From the category archives:


The Sun Bleach Stamp Book

by admin on 21/08/2011

There are several stamp books in my collection and I have created an ebook version of one here for you to enjoy.  Contact me directly if you would like a link to the ebook


Merchants all had printed copies of their trademark stamps and each stamp was individually numbered. The books were made to match the size of folded cotton fabric pieces, so measure about 30 inches by 12.  The stamps would be sent out to the packing houses to print onto the fabric pieces to identify and brand the cloth. A large part of the textile trade was the sale of plain white fabric and bleaching companies would take orders, bleach, pack, bale and ship the fabric off across the world on behalf of the merchant. The merchant would simply get a sample of the fabric sent and a copy of how the pieces were stamped.

The merchant would instruct the bleacher which stamps were to be applied to each order using the stamp numbers. A typical order would be that the bleacher had to use stamp numbers 134, 2044, 53 and 1738 on the piece. The person who stamped the fabric piece (he was called a “maker-up”) would then go to the stamp book, look at which numbers correlated to which stamp design and then select the correct stamps from the shelving. The stamps would also often have a number marked on the side which matched the number in the stamp book.

Each bleachworks would have thousands of stamps in stock. Many would be owned by merchants but the bleacher would also have their own generic stamps which merchants could use (such as “yard” stamps or common words such as “cotton” or “fine quality”) and that related to the bleacher. In the book are Sun related brands such as Sundial, Solar shirting and images such as a baby holding the fabric up to the sun and a diagram of the solar system. Bleacher’s stamps commonly had their company name or  acronym hidden within the design of their stamps, so that merchants could know who owned the trademark.

This stamp book was discarded by a merchant 20 years ago and is typical,  in that it shows the full range of stamps used by a bleacher. It begins with examples of the individual fonts which were used to make up any word required, such as a place or customer name. Then there are decorative “yard” stamps which had a space, into which could be inserted a number stamp corresponding to the length of fabric piece. There are some pages of the smaller “truth” or “bolt” stamps which were put on the very end of the fabric piece to show that it was of the length described by the yard stamp and hadn’t been shortened before sale. Later in the book there are frame stamps which would surround a shippers ticket so that the original ticket couldn’t be peeled off and another one of a different size attached. There are also pages showing how a complete fabric piece would be printed with a combination of several stamps.


The book is useful to show the variety of stamps used and the colours used other than the standard indigo, such as gold and red. The date of the book is probably around 1920 but stamps often lasted years and some designs in it date back to the late 1800’s. The other stamp books I have are earlier than this one but the Sun Bleaching has all the elements and is the best laid out example. The trademarks designs themselves cover African,  Far Eastern, the Home Trade and Asian cultures, reflecting the four corners of the world where Manchester fabric was sold.


The Sun Bleach Company was based in the Horwich and Bolton area near Manchester, an area which had specialised in bleaching fabric from the earliest times when cloth was bleached with natural substances such as lime and urine then left out to dry in fields known as “crofts”.


I am really happy to have come across 17 original pen and ink artwork that the stampmaker John Wild drew for merchants to approve before starting work making the stamps. Shame I don’t have the actual stamps but maybe they were never made or more likely, were discarded along with all the other thousands. Thanks to Myra for selling them and trying to keep them as a whole collection.

I now have invoices, artwork, stamps, old signs/adverts and naming punches from the stampmakers. It’s a shame not to have any tools. When I went into the last stampmakers old shop (Shaw & Latham) at 91 Princess Street in Manchester there was a small forge presumable for melting lead and working the copper but no tools. I interviewed a worker and he said the apprenticeship lasted 5 years and all the tools were made by the apprentices because they were so unique in their design. Maybe some descendant has a bag of them in a shed somewhere and has no idea why there are so many strange looking pliers.


I was very proud to have been asked to write a six page article for the Textile Institute’s 100 year anniversary commemorative magazine.

The Textile Institute is one of Manchester’s most venerable organizations with a long history central to the cotton trade, so to see the trademark artist’s skills recognized in such a way is an honor to their previously overlooked talents.


Conde Nast Traveler feature

by Adrian on 10/08/2010

I appeared as one of the “Obsessed” collectors in the February 2010 issue of Conde Nast Traveller, stumbling over piles of the stamps. I can assure you that the stamps are not normaly treated that way but it did make a splendid image!


Stamp Designs

by Adrian on 10/08/2010

Fabric merchants used the front of every piece of fabric as an advertisement to buyers all over the world and were very careful to choose an image that was both memorable and relevant in a multitude of cultures.

I have around 2,500 of the original stamps, all of which I have printed onto paper. I also have sample books of designs which were kept at the merchants’ warehouses and bleachworks/fabric printers. I would estimate the total collection numbers around 5,000 original stamp designs.

This is a tiny fraction of the number of images in use in Manchester. When copyright registration was introduced in the 1870’s, Manchester had to be given its own office to deal with the huge number of trade marks in use. There were around 800 merchants in the city at the time and the larger merchants complained that they had neither the time or money to register “the 10,000 or so marks” they owned.

A lot of the images go against the popular opinion that Empires were patronizing and had little interest in respecting or even recognizing “native” culture. I suppose that the image below of someone proudly raising the British flag on some new part of the planet would be the way we would expect the Victorians to mark their fabric.

The above image was probably stamped onto fabric for domestic consumption, otherwise known as the “Home Trade”. However, there is also this equal and opposite scenario whereby Indian looking fighters are taking on a navy using elephants tusks as catapults.

The image could be intended to poke fun at the primitive weaponry of natives but the way the image is drawn up, it looks to me more like an act of defiance than ridicule.

The following are just a few images to illustrate the diversity.

An African lady who looks like she is doing some sort of calculation.

I have absolutely no idea what this group of characters represents but the buyer would have known exactly what it signifies.

South America in the shape of a woman draped in fabric.

A musician from somewhere in the Far East.

This is a North African or persian man who sells cups of a yogurt drink, which he keeps in a sheepskin backpack and advertises by ringing a bell.

It may be sacrilege in Islam to show an image of Muhammad but this is his beautiful winged horse.

South African Primitive Art.

The translation of the Chinese text in the middle of the stamp is “Nine Chrysanthemum Flowers”. That may be an obvious description to those in the west but to the Chinese, the chrysanthemum flower is one of the important “Four Gentlemen” flowers, representing Autumn. It also symbolizes happiness and long life. The Chinese numbering system goes from zero to nine and so with the nine flowers in a circle, the stamp means “eternal long life and happiness” to those buyers, even though in the streets of  Manchester it would just apear to be a garland of flowers.


I was delighted to be asked to write about my collection in issue 5 of Canadian typography magazine, Uppercase

I also have a 5 page spread in the current issue of London based textile magazine, Selvedge.

Both of the editors learned about my collection from a lecture I gave in January at the Tye Directors’ Club in NYC

I am always happy to share my images and research with those who want to help publicize this previously ignored area of design and brand history. I have appeared as a special guest on the Antiques Roadshow and have lectured to design students, using the story of Victorian merchant branding to better understand the importance of good design.

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