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Newton, Gordon, Johnston, Murdoch, and Scott of Madeira, Portugal letters


Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

The wine trading firm at the center of this collection was first formed by Francis Newton and Alexander Johnston in the late 1740s. Newton and Johnston had fled their native Scotland where they had fought for Charles Edward Stuart, known as "the Young Pretender" to detractors and "Bonnie Prince Charlie" to supporters, in the failed Jacobite rising of 1745. Initially working as a bookkeeper in Johnston's London counting house, Newton would move to Madeira, Portugal in 1748 to establish the Madeira wine trading firm that would come to constitute the core of their growing business operations. Newton would be joined by his brother Thomas and Johnston's nephew Thomas Gordon in 1758. The consortium Newton, Gordon, and Johnston, and its various successors, would become a dominant player in the international Madeira wine trade. The company persists to this day under the name of Cossart Gordon, which claims to be the oldest shipper of Madeira wine.

According to David Hancock's Oceans of Wine: Medeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (2009), "Newton & Gordon (and its successors) focused on England and the West Indies: 171 of its 210 customers during the early 1770s lived in one of these two places, as did 246 of its 273 customers a decade later, and 303 of its 404 customers at the end of the century" (p. 151). The firm's business interests, Hancock demonstrates, are reflected in its expressed political commitments—while initially staunchly pro-British at the beginning of the American Revolution; by 1790 U.S. buyers of Madeira wine had saturated the market and Newton et. al. began to condemn both the military and economic assaults of the British on their former colonies. The newly formed United States would become, over the eighteenth century, the largest market for Madeira in the world. This collection bears witness to this evolution, containing business letters received by the firm from American merchants over the period 1790 1835. While covering a proportionately limited period of the firm's existence and a relatively smaller portion of their overall market, the collection offers insight into the development and growth of the firm's trading network as well as the minutiae of its day-to-day operations.

This collection comprises thirty-nine letters from American businessmen to the Madeira, Portugal-based wine merchants Francis Newton, Alexander Johnston, Thomas Gordon, and their partners, spanning the period from 1790 to 1835. Most of these letters discuss the establishment and maintenance of trade relations, the terms of specific deals, and the fluctuations of the market more generally. The most common item of discussion throughout the collection is the exchange of flour or, to a lesser extent, corn and other grains for Madeira wine. While some mention is made of the West Indies and elsewhere, all of the letters primarily focus on trade between Madeira and the major cities of the east coast of the United States. Philadelphia is by far the most well represented location, with twenty-four letters from fifteen different businessmen and firms; while merchants from Boston, Charleston, New York, Norfolk, and Petersburgh also appear in the correspondence.

The Madeira firm initially built by Scottish émigrés Francis Newton and Alexander Johnston went through many changes in name through its history, and at certain periods it is unclear precisely who the primary partners of the firm were. This collection is organized according to the names to which the bulk of the letters of a given period are addressed: Series I. Letters to Newton, Gordon, and Johnston; Series II. Letters to Newton, Gordon, and Murdoch; Series III. Letters to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Scott; Series IV. Letters to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Co. While there is little change in the subject matter discussed in the letters in each series, this chronological order will allow researchers to follow the growth of the business specifically, as well as the development of transatlantic trade and the movements of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century market more generally. With regard to the latter, many letters include tables of prices for staples such as flour, rice, pork, tallow, butter, corn, and beef, providing an opportunity to trace the specific fluctuations in commodity values that shaped the contours of early U.S. capitalism and eighteenth-century transatlantic trade.

While centering on the trade of Madeira wine and thus offering some insight into one of the period's most popular drinks, this collection is of much more interest to researchers interested in business than those interested in wine and wine-making, which is rarely discussed in any detail.

Sold by Michael Brown Rare Books, 2018.

University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Finding Aid Author
Cory Austin Knudson
Finding Aid Date
2019 September 27
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research use.

Use Restrictions

Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

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Letters to Newton, Gordon, and Johnston, 1790-1791.
Box 1 Folder 1
Letters to Newton, Gordon, and Murdoch, 1792-1804.
Box 1 Folder 2
Letters to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Scott, 1816-1832.
Box 1 Folder 3
Letters to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Co. , 1835.
Box 1 Folder 4

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