It was not uncommon to see companies advertising constituent products for a final larger product as you see in signs for “coat fronts” and here for raw furs. It is surprising to see ginseng sold next to animal furs. I’ve often wondered about the history of this trade.
Not surprisingly, many of the things we traded came from China. Today, goods produced and bought from the Chinese are driving our whole consumer economy, which to some is a blessing and others a curse. American consumers enjoy lower prices for goods while American producers are literally digging for ginseng. What’s fascinating is it all began with furs and ginseng.
On the JSTOR Plant website, a bit of history and etymology of ginseng is offered: Ginseng enters the English and French vocabularies in the ages of exploration. In the French as early as 1750, in English in 1654, and for Portuguese, the term ginsao appeared even earlier (Holmes, 283). In Chinese, 人蔘 (phonetically rénshēn) is the name for ginseng and that roughly translates as “man root.” Even the Chinese character 人 is meant to look like a man with two legs. So there you have it. A little linguistic lesson for the day.
So, the ginseng trade has been well established for centuries and has turned a tidy profit for many, including that beacon of 19th century New York City life, John Jacob Astor. Astor was one of the more ambitious people ever to set foot on American soil. Astor, German by birth, landed in the United States in 1784 just at the end of the Revolutionary War, immediately established himself in the fur trade with Quebec, and became incredibly wealthy. Not being content relying on middlemen, Astor bought his own ship for sending his furs to London, learned of the East India Company trade with China, and immediately capitalized in the Chinese demand for furs. Hard to imagine that this woody root—once used as an aphrodisiac and currently used as a mild organic stimulant in alternative energy drinks, with claims to countless other benefits—was also the root of New York’s trade with China.
Apparently, George Washington had heard about the Chinese need for ginseng and learned there was a huge supply growing indigenously in North America. Since the only crop we could grow that would be valuable to the Chinese at the time was ginseng, which wasn’t being used widely in the United States, it became a valued U.S. export. On a Chinese cultural website, the following historical facts were provided: Ginseng helped promote the formation of the notion of international trade in the US. The entire country was connected to trade with China. Not only merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but isolated farmers in deep mountains had learned that they could be paid by something grown in the northern slope of the mountains. About the same time when the Empress of China unloaded the Ginseng at China, George Washington (1732–1799) met some people who were doing Ginseng business in Virginia. He recorded it in his diary, “I met numbers of Persons & Pack horses going in with Ginseng: & for salt & other articles at the Market Below.”
In today’s market, there is still a great demand for ginseng. Although our more lucrative exports lay in automobiles and other technology, China produces its own. In the American producer’s dig for a new ginseng, let’s hope the only commodity left to trade with China isn’t just our national debt. – Taken from the Fading Ads of New York City (History Press, 2011) © Frank H. Jump
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