Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

You are viewing our regular site | View a mobile version. Hide this x

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

Primary Source of the Month

The Shipping Merchant's Office

The Shipping Merchant's Office
A.C. Hauck, probably Rotterdam, 1783
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

This watercolor painting shows a Dutch merchant in his office at Rotterdam. Notice the merchant seated wearing a blue banyan and tricorn hat. His patterned dress, influenced by Oriental fashion and likely dyed with costly indigo, indicates the wealth and worldliness associated with the mercantile business. The two chests behind and at the side of the merchant, the later filled with money, emphasize this point. The globes, maps, statue of Mercury (messenger of the gods and god of commerce and travel), and four paintings which allegorize the merchant's life, also distinguish this as a shipping merchant's shop.

The other gentlemen in this painting are either family members, or apprentices sent to Europe by affluent colonial families to gain business training in bookkeeping and inventory control. Merchants in the eighteenth century maintained account books to keep track of customer debts and payments. These transactions were meticulously recorded in daily journals and ledgers like the one the merchant gestures to. Tracking a customer's account was crucial to maintaining a profitable and trustworthy business.

As part of a large transatlantic economic system, colonists depended on shipping merchants to accurately record loans, debts, and credits. During the war, Dutch shipping ports like Rotterdam established trade routes to supply wartime goods and arms to revolutionaries. The depth and importance of this trade is evident from the large numbers of surviving Dutch goods and arms, like this painting, in collections.