From Philadelphia To Madeira: The Early U.S. and the Transatlantic Wine Trade

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

“Think of this wine for instance,” said old Sol, “which has been to the East Indies and back, I’m not able to say how often, and has been once round the world. Think of the pitch-dark nights, the roaring winds, and rolling seas—”

“The thunder, lightning, rain, hail, storm of all kinds,” said the boy.

“To be sure,” said Solomon “—that this wine has passed through. Think what a straining and creaking of timbers and masts: what a whistling and howling of the gale through ropes and rigging—”

“What a clambering aloft of men, vying with each other who shall lie out first upon the yards to furl the icy sails, while the ship rolls and pitches, like mad!” cried his nephew.

“Exactly so,’ said Solomon “—has gone on, over the old cask that held this wine.”

The wine that Solomon Gills and Walter Gay share at the beginning of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848) is, of course, Madeira. The most popular drink in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Madeira wine was traded at a premium all over the world. So for the salty old sailor Sol and his young, wanderlust-stricken nephew Wally, a taste of Madeira was a taste of the wide world—its distant shores, churning oceans, and all its myriad opportunities for adventure. Among many things, Dombey and Son is about international trade and the expanding horizons of the nineteenth-century world; it is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the symbolic potency of Madeira wine should shine through so clearly in the novel.

Now available to researchers, the Newton, Gordon, Johnston, Murdoch, and Scott of Madeira, Portugal letters (Ms. Coll. 1417) offer firsthand insight into the Madeira trade at its height. In these letters, we read American businessmen writing to the Madeira, Portugal-based wine trading firm of Newton, Gordon, and Johnston (and its various successors) to establish trade relations, haggle over the terms of particular deals, share stock prices, and discuss the vicissitudes of transatlantic shipping. A window into the world of late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth-century international trade, the collection maps the peaks and valleys of the early American market and bears witness to the rise of the period’s most fashionable drink.

During the heady years immediately following the Revolution the United States was a precarious trading partner at best. But by the 1790s the young nation had started to become the world’s most avid consumer of Madeira wine. Twenty-four of the letters in this collection come from traders in Philadelphia alone, and the amounts discussed lend credence to the suspicion that Philly has always been a hard-drinking city—and that it was no stranger to the Madeira craze that swept the country. At one point, in fact, Madeira of particularly high caliber was referred to as “New York quality,” as seen in this letter of June 24, 1796 from Richard Waln of Philadelphia:

Francis Newton and Alexander Johnston, who formed their import-export consortium under the name of Newton and Johnston in 1748, were themselves no strangers to political upheaval. Both had to flee their native Scotland after fighting for Charles Stuart—known as the “Young Pretender” to his enemies and “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to his supporters—whose claim to the throne of the United Kingdom ended with his army’s defeat at Culloden in 1746. While Johnston oversaw business in London, Newton moved to the Portuguese-controlled Madeira islands in 1748 to gain his company a foothold in what was fast becoming the most lucrative business of the time: selling the fortified wine unique to the tiny archipelago. Soon, trading that wine would entirely take over the business lives of Newton and Johnston. In 1758 Francis Newton’s brother Thomas and Johnston’s nephew Thomas Gordon joined the firm, creating the consortium of Newton, Gordon, and Johnston, and the group would thereafter become a dominant force in the transatlantic Madeira wine trade. Incidentally, this company still exists to this day under the name of Cossart Gordon, the “oldest shippers of Madeira wine,” according to their website. Their claim to having been founded in 1745, however, is disputed in David Hancock’s Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (2009), in which both the company’s founding and Newton’s arrival in Madeira are traced to 1748.

One of the most interesting parts of the thirty-six letters in this collection is how many include rudimentary tables of stock prices for staples such as flour, corn, pork, butter, tallow, rice, and beef:

Even if these goods are not being discussed for trade in the letters themselves, it is clear that keeping one’s business partners up-to-date on the state of trade in general was a big part of the social network undergirding the nascent international capitalist market. Weather, bad harvests, and difficulties chartering ships also arise as common themes in the letters, and accordingly affect the terms and timetables of the deals under discussion. John Vaughan of Philadelphia writes to Newton et. al. in 1790 of his hope that “we shall never again experience the fluctuations which the last Season has witnessed, which have baffled all calculations and led to severe disappointments.” Vaughan knew that less flour to trade meant less wine for him and his customers, and he begged the Madeira moguls to allow him to wait for prices to fall before making a deal.

Curiously, wine as such is seldom discussed in these letters, except purely as an article of trade. In fact, the only time anyone mentions actually tasting the wine occurs in Edward Penington’s letter dated June 26, 1835 from Philadelphia, where the merchant remarks that one of his clients, a “gentleman” with a “reputation for fine taste,” recently complained to him that the Madeira received from Newton and company “was not what he expected.” The customer demanded another cask, “the selection of which,” Penington somewhat exasperatedly notes, “we beg your particular attention.” Even the most distinguished purveyors of Madeira couldn’t get a break from the local wine snob, it seems.

After Walter Gay returns to London as a sea-worn sailor not unlike the old Solomon Gills at the end of Dickens’s Dombey and Son, the young man and his uncle share a glass of old Madeira and toast to hearth and home. The wine still reminds them of faraway horizons, but the intimacy of a drink after a long journey makes them realize just how much of the world can fit in a bottle shared between friends. For some in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a bottle of Madeira indeed represented the whole world—livelihoods and even whole economies depended on it, after all. Reading the Newton, Gordon, Johnston, Murdoch, and Scott letters, 1790-1835 gives us a sense of truly how much went into and came out of the trade of Madeira.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: