to Mr. Evarts.
Brussels, March 10, 1879. (Received March. 24.)
Sir: In the course of a short conversation with the King while in attendance at a ball held at the palace recently, in reply to an incidental remark of mine that the United States seemed now to be entering upon a more prosperous state than it had enjoyed prior to specie resumption, His Majesty said, “I am very glad to hear it; you know well my feelings toward your country; I wish it the greatest prosperity and advancement, and strongly hope that commerce may increase between the two countries.”
It is not uncharitable to conclude that while His Majesty may not be averse to Belgians purchasing goods from the United States, yet his great desire is that the balance of trade should be in favor of his own country, As a similar feeling is doubtless likewise entertained by the United States, it is essential that a healthy impetus should be given to commerce first, and then the country enjoy the greater benefit that may be the better entitled to it. This conversation with the King induces me to transmit to you some general ideas on the subject of enlarging the field of American trade.
Many Americans are apt to suppose that because they have an article of conceded merit, more particularly a patent, that it is the easiest thing in the world to introduce it into Europe, and reap a fortune in a few months. Labor-saving machines, articles of household utility, useful improvements upon articles already in use, they expect to commend themselves at once to foreigners by reason of their superiority over others. They greatly err in comparing the tastes and wants of their own countrymen with that of the average European. An American, as a rule, will promptly and unhesitatingly discard anything he has in use for something he considers better adapted to his requirements; but to argue that a Belgian is equally progressive is a very grave mistake and a pregnant cause of many failures to introduce wares of unquestioned merit.
Americans should study carefully the needs, tastes, habits, customs, and capabilities of those they desire for customers. The differences of climate, prejudices of race, distrustfulness of the ignorant, essentially different forms of government, language, and religion, all combine to add difficulties to the problem “How can American wares be successfully introduced and their sale made permanent and growing?” The port of Antwerp is the radiating point for all Central and Northern Europe, and the suggestion made by the consul here that a sample store of American goods be opened in Brussels is a very good one, but the majority of those who send their wares must not expect an immediate return, but rater look for their remuneration when the permanency of their trade is secured. Americans are not apt to treat with proper patience the slower-going European merchant. A man entering a store here and offering to sell goods by sample would be at once pronounced an escaped lunatic; but when orders are once given to a manufacturer they are continued from year to year and not changed save for very good cause. From a sample store properly conducted and judiciously supplied, would go out those things best suited to the peculiar wants of the people, so that in a short while the nature and requirements of the market [Page 88] would be so well understood that all unsalable articles could in future seek another channel of trade.
To talk of improved agricultural implements in a rural district where the men are so poor—having neither horse, ox, nor cow—that they combine together and themselves pull the plow—a by no means unusual sight in some parts of Belgium, though there are some large and well-cultivated estates—would be wasting breath to a poor purpose indeed. ’Tis equal folly to enlarge upon the immense capabilities of a reaping-machine in a district so subdivided that there is scarcely room enough in one for a team of horses to turn, or of descanting upon the superiority of the American article before a number of Brussels lace merchants. There are, however, many things in America, aside from meats and grain, already getting a firm foothold, that can, and in time will, be introduced here with great profit to our people, but to do so will require tact, patience, and untiring perseverence.
Belgians are averse to innovations, distrustful of changes, and should one be induced to try an experiment, his neighbors would watch him with misgivings and distrust for a long period before venturing to follow the same path. But an article, like a custom, once introduced would be as difficult to supplant as was in the beginning its predecessor.
The chief merits of most of American inventions are their labor-saving qualities—just that improvement which at this time is not wanted in Europe, at least by those who constitute the governing classes. If a machine is offered whereby one man can do the work heretofore done by two, what is to become of the other man, they ask. Is he to be thrown out of employment to be an expense upon the state? Both men were contented before with their small earnings; better that they should remain so, say those in authority; and down to the lowest official such innovations, so styled, meet discouragements and obstructions which, in some instances, amounts to prohibition. To an extent this is even so with food, notwithstanding cheap and wholesome living for the masses solves many a difficult problem of government. Indian corn in any of its varied uses is almost unknown here. American hams were recently denied a sale because the yellow ochre used in coloring the cloth bags in which they were inclosed were erroneously supposed to have affected the meat, a damaged lot of which had been discovered. And all sorts of stories are told about trichina in bacon, rancid lard, diseased cattle, musty wheat, &c. Though such wild statements originate with interested parties, they find willing believers and ready assistants among those whose better interests would be subserved were only the truth known.
How to bring about increased commercial relations with Belgium, whereby the United States may be benefited, is a subject to which I not only give attention and investigation, but assist and encourage our consuls to do the same. I answer promptly and as fully as I am able to do all letters asking for information concerning trade or in any manner pertaining to business, and our consuls will gladly impart any knowledge on such subjects they may possess.
A perfect understanding of the language is an indispensable requisite of an agent. The larger number of the lower classes speak Flemish; all of the upper classes speak French, and great numbers speak also English and German. A knowledge of a foreign language sufficient to travel and carry on an ordinary conversation is not sufficient for the purposes of a traveling agent who expects to meet with much success. His knowledge of the language should be thorough, so that he may have his subject always at his tongue’s end. But, above all, merchants should [Page 89] be cautioned against sending a “smart,” “sharp” fellow on their business. ’Tis well enough for one to have his wits about him, for he will not always have honest men to deal with, but one “sharp trick” practiced on the unsuspecting never fails to utterly destroy the trickster’s business and at the same time to materially injure that of all other Americans.
The limited knowledge of America, her institutions, products, and manufactured articles, is by no means confined to the laboring classes, and it is not very difficult to excite a great prejudice against any article. Among the governing class and landed proprietors there is a perceptible uneasiness in regard to the introduction of American goods, and with a few the panic produced by the increased importation of cattle and grain has been as great as was that among the holders of gas stock in London upon the announcement that Mr. Edison had demonstrated the feasibility of lighting houses and streets with electricity. They reckon no limit to American capabilities when put forth in earnest.
Tenants complain that they cannot pay their rent and compete in the market with American cattle and grain, and in consequence demand a reduction, to which proprietors are greatly indisposed to assent. If land owners concede lower rents to their tenants, they demand in turn lower taxes from the government, and American so-called “innovations” thus become the “bête noir” of more than one class. There are few, if any, freer countries in Europe than Belgium, or in which the people have a more potent voice, but the nobility here, as the world over, with their family influences reaching every class and section, wield the main power, mold the opinions, and shape the direction of affairs. The distress in England, and in a measure throughout Europe, is attributable, in the opinion of many, directly to the introduction of the cheaper American productions.
The consternation produced among landed proprietors in anticipation of future woes, by an occasional article going the rounds of the press concerning a “herd of western cattle fifty thousand strong,” or “twenty thousand acres of wheat” being cut by “fifty improved reapers in a row,” would be amusing did it not have its serious aspect. Nevertheless food and merchandise of any description will force themselves into markets whenever their claim of being “cheaper” or of “better quality” is fully established. With goods in every instance fully up to samples, open and upright dealing, American energy has not only in Belgium a profitable field for development, but one susceptible of expansion far beyond its borders.
I have, &c.,