From the monthly archives:

August 2023

Another Textile Trademark Book!

by admin on 17/08/2023

Honored to have the Inutilious Retailer chosen for Louise Fili’s monograph

Louise Fili’s new book by Princeton Architectural Press

There doesn’t get much higher quality typographer & designer than Louise Fili. She was gracious enough after we met via a talk I did at New York’s Type Director’s Club, to create the branding for my award winning free store which let anyone use my trademark stamps for free.

In the book, she describes the process of design, from selecting the stamp design source material from my archive, through to the final design.

The banner outside the store at 151 Ludlow Street
The source material from one of my stamp books and the original sketch

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Shipper’s Ticket Book Review

by admin on 14/08/2023

Labels of Empire by Susan Meller

Background

This is an impressive book

I was first contacted by American vintage textile pattern dealer, Susan Meller, in 2014, who mentioned she was writing a book on textile tickets after she discovered the subject a year earlier and had acquired a B. Taylor Stock Ticket book from India.

As someone who comes from Manchester, was inside the warehouses and had interviewed the people involved in the trade, from the merchants and trademark business owners right down to the last warehouse workers and stampmakers, I was very happy that someone was going to publicize this forgotten area of art and cultural history.

Adrian Wilson and warehouseman Steve Bates worked in Asia House in the 1980’s

I answered a great number of questions and sent lots of images over a four month period, including pointing out that they are correctly named “Shipper’s Tickets”, before getting cold feet at the possibility that I would not be given any credit in the book for all the background information I had given.
I conveyed my worries and that was the last I heard until someone in the community told me that the book had been published and as it turns out, my fears were proved valid as my name has been purposefully omitted as the source of many things that appear in the book.

Be that as it may, I was taken aback by what a fabulously expansive volume she has created. I emailed Susan with my genuine congratulations at spending nearly nine years of her life creating something I certainly haven’t had the time to do. I think it is incredible how much effort this American has done in researching how varied and respectful each Indian tickets is, which is ironically way more than any Indian museum has done. Meller has also included some basic historical context about the Manchester textile trade and the ticket manufacturing process.

We moved on from any past issues, she graciously sent me a copy of the book, promised to add my name to the next edition and I would hope that the following is a fair review…

First Impressions

Wow, this has been an incredible labor of love. Even before opening it, the sheer size of this 2″ thick, hardback coffee table book at nearly 550 pages takes one’s breath away and totally justifies the purchase price.

An example of the extensive photoshop on this European label. Swiss labels like these are commonly associated with fabric dye exports, rather than fabric or yarn.

Meller has scanned and digitally restored over 1,200 tickets from the several ticket books she bought, then categorized, translated and researched the images depicted on each one. As someone who hasn’t even scratched the surface of my own collection of 12,000 tickets from around the world, I can appreciate what an incredibly impressive endeavor it has been to produce this book. This is a visual feast for anyone who wants to see how the merchants of Victorian Manchester (who came from all over the world) sourced and used a wide variety of very specific and respectful local imagery to appeal even to specific types of buyers in specific towns across India.

Putting the tickets into their wider context was always going to be difficult because the 400 year history of Manchester’s cotton industry is so far-reaching. Inevitably tough decisions had to be made as to what to include in the three pages of text but I feel the reader could have been given a clearer timeline and reason why the trademarks were used and by who. The trademarks influenced so many other areas of culture, from being involved in the first ever legal action in 1618, to helping establish England’s art schools, to increasing fabric sales even after Britain lost its technological advantage.

That there are more pages of fabric samples than there are on the 400 year long story of the cotton trade is likely a nod to Meller’s lifelong expertise as a vintage pattern dealer. They are visually interesting patterns but I would have liked to have seen a description of how those patterned fabrics were commissioned and sold via the Cotton Exchange by the 800 or so merchants from all over the world who were based in Manchester. A key omission in the story of why the trademarks became so prevalent is that the Copyright and Designs Act of 1839 was introduced to specifically prevent companies from copying textile designs. It was a great success in encouraging printers to invest in their own design studios and artists instead of buying patterns from France. The way that unscrupulous companies and merchants who copied designs were caught was by tracing them via the trademarks they had applied to their cloth pieces.

An excellent spread showing the stamps and faceplate samples. Stamping trademarks onto the fabric was a much older and important part of the trade than tickets as they couldn’t be swapped out, though the stamps vanished when the customer washed the unfolded cloth.

Meller doesn’t mention that these tickets were also used in large quantities by yarn exporters, including some examples in the book. Disappointingly, there are also errors throughout the history section which let it down as an academic reference book, for instance the tickets often being referred to as “labels”, the claim that fabric was sent from warehouses to packing houses for making-up into pieces and that generic stock tickets were sold to anyone. A printer would never allow the same trademark to be used by different merchants in the same market, nor would a merchant request a trademark that would confuse his cloth with a competitors.

The enormity of the trade is lost by figures which only give a small part of the amount of cloth stamped and ticketed for export, in addition to that trademarked for the home trade. There may have been an average of 1 billion yards of printed cloth exported between 1894-1899 but total exports of trademarked pieces were five times that amount. The introduction and press release states how “8 billion yards of cloth” were folded, stamped, ticketed and baled for export between 1910 and 1913 but the figure was actually closer to 20 billion.



The above table of exports really gives the vast scale of the amount of fabric that was stamped and ticketed per year, with seven billion yards equating to around two hundred and fifty million pieces of hand trademarked cotton fabric exported in 1913! The number of textile trademarks was so huge, Manchester had to be given its own office when Trademark Registration was introduced and it took around ten years before Manchester’s merchants, some of whom each used around 10,000 trademarks for markets around the world, worked out a system to determine what images could be Registered and which were too generic and widespread for anyone to claim ownership of. It was this combination of vast exports of the cheapest but best quality fabric to every part of the globe (not just to the British Empire -in the 1880’s over 80% of ALL fabric bought in the world came from Lancashire), plus over 800 merchants who came from all over the world which led to the hundreds of thousands of amazingly well thought out and culturally specific trademark images designed to attract specific consumers of every type.

It is also not stated how prodigious the many Manchester ticket printers were in designing tickets which were suitable for all markets, plus their role in keeping records of which merchant used which design in which particular market to prevent duplicity. Printers also often bought and sold trademarks from merchants who were closing their businesses or changing the markets they exported to. A lot of background is given to Norbury Nazio and B Taylor because Meller’s book is based off two sample books of theirs but there were around a dozen firms involved in this competitive trade. For the record, of the printers in the book who couldn’t be traced J.S. was likely Joseph Snow and W.P. & S was William Porter & Sons

The Ticket Section

Meller’s retouched termite-riddled stock ticket book cover with one owned by Adrian Wilson

The book’s real treasure is as a visual resource. Meller has done an amazing job of restoring the tickets and, though modern printers simply cannot replicate the glossy originals printed with up to 16 colours and even embossed or using metallic foil, the images are probably as close as can be to the originals.

The German illustrations were used to create the circle of Mughal Emperors ticket
An example of how Meller has found inspiration images and final ticket variations

The background information for nearly each ticket is excellent, with not just translations but a lot of research into what is being depicted, their meaning and in many cases the source illustrations used to create the tickets. The question I am asked the most is “Who designed the trademarks?” and Meller goes a long way to demonstrate that these images were not fetishization, or ignorance or stereotypes of Indian culture done by ignorant British merchants but were carefully researched and well executed artworks, create in a style which was recognizable to that culture. As Meller touches on, even the high gloss varnish finish was something particular to the Indian market where bright colours were desirable, in contrast to, say, the tickets for the Chinese market which were a matt finish and painted to emulate their traditional silk or watercolor artworks. Victorian Manchester had more foreign consulates even than London, where its textile merchants from all across the globe and ticket printers could research new ideas for authentic appealing trademarks. The author has done an excellent job of finding Indian source material which were converted into full colour tickets designs, however it does concern me that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a book review by a Professor at Berkeley falsely accuses that the tickets of being “appropriations” of a colonized peoples’ vast imaginative riches“. It should may have been more clearly stated that the authentic artwork was mostly of India, used by Indians and just for the Indian market. Simple fact is that if the customer was in the least bit offended, he (shoppers in Indian markets were men, as women mostly stayed in the home) would buy a competitor’s brand instead.

Showing the source illustration of an Indian bunder (goods) boat ticket
A page showing a scene from the Ramayana, when Sita chooses her husband, Rama
A page from the “Gods and Goddesses” section

The tickets are thoughtfully divided up into sections, such as particular Indian deities, animals and everyday scenes but Meller has excelled in putting the tickets in order to tell the great fables of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The book is as much a pictorial guide of India around a century ago, with images of early motor cars, architecture and the structure of Indian society – from British royalty and Maharajas, right down to manual labourers and common leisure pursuits. The captions are informative but not so dry, with Meller an obvious Indophile, describing what the images evoke in her imagination. This is a visual history book but most definitely, the author’s passions and preferences are on full display.

Tickets used in homes as decoration or as objects of worship dispel the idea that colonial merchants cared little about local cultures

Empire, Colonialism and the Western Viewpoint

The book’s very title “Labels of Empire” is a provocative one for various reasons. From an academic’s or historian’s perspective, the title is incorrect as they are clearly called tickets, not labels, plus the book contains trademarks sent out from merchants in Japan, USA and Switzerland, none of which were part of the British Empire when these tickets were printed. Many times in the book, Meller claims that it was the British Empire which drove the textile trade, which is a very simplistic view. Manchester was the first industrial city in the world, focused on one product – cotton cloth. Its machines were years ahead of the competition and housed in a hyper efficient factory system. Manchester’s damp climate meant that cotton could be spun into finer threads, which could be woven into higher quality fabric. Local deposits of coal, steel and clay meant the inventors had the raw materials at hand with which to build new fangled machines and develop a new huge factories in which to house them. The area was hilly, providing fresh running water to wash, dye and bleach the fabric, plus power the factory water wheels before steam arrived, which powered the looms and transported the fabric by rail. Manchester was unique among its competitors in that it encouraged Free Trade, unlike France which banned foreign fabrics, meaning that immigrants from all over the world moved to Manchester to make their fortune selling fabric back to the places where they came. Of course, there was a huge trade with countries of the British Empire but Manchester was such a specialized and high tech production centre, with such a much wider global reach, conducted by export merchants who knew, through hunch or letter or telegram, exactly what would be appealing to the local buyers in far-off bazaars and markets.

The second issue with the title is one of provocation. I very much admire Susan Meller for not shying away from publishing a book which seemingly contradicts the current view that most all interactions between Europeans and indigenous cultures were toxic, abusive and still devastating. Of course, the ethnic cleansing by the USA of Native Americans deserves apologies and reparations. Of course slavery is abhorrent, be it the 400,000 of the estimated 12 million Africans that were forced onto ships who ended up in the US, enslaved on the American cotton plantations. There is no excuse for it but for hundreds of years, including right now, the “developed” part of the world continues to take advantage of low-paid workers and destroy their natural resources – just to acquire a cheaper product. Cheap Manchester fabric used slave grown cotton, child workers in the textile mills and rivers that ran red, purple or yellow depending on what was being dyed that day and was so inexpensive, it stifled local production in every market it was sold. The plantations are gone and Manchester’s river’s clear but the fabric spun and woven to make cheap t-shirts for the now 7 billion people on the planet is still being made by unpaid labor, by children and is still turning a river purple somewhere.

The text is very informative and descriptive but rarely thought-provoking

Despite the title, there is very little opinion or analysis of Colonialism and its effects, even within the Indian textile trade. There is a section on Indian textile mills, plus the Swaraj (self-rule), British goods boycott movement, freedom fighters, Gandhi and the last page literally ends on Indian Independence but there really isn’t much analysis of the facts and quotes Meller uses. In a section on the British Raj, The East India Company is on one hand evocatively described as having “fought, conquered and pillaged” to gain control of India, yet on the next page all the images in the book showing animals, goddesses and royalty are tip-toed around as “not as innocent as they may seem”. I understand that Meller is right to be cautious in this age but the number and breadth of the images, plus her comprehensive research of the origins and significance of each image, really does contradict the popular myth that British merchants had little to no interest in the culture of the people they sold to. A museum in Bangalore that I was promised would study the 5,000 Indian tickets it acquired from me recently put out an opinion video dismissing them as patronizing and naively colonialist.

Meller has done an excellent job of tracing many source images, dispelling the myth that these were fetishized figments of a Manchester artist’s imagination of foreign culture
The image on the right is an adaptation of a Western image created by Colman’s Mustard

Conclusion

It is ironic that a passionate American collector has done what a museum that was recently established to promote Indian culture hasn’t. Meller has shown us all, with just this 1,200 image tip of an iceberg (the National Records Office has around 500 volumes, containing around 130,000 textile trademarks used all over the world from 1875-1925) that Manchester’s textile merchants and shippers actually really did care about the culture of those they sold to in India.

Yes, we can dismiss these because they are just “commercial art” or adverts to make money. However, these textile trademarks were the largest and most respectful branding exercise in the world, putting to shame modern companies who claim to be progressive and inclusive but mark their goods with one single Western culture logo for every single foreign market, goods which are often made in foreign polluting sweatshops.

This book has its small faults but it is faultless as a beautiful picture book, which shows a fantastic visual slice of Indian life and culture in the decades leading up to India’s well deserved independence. This has been a long review because this is the most impressive book ever published on Indian tickets. I applaud Susan Meller for investing so much of her valuable time to bring all these tickets and their stories to life. It is a wonderful introduction to an overlooked area of art history and cultural exchange which can teach us all something. These tickets promoted art education, they provided income for thousands of people, they documented local customs that otherwise would have been lost, they show the value of personalized marketing and, yes they also increased sales and made money for those wise enough to believe in the power of Art.


Wilson adds the book to his collection of original global ticket books

Adrian Wilson thoroughly recommends you buy this book!

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