Wednesday, December 17, 2014

China Traders at Home

To assert that America's early trade with China was based entirely on opium is a simplification, but one with an uncomfortable amount of truth to it. Before visiting the Milton, Massachusetts home of Margaret Perkins Forbes (1773-1856) and her 4 unmarried daughters (well, one of them did get married), I brushed up on the "Old China Trade" and was astonished by what I learned. Mrs. Forbes' brother, Thomas Handasyk Perkins (1764-1854), was a swashbuckling Boston sea captain who made a fortune in slaves and Turkish opium. Her husband, Ralph Bennet Forbes (1773-1824), was, as they say, the same breed of cat.

Besides her 4 daughters, Margaret also had 3 sons - Robert, John and Thomas - all of whom were seafaring China traders, working first for the Perkins' family firm, and later for its successor, the greatest American opium dealer of the 19th century, Russell & Company. Margaret's husband died in 1824; her son Thomas was killed in a typhoon in Canton in 1829; and in 1833, the 2 surviving sons, Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes (1804-1889) and John Murray Forbes (1813-1898) pooled their China trade dollars and built this fine Greek Revival house for their mother and their sisters.

Here's Capt. Ben Forbes in old age. He went to sea as a boy of 13, was a captain by age 20, and by the time he was 34 years old he was running Russel & Co. in Canton, keeping it profitable, Opium Wars or no. My late father, who spent much of his life in China, was sparing in general with parental advice, but unexpectedly vociferous on the subject of opium, hardly on my exurban teenaged radar. He had seen the damage it could do, damage which, frankly, was primarily the fault of Brits and Americans engaged in the convoluted 18th and early 19th century trade in tea. Tea used to only come from China, and the Chinese used to only accept silver specie as payment. Traders in tea got around this by sneaking addictive opium into the country, taking silver in payment, then using the silver to buy the tea. This wasn't the whole of the China trade, of course, but it was the foundation of it, and a major ongoing component.

Here is Capt. Ben in his prime, painted in Canton by a Chinese artist named Lam Qua, a man who prospered painting "round eyes" with, at least in the case of the Capt., a combination of elegance and amusement. Besides tea, Russell & Co. traded its Turkish opium for silk and oriental luxuries. Aside from opium, accounts of which are largely swept under the rug, Forbes is also remembered as the philanthropic captain of a famous 1847 voyage of the USS Jamestown, laden with 800 tons of donated food for famine-wracked Ireland.

Ben Forbes was 29, and his younger brother John was only 20, when they built the house on Adams St. in what is now the Boston suburb of Milton. Their architect was Isaiah Rogers (1800-1869), famous for technologically up-to-date hotels like the Tremont House on Beacon St. and the Astor House in New York, both of which dazzled guests with locks on the room doors, free soap, bellboys, and most especially, indoor plumbing. Rogers, in fact, is remembered today as "the father of indoor plumbing." His 1833 house for the widow Forbes had an indoor loo, but a primitive one, even by mid-19th century standards. The house was also something of an anomaly in that Rogers didn't do residential work, or at least very little of it. Stylewise, the house on Adams St., like many of Rogers' public buildings, speaks to America's disenchantment with English Georgian models, and fascination with Greek-ish forms that flattered our waxing republicanism.

In 1871 the last Forbes sister died and Ben Forbe's son, James Murray Forbes (1845-1937), together with his new wife Alice Bowditch (1848-1929), moved into his grandmother's house and proceeded to renovate. Mr. & Mrs. Forbes and their daughter Dorothy are seen below in 1921, on their 50th anniversary. The Forbes family lived a typical Boston Brahmin life - at 107 Commonwealth Avenue during the week, Milton on weekends, and Dark Harbor, ME in the summer. After an early stint in the far east for Russell & Company, James M. Forbes spent the majority of his business life as a railroad and investment executive.

Boston's erudite and exclusive gentry, first labeled Brahmins in an 1860 "Atlantic Monthly" piece by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., included Cabots, Codmans, Forbes and Lodges, Crowninshields, Warrens, Saltonstalls and Mingots, Quincys, Lymans, Lowells and, among others, the Peabodys. As noted earlier, the word "opium" (leave alone 'slave') is tactfully omitted from the bios of most of these people. In 1871, James Forbes hired the impeccably credentialed 26-year-old Robert Swain Peabody (1845-1917), whose newly established partnership with John Stearns Jr. (1843-1917) would eventually design some of America's most famous Gilded Age mansions. The Forbes commission was one of the new firm's earliest - a third floor addition for 6 live-in servants and a back wing for improved plumbing and food service, joined to a old and beloved but highly inconvenient family manse. The result was professional, respectful and wholly unrelated to their later and more celebrated work.

This is James' and Alice's daughter Mary Bowditch Forbes (1882-1961), who didn't drink (like her sister Florence), wasn't a bank treasurer (like her brother Allan), and didn't marry (like her maiden great-aunts). Mary Forbes lived her entire life at the family home in Milton, save for summers at Dark Harbor. She liked horses and dogs, Abraham Lincoln and political conservatives, and disliked pacifists, FDR, and especially suffragettes. During the early years of the 20th century, a surprising (to many of us) number of conservative upper- and upper-middle-class women flocked to organizations here and in the U.K. that characterized suffrage as unnecessary, unnatural and probably dangerous. One vocal spokesperson, named Mrs. James Martin, summarized the movement's attitudes during a 1914 meeting in the Manhattan townhouse of Mrs. Henry Seligman. "We are not merely against feminism," Mrs. Martin began, "but for the family. We cannot reconcile feminism and the family. We hope to hear the sound of women's feet, walking away from the factory and back to the home."

When Mary Forbes died in 1961, she left the house to her nephew, Dr. H. Crosby Forbes, an expert in Asian art and curator of the Peabody Museum in Salem. It was Dr. Forbes who, in 1964, opened it to the public as the Museum of the American China Trade.

20 years later, the China Trade Museum merged with the Peabody Museum, parts of its collection were dispatched to the Massachusetts Historical Society and a re-imagined Forbes House Museum was, in the words of the Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House Charitable Trust, restored "to its approximate appearance in the final decades of the 19th century."

With the exception of the staircase, the Forbes interiors don't look particularly "Greek," at least not in the context of the fashionable revival style of the 1830s. Where are the columned screens? the elegant cornices? the mahogany doors? the profusions of eggs, darts and anthemia? Nowhere, apparently. These interiors do look "Victorian," but only because of the furniture.

Simple hinged doors - in lieu of mahogany sliders with silver plated hardware - separate the billiard room, now an exhibition space, from the dining room. The dining room furniture, by virtue of being roped off, looks a bit crowded. Increasingly, I see historic houses without ropes, allowing visitors to experience interiors in a far more natural manner. If I were an administrator worried about the knick knacks, I'd either pack them up or put them in a vitrine. The Forbes House tour handbook informs me the first floor dining room originally doubled as a guest room. Actually, it may well have been old Mrs. Forbes' bedroom. Either way, it's one more reason not to miss the "good old days."

Lurking behind a screen in a corner of the dining room is a swing door to the pantry, part of the Peabody & Stearns alterations of 1871. It's connected by dumbwaiter to a basement kitchen, which is part of the same scheme. The late Ms. Forbes' Fox News approach to politics is not my own, but her utter refusal to modernize a single thing in the house is much after my own heart. Believe it or not, the kitchen was in regular use in this condition until 1961.

Let's go back upstairs, cross the main hall and have a look at the parlor and the Chinese room, the latter illustrating with eloquence the desirability of rope removal. The Captain's Chinese furniture is quite fabulous - you got a lot for your opium back then - although squashing it together detracts from the effect.

We'll return to the main hall now, and proceed to the second floor via Rogers' sinuously beautiful stair. That serpentine hand rail, by the way, is a bravura piece of carpentry.

The original 2nd floor plan - a center hall with two bedrooms on either side - was reworked by Peabody and Stearns into an early version of what would become the expected bedroom layout in all sophisticated houses, namely: an owners' suite with his and her bedrooms, his and her baths, a boudoir and study, and family and/or guest rooms adjacent. In this case there's only one owners' bath, unless James Forbes used the one across the hall. I'm told the 3 children shared the other 2 bedrooms, although why one of these would connect with their mother's bathroom doesn't make a lot of sense.

From 1929 until her death in 1961, Mary Forbes slept in her mother's old bedroom. Besides dogs and politics, she was an avid - indeed a fanatical - collector of anything and everything to do with Abraham Lincoln - from a life mask, to a campaign hat in the shape of a coffee pot, to the shawl Mary Todd wore to Ford's Theatre, to a piece of the rope that hanged one of the Lincoln conspirators. Parts of the collection decorate her room today.

Behind the "Lincoln Cabin" sign is the door to the owners' bath. Besides twin Cialis-style tin tubs, it featured one of the Victorian era's most beloved conceits, the window over the fireplace. The purpose of this slightly silly arrangement was to provide a view of falling snow directly above a crackling fire.

Mr. Forbes' bedroom is full of family furniture, plus what looks to be an original 1833 fireplace. Next door in the study is the wheel from the USS Jamestown, the ship his father sailed to Ireland at the height of the first potato famine.

On the other side of the hall are the children's rooms and an untouched 1871 bathroom. Although there's a lot of remarkable stuff to look at in the Forbes house, it hasn't really made up its mind if it's a house museum or a museum in a house.

Let's head up to 3.

If, as I am told, the third floor was exclusively planned as servants' quarters, it contains some of the most luxurious maids' rooms I've ever seen. Frankly, something doesn't make sense here; the rooms are way too big for the help, especially for help in the 1870s. I'd expect children and servants to share this floor, which the double corridor layout would seem to confirm. But...they tell me otherwise.

Time to head outside and admire the barns.

Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, behind the Forbes house is an exact replica of the cabin in which he was born. Mary Forbes' burgeoning collection cried out for a home of its own, so she sent Thomas S. Murdock to Hodgenville, Kentucky, site of the original cabin, where he took precise measurements, collected sufficient red soil to authetically chink the logs, and returned to Milton to construct an identical replica. Mrs. George L. Torbert, who as a child had witnessed Lincoln's nomination, laid the cornerstone in 1923. In 1925, Ms. Forbes began opening it to the public twice a year. The YouTube link below provides an evocative glimpse of this curious undertaking:

The Forbes House is open year 'round by reservation; the link is


  1. John, many thanks for your pictures and commentary on interesting homes. I look forward to your posts each week!

  2. Second big thank you from a newcomer. Incredible blog. And the lengths you go to explain history and document the house we are touring is a wonderful read. I've now addicted a few other architect types to your blog. Kudos.

  3. Another amazing post! Love the pictures and the prose....

  4. Was Alice Bowditch one of the famous navigational family?
    Parenthetically, I can resonate with the opium trade in that Washington State now has legal or taxed marijuana, which competes with the 'illegal' or 'street' stuff that can be cheaper and is of course untaxed. Not to mention the 'medical' variety which is also untaxed but for which the purchaser has to have a prescription.
    Jim of Olym

  5. PS: We are driving east to visit relatives in Mass. next May. This will surely be one of our stops! And that green in the bedroom is excellent!
    Jim of olym

  6. Yet another wonderful post with a multitude of photos. Thank you for the time you spend sharing your visits to these amazing homes!

  7. They must have been family rebels to some extent not to have summered in the Elizabeth Islands with the rest of the Forbes clan.

  8. Photo number 5 from the top. This house looks much better in that color pattern.....much better. Those dark brown horizontals are too heavy.

  9. Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.

  10. That serpentine stair rail is a marvel! But for myself -- and my modest home -- I'd revel in occupying that cane work chaise longue.

    Thank you, John, for this fascinating introduction to the Forbes. The juxtaposition of the old gentleman's photo with his portrait as a young man displaying "elegance and amusement' reminds one of the most recent long-lived Duke of Wellington.

    And thank you, too, for providing the rationale for the window over a fireplace! Hadn't heard that one.

  11. What a great old house - most history is far more complex than we are taught!

    Glad you liked the post about 'Doggerland' feel free to spread the message!

    Hope you have a great Christmas.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

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