Back.

Note 125: Buckingham, 2:43.  Back.

Note 126: London Illustrated News (6 August 1842), 204–5. The figure of 50,000 is also mentioned in William Langdon, “Ten Thousand Chinese Things”: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Collection, Now Exhibiting at St. George’s Place, Hyde Park Corner, London (London, 1842), 1.  Back.

Note 127: Lee, 17.  Back.

Note 128: Commonwealth v. Nathan Dunn, 4–12.  Back.

Note 129: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 290–91.  Back.

Note 130: London Illustrated News (6 August 1842), 204–5.  Back.

Note 131: Sturge, 68. Buckingham reacted similarly: “It is impossible that a visitor can walk through the Museum . . . without feeling indignant at the avarice and arrogance displayed in the conduct of those who pretend to be their superiors.” Buckingham, 71.  Back.

Note 132: Buckingham, 2:44.  Back.

Note 133: Niles National Register (4 December 1841), 224.  Back.

Note 134: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 135: The panorama, entitled “Description of a View of Canton, the River Tigress, and the Surrounding Country,” opened in 1838. The program of sixteen pages includes a foldout miniature of the painting. New York Public Library.  Back.

Note 136: Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1978), 292–93.  Back.

Note 137: Ibid., 292, 297–81.  Back.

Note 138: London Times (23 June 1842).  Back.

Note 139: Chinese Repository (November 1843), 562.  Back.

Note 140: Newspaper clippings, Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 141: Chinese Repository (November 1843), 576–77. Omnibuses are noted in the London Times (13 November 1843).  Back.

Note 142: Interestingly, Charles Dickens was living in London and writing A Christmas Carol while Nathan Dunn’s museum was open to the public. Though purely a matter of speculation, the three idols representing the past, present, and future could conceivably have provided the inspiration for the three ghosts that famously visited Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.  Back.

Note 143: Lee, 18. London Times (26 October 1846).  Back.

Note 144: Duke of Wellington to Nathan Dunn, letter, 26 September 1842, Gaskill Papers; and William T. Alderson, ed., Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Emergence of the American Museum (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1992), 55.  Back.

Note 145: Chinese Repository (November 1843), 568–69.  Back.

Note 146: Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum, 294–95.  Back.

Note 147: Art Union (December 1842), 283.  Back.

Note 148: London Times (17 October 1844).  Back.

Note 149: “Drama at Home,” The Extravaganzas of J. R. Planché, Esq., ed. T. F. Dillon Crocker and Stephen Tucker (London: Samuel French, 1879), 2:288–95. Raymund Fitzsimons, Barnum in London (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970), 100–2.  Back.

Note 150: Laurel Hill Cemetery Company to Nelson Gaskill, letter, 19 July 1944, Gaskill Papers.  Back.

Note 151: London Times (26 October 1846).  Back.

Note 152: “Chinese Collection,” Philadelphia Saturday Courier (22 December 1838).  Back.

Note 153: Mayer, A Nation in a Nutshell.  Back.

Note 154: Nathan Dunn to Hannah C. Dixey (his niece), letter, 3 March 1843, Quaker Collection, Haverford College.  Back.

Note 155: Art Union (December 1842), 283.  Back.

Note 156: Chinese Museum,” Pittsfield Sun (11 September 1845).  Back.

Note 157: In London, Barnum was always very cognizant of the other exhibits. Fitzsimons, 26.  Back.

Note 158: Niles National Register (23 November 1844), 192.  Back.


The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture: 1776-1876



1. Xanadu
2. Romantic Domesticity
3. The China Effect

4. China in Miniature
The Gamble
An Idea Germinates
"Panoramic Pageant"
Learning through Objects

5. Floating Ethnology
6. God's China
7. Fruits of Diplomacy
8. Bayard Taylor's Asia
9. Exposition of 1876