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More than souvenirs: George Vanderbilt’s 1892 trip to Japan

Posted on 09/15/2014 by Judy Ross Comments(5)

Like most of us, George Vanderbilt purchased souvenirs to remind him of the places he visited. Unlike us, he had a 250-room home under construction with plenty of space for accessories!

It’s not surprising that Vanderbilt and his cousin, Clarence Barker, toured countless Japanese temples and other cultural sites during a trip to Japan in 1892. But they apparently worked in some shopping as well, as Biltmore's archives indicate.netsuke

Today, it’s hard to imagine how “foreign” Japan seemed to Americans at the end of the 1800s. The country had been closed to most Westerners for 200 years, only opening somewhat to trade beginning in the 1850s.

In Vanderbilt’s time, Japan was viewed as a place untouched by the west’s industrialization and modernization. Popular literature of the time evoked a far-off land where feudal traditions persisted and its people lived a simpler life.

To many Americans, Japan and its culture was exotic and rooted in tradition, offering a blend of spirituality and aesthetic beauty. To George Vanderbilt, deeply interested in history, the arts, and collecting, the allure must have been irresistible.Japan invite

The trip itself was an adventure. Vanderbilt and Barker—one of his favorite traveling companions—had just returned from Spain when an invitation arrived to attend the Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration. Soon after, they packed their trunks and left for the first leg of a 10-week itinerary.

First, they accompanied Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt to Chicago to see his preliminary work on the World’s Columbian Exposition. From there, the pair continued westward, stopping in Yellowstone National Park at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. Upon reaching San Francisco, they boarded ship for the week-long journey to Yokohama to begin their exploration of Japanese culture and customs—and evidently, quite a bit of shopping!

Antiques shops and art dealers were obviously part of the itinerary, as Vanderbilt eventually shipped 32 cases of art and decorative objects back to America. Among his purchases were:

  • Satsuma ceramics, including a koro or ceremonial incense burner, for $85—a significant sum 122 years ago
  • Two suits of samurai armor along with spears and swords
  • Netsuke—miniature sculptures originally used as kimono toggles
  • Bronze sculptures
  • Lacquer boxes and sculptures
  • Varied screens and fans
  • Bamboo curtains
  • 1,000 festive paper lanterns


Top: Pagoda at Horinja-Nana. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892.

Upper right: Ni-o guardians, carved wood. Edo period (1603-1868).

Lower right: Netsuke.

Middle left: Invitation to Emperor of Japan's birthday celebration, 1892.

Lower right: Clarence Barker, Vanderbilt's cousin and traveling companion, ca. 1890.

Bottom: Nagasaki, Takabato Island. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892.

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Related Posts

Posted on 05/22/2018 By Todd W

George Vanderbilt secured the invite because his cousin Clarence Barker got it for him, he had been to Japan a few times prior.

Posted on 10/20/2016 By Ted G

Emperor of Japan (1892)? Emperor Meiji, or Meiji the Great, was the 122nd Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, reigning from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912. Wikipedia Born: November 3, 1852, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan Died: July 30, 1912, Tokyo City Spouse: Empress Shōken (m. 1869–1912) Children: Emperor Taishō,

Posted on 10/27/2015 By Lonnie F

its a question...What was the Emperor of Japans Name that George went to his party?

Posted on 10/07/2014 By sbell

According to Biltmore curatorial staff, we don’t really know why George Vanderbilt was invited to the Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration in 1892. We do know he had many friends in diplomatic circles (and hosted a number them at Biltmore), so that may have been a connection.

Posted on 09/16/2014 By Ted G

How did George Washington Vanderbilt rate an invitation to the Emperor of Japan 's birthday party?

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