The porcelain dinnerware which ultimately became the very first set of White House China was actually designed by members of the Society of Cincinnati, one of whom was George Washington, for the Society’s own use. But most people don’t realize the Society of Cincinnati has a unique place in American history that goes far beyond these rare pieces of Chinese porcelain.
THE EMBLEM OF THE SOCIETY OF CINCINNATI EXPERTLY HAND-PAINTED ON 1785 PORCELAIN DINNERWARE
The Society is America’s oldest private patriotic organization. It was founded in May 1783 after Congress dissolved the Continental Army, with membership restricted to American and French officers who had fought in the Revolutionary War. The organization was intended to “distinguish members as men of honor” and to:
- Perpetuate the memory of Revolutionary War and promote its ideals.
- Preserve friendships that had been formed among officers.
- Advocate for officer compensation that had been promised by the new Congress.
- Provide financial support for needy members and their families.
Membership eligibility was hereditary — passed down to each veteran member’s oldest son or “collateral descendant.” The organization was named in honor of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman that Society founders felt was the “embodiment of civic virtue.” Cincinnatus was appointed dictator of Rome in 458 BC to lead the way in fighting off threats to the republic’s sovereignty. Having accomplished that, Cincinnatus walked away from power and quietly retired to his farm.
The Society of Cincinnati was created as a national entity with federated state societies, mirroring the structure of the newly-fledged United States. To fund charitable work, members were asked to contribute dues equal to one month’s pay. Although George Washington was not technically a founder of the Society, he joined early on and was elected the organization’s first President-General.
GEORGE WASHINGTON PAINTED WEARING THE SOCIETY EMBLEM - THIS EMBLEM LATER APPEARING ON GEORGE WASHINGTON'S OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL CHINA
Within 10 years membership grew to 2,270 officers, with societies in all 13 original states as well as one in France. However, early critics claimed the Society was elitist – a hereditary aristocracy similar to royal houses in Europe that could potentially undermine or overthrow America’s new government. Concerned about these criticisms, George Washington reportedly discussed the situation with Thomas Jefferson, who recommended making changes to mollify detractors.
Accordingly, one year after the Society was formed, Washington proposed the organization eliminate the hereditary membership requirement. While this was officially accepted, not all state societies went along with the changes. During the first half of the 1800s, membership declined, dwindling to fewer than 300.
NEAR-PRISTINE DINNER PLATE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON'S, IN THE COLLECTION OF RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX
To revive interest, membership eligibility requirements were again changed – expanded to allow descendants of all qualified officers to join, even if their eligible forebears had not joined the organization. This so-called “Rule of 1854” spurred growth by effectively doubling the number of potential “membership lines.” The Civil War put the Society on the back burner again, but America’s centennial celebration brought it back into the limelight. Every state society had been reconstituted by 1904, and the French Society was brought back into the fold in 1925.
In 1938, the Society of Cincinnati established a beautiful International Headquarters in Washington, DC. The current mission is to promote both academic and popular interest in the people and actions that made American independence possible. The organization also continues to foster fellowship among its members.
THE IMPOSING SOCIETY OF CINCINNATI HEADQUARTERS LOCATED IN THE ANDERSON HOUSE, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Today, you can visit the Society’s headquarters and their American Revolution Institute to use their extensive library that includes a world-class collection of books and manuscripts relating to the Revolutionary War. You can also tour their museum to see art and artifacts that depict the Society’s history as well as the war. Among those artifacts, you can see a dinner plate from that first order of Chinese export porcelain – the 1784 dinnerware that later became George Washington’s Official White House China.
RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX - HISTORIAN & COLLECTOR
World renowned collector Raleigh DeGeer Amyx has acquired a remarkable number of pieces of official White House china. Mr. Amyx’s passion for American historical artifacts has been his sole focus for more than 35 years. Mr. Amyx's collection is the largest privately-owned collection of extremely high-quality, as well as the rarest, Official White House China in the world. If you would like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Amyx about White House China, please contact him through the button below.