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Moses Myers, Maritime Merchant

This desk dates to 1790

This desk dates back to 1790. Click to enlarge.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, water provided the fastest and cheapest means of transporting goods over long distances. Even today, most international trade is done by ship. Such trade depends on well-located harbors, and Norfolk’s location at the juncture of the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay, and Elizabeth and James Rivers allowed its growth as a thriving port city.

A network of enterprising shipping merchants made the flow of trade between countries and across vast distances possible. They bound themselves together through a system of mutual trust and reputation, and Moses Myers was one of the most successful and respected merchant shippers of his day. This exhibit demonstrates how his career touched on almost every aspect of international shipping, revealing the types of products bought and sold, the methods of doing business, the profits to be made, the risks involved, and how his work benefitted his community and his country.

Moses Myers owned his own fleet of merchant vessels to ship his cargoes. He also acted as a shipping agent to handle the loading, unloading, clearance, insurance, and sale of goods for others, a service for which he charged a small commission. Myers purchased products from locations in the interior of the state, transported them to Norfolk along Virginia’s rivers, and then loaded them on board ships for transport and sale elsewhere. Ready markets for these goods existed in Europe and Latin America.

Myers also traded in Smithfield hams, which had an international reputation for quality. He shipped hams to buyers in the North and Great Britain, and sent them as gifts to friends and business associates. The demand for hams from his customers was usually greater than the supply.

Success in the shipping trade resulted from a combination of skill and luck. In order to make the best return on his cargoes, Moses Myers had to keep track of constantly shifting variables including current events at home and abroad, exchange rates, and market prices. After carefully weighing each of these factors, he dispatched his ships to ports he believed promised the greatest profits for his goods. Through careful organization and attention to detail, Moses Myers built up a fortune of $250,000 – a sum worth between $3 million and $5 million today.

The shipping trade was extremely risky, however, and even the most carefully laid plans could be ruined by any number of unexpected disasters. Trade restrictions, accidents at sea, damaged goods, and price fluctuations could cause the loss of entire ship’s cargoes. The greatest risks occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. The wars disrupted American trade for many years, leading to a great national depression in 1819. Although Moses Myers & Sons had survived many hardships, the depression bankrupted the firm.

In later life, Moses Myers served as Collector of Customs for Norfolk and Portsmouth. In addition to collecting taxes on goods entering and leaving the country, he inspected cargoes for unsafe or illegal materials. He also had charge of maintaining the area’s lighthouses and supervising any revenue cutters, or coast guard vessels, stationed in the area.