Home > History of Wine, LibraryCompanyMadeira > The Role of the Madeira Shipper in Relation to American Connoisseurs: The Case of Henry Hill

The Role of the Madeira Shipper in Relation to American Connoisseurs: The Case of Henry Hill


This past weekend I participated in the unveiling of the latest Historic Series Madeira produced by Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co and Ricardo Freitas, Vinhos Barbeito. This new Madeira honors the Library Company of Philadelphia which is the oldest successful library in America having been founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731.  The ties between the Library Company and Madeira are rich over the course of history.  Not only did the 18th century board members purchase oysters by the hundreds and London Particular by the gallon but today the stacks hold the correspondence of the Hill Family.

Library Company of Philadelphia, Locust Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Furness, Frank. Between 1880-1890. The Library of Congress.

Library Company of Philadelphia, Locust Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Furness, Frank. Between 1880-1890. The Library of Congress.

The Hill family were extensive participants in the Madeira trade for the second half of the 18th century.  Though they sold Madeira to the affluent and powerful in America, their firm has received little attention.  Perhaps the first insight into their trade came across in the book Letters of Dr. Richard Hill and His Children, Or the History of a Family as Told by Themselves (1854) published by John Jay Smith.  John Jay Smith was both a distant relative of the Hill family as well as a Librarian at the Library Company.  Henry Hill’s life and intersection with Madeira was explored by David W. Maxey in his paper “Madeira, Quakerism, and Rebellion: Reviving Henry Hill”, Quaker Press (2004).  Most recently, the Hill firm is described in various details in David Hancock’s Oceans of Wine (2009).

The unveiling of the Library Company Madeira took place over the course of this past weekend.  On Friday, October 16th, 2015, there was a fundraising dinner at the Hill-Physick House, where rare wines and Madeira dating back to the 19th century were served.  The following day a celebration of Madeira took place at the Library Company under the organization of Dr. Richard S. Newman, Edwin Wolf 2nd Director.  The events included the opening of the Madeira exhibit, a behind the scenes tour, and talks about Madeira and its history by James Green, Mannie Berk, Ricardo Freitas, David W. Maxey, and myself.  What follows below is largely the text I prepared for my talk.

The letters

The firm that was established by Dr. Richard Hill, which involved his son Henry Hill, was known for some time as Hill, Lamar, Hill as well as Hill, Lamar, & Bisset.  The firm, which I will refer to as the house, had a lodge in Madeira, an office in London, and one in Philadelphia.  This was an important house for Henry Hill wrote that, “Previous to Independence, our American wine trade turned out almost a monopoly to Madeira, where in my time two-thirds of it flowed through my father’s house”.

Correspondence from the firm survives to this day due to the long existence of the house and their international dealings.  Decades worth of letters from London and Madeira exist here at the Library Company.  I have been fortunate to recently spend time reviewing these letters thanks to an introduction by Mannie Berk and the efforts of James Green, Librarian at the Library Company.

Based on a sampling of these letters from the 1760s through the 1790s,  this post will discuss how, during Henry Hill’s time, the house focused on the connoisseurs of Madeira in America.  To do so I will cover five different aspects of the House: how they cultivated a client base, how they procured their Madeira for their clients, how clients paid for it, how the Madeira was shipped, and finally I mention a few descriptions of the Madeira itself.

On cultivating a client base

The house shipped Madeira to American both in anticipation of future demand, in which it was consigned to an agent , and also to fill specific orders.  In the first case, capital was tied up until the Madeira was sold.  This was not ideal because money was always required to purchase new stocks of wine in Madeira.  This concern was expressed to Henry Hill noting that the house would rather ship 500 or 600 pipes “than double that quantitie and be obligied to be concern’d ourselves”.   If filling individual orders was preferable than cultivating the right customer base was essential.  With the death of Dr. Richard Hill in 1762, the house reasserted the importance of the customer base by assuring that there would “be no alteration in the method of our Business, which shall be preserved on the same principle that established it, vizt. a steady view to the interest of our Constituents”.

Henry Hill. Image from Smith, John Hay. Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and his children. 1854. URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89063107049

Henry Hill. Image from Smith, John Hay. Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and his children. 1854. URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89063107049

Indeed, Henry Hill was instructed in 1764 to cultivate a relationship with an Army Colonel moving to Philadelphia in order to gain the business of “the other Regiments in America”.  This pressure on Henry Hill existed both when America was a British colony and an independent country.  In the 1790s he was instructed to use his “influence with Congress” to procure the Consulship of Madeira for Mr. Lamar.  It was believed this would no doubt “be productive of many advantages to the House.”

From correspondence we know that clients of Henry Hill included Governor John Penn, signers of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll and John Hancock, financier Robert Morris, and of course George Washington.  When George Washington wrote in 1759 to the London firm of Robert Cary & Company ordering “from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old wine” his order was fulfilled by Hill, Lamar, and Hill.  George Washington eventually met with Henry Hill and the two men became friends.

At the same period as Washington’s first order, the recently widowed Martha Custis was also a client of the Hills.  The Custis family used both Robert Cary and John Hanbury to handle their business in London.  Before she married George Washington, John Hanbury ordered her Madeira from the Hills.  She was young, very wealthy, and desirable as a new client.  Before the House was aware of her marriage, they wrote how they would like to send her a pipe yearly and that she could “depend on being supplied with the best.”

We do not yet know what Madeira lay in the Custis cellar when George and Martha first met.  But it is entirely possible that George had his first taste of Hill’s Madeira while courting Martha.

There was a strong desire to maintain these relationships over the years.    We do not yet know what George Washington requested in his earliest known order but the response from Madeira indicates that they chose “the Color…Carefully to please you.”

George Washington to Lamar, Hill, Bissett and Company, August 3, 1786. Library of Congress.

George Washington to Lamar, Hill, Bissett and Company, August 3, 1786. Library of Congress.

When George Washington received a pipe of Madeira at Mount Vernon in 1786, he was appalled by the bill.  Washington wrote a letter that very same day noting “I have not yet tasted it, but presume it is fine: it ought to be so, for the cost of it”.  At £43 for the pipe it was 20% more expense the then £36 pipe of “old, & of an excellent quality” he had purchased from competitors Messrs Searle & Co.  Lamar, Hill, & Bisset responded in a detailed manner “desirous of giving you every satisfaction”.  The 1782 vintage that Washington received was of better quality with a price driven up by its age and fact that the 1786 was “not very generally good”.

Sourcing the Madeira

In reading the Henry Hill letters it is clear that the more Madeira the house shipped each year, the greater were its profits.  What is also clear is that there were complications from supply, demand, and capital.  Each year the wines were purchased from around the Island and stored in the house’s warehouse or lodge.  The amount of wine purchased and its quality of course depended upon vintage and where it came from.

The house shipped different grades of Madeira: London Particular, London Market, India Market, New York Market, and Cargo.  The grade corresponded with the price.  A good vintage could yield more London Particular than New York Market.  In addition to the grade or quality, the age of the wine affected its value.  Wine that was not from the current or “new” vintage was considered “old”.  Old wine typically came about by storing it in the lodge though it could sometimes be bought.

The house wanted to ensure they had the correct types of Madeira to supply their annual and best customers in America.  The amount of wine on hand varied year to year.  One year the house shipped 830 pipes and still had 150 pipes in the lodge by summer.  In another year the lodge had only 30 pipes left in the Spring.  Another vintage was both large and very fine with the lodge still having 700 pipes in the summer.  The problem with this vintage is that there was more fine wine and not enough lesser wine for their customers.

At times the house could not fulfill orders.  So if the vintage was plentiful and they had the capital, they would lay in a large stock of wine to both sell and age.

The wealthiest customers bought old London Particular by the pipe or even the premium Malmsey.  The later was so rare and expensive that it was shipped by the quarter-cask.  Martha Custis ordered “good old wine”, George Washington ordered “particular or best wine”, and Charles Carroll ordered “three years old Madeira”, and Robert Morris “choice old wine”.  Governor Penn was once shipped “Malmsey”.  Indeed, a captain of a Dutch Man of War was instructed to take his Madeira only from Hill.  As it was destined for the nobility and gentry of Holland, the captain laid in Malmsey.

Malmsey was a rare wine that was frequently in short supply.  It comes from a difficult grape to grow and prefers particular locations.  One of those locations is Faja dos Padres which is located in Quinta Grande.  Originally cultivated by the Jesuits this estate was eventually owned by the Correia family.  We know that the House bought wine from Correia.  Perhaps some of their Malmsey came from this family.

The Malmsey itself appears to have been of different styles.  One shipment contained 2-3 year old “excellent rich” Malmsey that was sweet.  That shipment also contained 4 year old “very choice and very dry Malmsey” from the 1786 vintage and a curious “green Malmsey”.

The house was not always passive about lower quality Madeira such as with the bountiful 1789 vintage.  Though initially expected to surpass the quality of the previous several vintages, they were ultimately deceived.  Through the “assistance” of a “little French brandy they begin to wear a very different and indeed favourable aspect.”

Paying for the Madeira

The House participated in an international trade that extended beyond Madeira wine.  Madeira is an island so there was an annual need to import other supplies and food stuff.  Indeed, the Henry Hill papers are full of market prices for the island of Madeira.  Nearly every letter from the Island details the demand and price for corn, flour, and wheat.

This was obsessed about for the house did not just make money from Madeira they made it from other goods needed on the Island.  If the house felt there was a demand for these goods on the Island, Henry Hill sent them from America.

The main business was supplying clients with Madeira.  Individuals typically paid for their Madeira through bills drawn on a particular bank or merchant.

George Washington, no doubt excited by the completion of his gristmill near Mount Vernon in 1771, once paid for his Madeira with 80 barrels of flour.  Henry Hill explained that “it’s not usual to ship fine wine but for bills of Excha[nge]”.  However, Henry Hill offered to work with George Washington by writing a letter of explanation to the house in Madeira.  He did tell Washington that he could have any wine except for their best which was London Particular.

Shipping the Madeira

Madeira being an Island was not a natural supplier of wood.  There are several letters to Henry Hill requesting that he ship boards so they can replace rotten floor boards at the lodge.  Now Madeira was typically shipped in a wooden cask known as a pipe.  Some rare wines were shipped in smaller quarter-casks.  A wine cask was not made from just any type of wood, it was made from oak.  So if there were difficulties procuring floor boards you can imagine that oak for the casks must have come from elsewhere.

Indeed, the house imported oak staves for their coopers to build the pipes.  The pipe and its staves were generally regulated in size.  If the house shipped some 1,200 pipes per year then it needed staves by the tens of thousands.

There was an international market for staves with the oak from different countries regarded at different quality levels.  Shipping heavy pipes of wine was rugged business with pipes made from inferior oak liable to leak.  The best oak staves were purchased from Hamburg but these were also the most expensive.  The second best oak came from America.

There appears to be some correlation between the quality of the wine and the type of stave used.  Charles Carroll requested “the best Hamburgh staves, well secured with iron hoops and branded with letters” for his “three years old Madeira”.  Even George Washington requested the best Hamburg staves for an order of “choice prime wine” ordered from another house.  In two instances, the house shipped their London Particular in American oak.

The 110 Imperial Gallon pipe was the standard workhorse for shipping despite the vast range of other sizes.  When a pipe reached America (and indeed other countries) it was measured or gauged to determine how much Madeira was in it.  Sometimes American clients complained that their pipe of wine did not measure exactly 110 gallons.  The house admitted that their coopers were not always exact and even their pre-made London pipes were not either.  Thus in an order for multiple pipes, for every gallon that a pipe was short they would make sure another pipe contained two more gallons.  Thus the entire order had to be considered.

The Madeira itself

We know little about how these Madeira wines looked, smelled, and tasted.  There are some comments relating the grapes to the wine.  In one instance there was a “strong and continued fermentation”.  During the summer of one bad vintage due to the “the parch’d appearance of the grapes” it was assumed that, ”the quality of the wine must be inferior”.  That fall it was concluded the inferior wine was due to “the number of defective grapes”.

The most expensive and treasured Madeira’s had been sent on a long ocean voyage, typically to the Indies.  In some cases Madeira went to the Brazils and back.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s favorite Madeira, having ordered 8 pipes of it, was Brazil Madeira.  Unfortunately, we know very little about Brazil Madeira but the Henry Hill correspondence does shed some much needed light.  In 1791, Henry Hill was sent quarter casks of the House’s Brazil wine.  It had a “drop of brandy” in it and was described “with a taste of wine extremely delicate” and that it might “prove particularly agreeable to the ladies whose votes you seem solicitous to gain”.

In two instances we know what people desired.  John Hancock once ordered “very best Madeira” stating that he liked “a rich wine I need say no more to you”.  We also know that George Washington liked “rich oily” Madeira.  In fact George Washington’s love for Madeira is demonstrated in a most unusual manner.  He is, of course, famous for wearing dentures which he sent to Philadelphia for repair.

Advertisement. Date: Wednesday, January 30, 1799 Paper: Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Issue: 6905 Page: 2

Advertisement. Date: Wednesday, January 30, 1799 Paper: Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Issue: 6905 Page: 2

Just one year before his death in 1798, which is the same year that Henry Hill died, his dentist wrote back to George Washington about the set which “was very black”.  He blamed this on George Washington “either by soaking them in port wine, or by your drinking it”.  He explained that acid in wine takes off polish and colors ivory.  While the dentist assumed George Washington was drinking vast quantities of Port, a look through his correspondence reveals he ordered far more Madeira.

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