This rare and distinguished Chinese porcelain cup with the Great Seal of the United States displays 15 stars in the constellation above and 15 stripes on the shield representing the 15 states of the union at the time, which included Kentucky as the 15th state. This cup is part of a set of Chinese porcelain commissioned by Henry Smith, who captained the merchant ship George Washington to Canton in 1794 and 1796, and later became Governor of Rhode Island. It is likely Smith placed an order for the porcelain on his 1794 trip, and then picked it up on his return voyage in 1796. On his trips he purchased goods for the ship’s investors and also bought souvenirs for himself, including the tea and coffee set from which this cup comes. The craftsmanship on the cup and the set overall is very fine, and Chinese porcelain was prized by the wealthy across the US, including in early Kentucky.
This cup was made in Jingdezhen and decorated in Guangzhou (Canton), China, c. 1795. Made of hard-paste porcelain with a cobalt and gold gilt chain border above the polychrome enamel-painted Great Seal, the cup also displays a blue floral garland interior border. It is a delicate piece with a height of 2 1/2 inches and a diameter of 2 3/4 inches.
The publication 50 Treasures, by Ronald Fuchs, which celebrates the Reeves Porcelain Collection, expands on this set and the Great Seal on another cup from the set:
“The official symbol of the United States, The Great Seal, decorates this cup. Adopted in 1782, the seal was described by Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Congress, and one of its designers:
The pieces [alternating red and white vertical stripes] represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unite the whole & represents Congress. The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the Preservation of their union through Congress.
The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness and valour, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice. The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress. The Constellation (the stars) denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of the America ought to rely on its own virtue.”