The fabric label date solved

by Adrian on 13/01/2011

Gabriel Bernon fabric ticket dating from the late 1600’s to early 1700’s

I recently purchased this fabric label stuck into a book from 1853. The book is a very rare anti slavery book called “Sunlight on the landscape and other poems” by “A Daughter of Kentucky”, which also contained 2 anti-slavery newspaper cuttings from 1852. More information on the book is online here

I contacted the Rhode Island Historical Society as they have a large collection of Gabriel Bernon’s archive but they have no labels and could not verify it was from the Gabriel Bernon who lived from 1644 -1736

So the detective work began….

Gabriel Bernon only had daughters and so his name was not passed down the family line. Also, there are no known textile merchants by or using the name “Gabriel Bernon” known to exist in the 19th century. Therefore, somebody decided that the label would look good stuck in the anti-slavery book for some unknown reason. I read that Gabriel Bernon “gifted” a relative a black slave at some point in his life, so maybe that is the link. Or it could have been that the label was just seen as decorative with its rose and butterfly motif.

I sent an image of the label to the Librarian at the Portico Library in Manchester, England for evaluation as they are very knowledgeable on 18th and 19th century literature.

Emma Marigliano, The librarian, explained that the style of typography and decorative motifs looked very similar to early 1700’s bookplates. This was reinforced by the phrase “Imprimee a paris”, which was only used by printers up to the early 1700’s. If the label had only Gabriel Bernon’s name on, it would have likely been a book plate for his library, however the “printed (or stamped) in Paris” phrase would never be put on a bookplate because a person’s collection of books would have been printed all over Europe at the time. Therefore, the label was highly likely to be a very early fabric label, with the two ovals used to identify the design and length of fabric that the label would have been attached to.

This is a very exciting find. Probably the oldest fabric label known in existence, applied to fabric sold by Gabriel Bernon either in Paris, Quebec (where he was a renowned merchant), or Rhode Island. As he manufactured in Rhode Island when he emigrated, it could be that this label even predates his religious exile from France.  He left in 1686, by which time he was already a wealthy 42 year old merchant.

1686 was also the year that cotton fabric production and export was banned in France, so if he derived a lot of income from that trade, it may have had an additional bearing on his relocation. The ban on cotton printing in France was not lifted until 1759, over 20 years after Gabriel Bernon’s death.  Therefore the fabric label must predate Gabriel Bernon’s move to America.

I welcome any extra information or thoughts on this label and the reason why it may have been linked to the anti-slavery movement.

I posted a question about the font on and ended up having an email correspondence with James Mosley. He sent me this explanation, which I think is highly likely to be the answer to this mystery:


Having looked at the image of your label that is posted my reaction is a date of 1850, plus or minus ten years (1840 to 1860). My impression is derived from the overall style. The ornamental frame is indeed a ‘rococo’ design, but the drawing belongs more to the 19th century. I grant you that there is a kind of ‘dixhuitième’ (i.e. 18th-century) feel to the design, with its rose and butterfly, which is perhaps derived from the ‘Toile de Jouy’ that was originally printed with designs from engraved copper plates.

The the two examples of lettering — the so-called ‘Tuscan’ above and the slightly stressed sans serif below — fit this date, when it would not be difficult to find hand drawn lettering or printing types of a roughly similar design.

The wording above, IMPRIMÉE À PARIS, raises the question of what it is that is ‘printed at Paris’. It must be something for which the French word has a feminine gender, like ‘Toile de Jouy’ (la toile).

That is about as far as I can go. From my own judgement I would say pretty confidently that the date cannot be much earlier or much later than the one I have suggested.



That is the best description yet of what seems to make sense. It was
also stuck in a book from 1853 so that date would make sense too.
Having the Gabriel bernon name obviously threw me but. What I think
makes sense is that someone tried making use of a famous old merchants’
name and made a label to look old to play on that idea.

Thanks to everyone who helped with solving this mystery

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One off T-Shirt design for TypeCon

by Adrian on 18/08/2010

Very happy that the artist has created a shirt for me to wear at TypeCon.

At least you will know who I am if you see it!



by Adrian on 11/08/2010

I didn’t realize the significance of either the way the trademark stamps were made, or the typefaces that were used, until I gave a lecture at the Type Directors Club of New York in January 2010.

The lecture was a sell out, with standing room only of  type afficionados and experts who were astounded at the collection. It seems that the way the stamps are made, by hammering strips of copper into a wooden base block is pretty much unique to the fabric trade. That way of construction came about because the stamps needed to be both detailed and durable so could not be carved wood. Artists who hade made blocks for fabric printing had used small metal pins and metal strips, so it was an obvious progression to use that technique to create a whole stamp design such as in the small one below.

Merchants could commission their own word stamps in many languages, or use individual letters to create whatever they needed. Either way, the stamp making trade was huge and developed its own typefaces. 

The last stampmaker told me that it was routine to make stamps of common words such as “cotton”, “yards” or “bleached” in many different languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Hindu, etc

Foreign merchants working in Manchester must have introduced a typographic variety to the design process, and customers from around the world wanted to see fonts that were either recognizable to them, or unique to the merchant. Those are good reasons why unusual typefaces may have been developed solely for use as textile trademarks and have never been seen together unless by those involved in the merchant trade.

I have picked out just a small sample of typography from the collection, some with the dates they were made, which I hope you enjoy. It would be great to see these fonts be somehow used again.


Assembling the Collection

by Adrian on 11/08/2010

Back in 1987, I was starting out my career as a photographer in Manchester, England and needed a cheap studio. Although I didn’t realize at the time, by renting a room in an old fabric packing warehouse, I would be the last in a 100 year span of individual businessmen who would work from that office.

“Asia House” was at 82 Princess Street and was typical of the area, with its ornate frontage and lavish marble and tile entrance.

I had inadvertantly located myself right in the middle of the old warehouse district containing grand old late Victorian buildings, as shown in the advertisement below

More importantly, the late 1980’s was a time when the fabric trade was all but gone, the merchants were closing down and the developers were starting to turn the buildings into apartments. Granby Row and India House were the first conversions and today, most of the old warehouses are either hotels or apartments.
When the merchants left and the interiors were stripped of their mahogany counters, oak panelling and ornate tiled stairwells in favor of clean modern lines, everything was dumped. Demolition crews would take out the elevators and bulldoze everything down the empty shafts. By this time, a warehouseman by the name of Steve Bates had given me a bag of old stamps because he knew I liked antiques and he thought it a shame they were being thrown out. This gift was the spark which ultimately led to the collection as it is today.

I started visiting all the merchants who were still in business and asking if they had any trademarks they no longer wanted and spent hours working alongside the demolition crews to rescue objects before they were dumped. The demolition guys were happy to see things saved and I became so well known that they would keep interesting objects to one side for me.

I could see there was a whole unknown history of Manchester literaly going down the chute, so anything I thought would be of interest, or I had duplicates of I donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.  By the time I left Asia House, my office was furnished with everything a Victorian merchant used in their trade. That whole office is now on display at the museum after I pitched the idea of showing the merchant side of the fabric trade for the first time to one of the museum curators for their new Textiles Gallery.

Anyway, back to my own rummaging and I came across a large collection of stamps and labels when a company called Spruce Manufacturing of Sackville Street was taken over by a larger fabric company. Steve Bates put me in touch with the company and I ended up buying their collection of labels and about 650 stamps from their African and Persian Trade. It wasn’t just about trademarks as I rescued lots of company archives before being destroyed. A company by the name of R.A. Hamwee had long since gone but a lot of their paperwork had been abandoned in the loft space of Beaver House and provided a great deal of useful information on how a merchant business worked.

I even found the original hand painted architects drawings for the warehouse, detailing how each floor was laid out to receive, inspect, stamp, bail and despatch the fabric.

The other large collection I acquired was that of Stavert Zigomala. This company was incredibly old, dating back to the 1810 period and had links with the Jute trade in Dundee, the cotton trade in Glasgow and the wool trade in Bradford. They exported to Central and Southern America and their complete company archive plus collection of 2,500 stamps and fabric samples were kept at the private house of the last descendent of the family who owned the firm. He was in his 80’s but I spent every Saturday morning visiting this character, who told me how his father owned the company, yet he still had to spend years working his way up from the bottom of the firm so he could learn all aspects of it. He knew everything and loved the fact I was trying to preserve the history, ultimately giving his version of it to me on audio tape. Every week I would take a box of the dirty stamps from his cellar, wash them and feed the wood linseed oil, then take a paper print of the design. The merchant’s goal was to have the collection on display at a museum and he entrusted my help in finding a suitable home for the collection. The Museum of Science & Industry was selected and approved by the merchant but they did not want to take the whole collection because of cost and preservation issues. Unfortunately, the merchant died before I could complete the cleaning of all the stamps and the Museum completely bypassed me in making a selection of which stamps they wanted to acquire. Maybe they thought I would be biased and only suggest to them stamps which I didn’t want but for whatever reason, they made a selection which was far from ideal. I bought the remainder of the the collection from the merchant’s sons and found that I had one color stamps which matched up with corresponding color stamps the museum had picked. The museum had also not realized that some stamps they left behind were of great importance due to their age, the type of image or the maker.

It was a sad end to a long process but I thought it was right to make a selection of stamps which completed the museum’s and let them acquire those from me. The merchant’s sons were so upset at the way the museum acted that they refused to donate the company archives in protest.

This story seems bitter/sweet but I had to contend with a lot of unfortunate circumstances, great finds and intersting characters while I was collecting.

There was Frank, the Asia House janitor, who would hoard any stamps he found in a large cabinet in the sub-basement and hated if I got any before he got to them. There were the demo guys who would risk getting fired by stealing lead and copper from construction sites but would throw out all those historic items and jackhammer ornate tiles off walls without thinking twice. There were the countless times that I was “2 weeks late” and all the stamps had been burnt or sent to the dump. The saddest of these was at Star Vale bleachworks in Horwich, near Manchester. I had already been there and done some rough prints off their stamps but they had about 10 typeface chests about 6 feet high, each containing about 30 trays of handmade lettering stamps. All of it was thrown on a bonfire when the bleachworks closed. There were people who helped me collect and there were others who would rather throw things in a dumpster rather than let me have it – presuming I was some kind of dealer who would make a fortune out of them. There were the staff of ETP, the last packing firm in Manchester, who were so happy that someone was going to photograph their skills before they shut their business. There was even the last stampmaker who excitedly told me at his home how artists at  Shaw & Latham learned their skills and made the stamps.

The reality is that I had a golden age of collecting these objects from 1987 until 1995 when everything was gone from the warehouses. I collected a lot and missed saving a lot but have never sold a single stamp. The collection is unique and I am glad that all those hours spent rummaging around in sooty old buildings and talking to anyone who wanted to tell me about their lives in the Manchester fabric trade has led to me being able to retell and illustrate their stories and achievements. The collection was once dismissed as irrelevent “commercial art” by someone who I showed the tickets to at Manchester City Art Gallery. I believe that Manchester textile merchants used the biggest variety of ethnic art ever amassed in their day to day business. It may have been used commercially but is certainly was Art. The Manchester City Art Gallery now has a set of shipper’s tickets on display, though of course they are misdescribed as “Bale Labels” and are by the famous poster artist E McKnight Kauffer, rather  than one of the unnamed Manchester artists but at least its a start….

Oh, and here’s an E McKnight Kauffer ticket of my own, plus another 2 from unknown Manchester artists.


Adrian Wilson to talk at TypeCon 2010

by Adrian on 10/08/2010

I am very priveleged to represent the NY chapter of the Type Directors Club and be invited to give an illustrated lecture on the unique typography of my collection at TypeCon in LA this August.

I will be speaking in the afternoon of Saturday 21st August at this global convention of all things typographic.

Here is a link to the talk. Drop by and say hello if you can.


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!

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The stamps live again!

by Adrian on 10/08/2010

Since 2005, an artist has been using the trademark stamps and type to create about 300 one-off pieces of art in New York. The Artist creates visual autobiographies of random New Yorkers on garments (usually t-shirts), I photograph each one, and then they are hand delivered to the recipient in a plain box. The work is not signed and the artist has never asked any of the recipients of their opinions.

I wanted to support the project because it really carries on the spirit of why the trademarks were originally used:

The art is personally associated to the person who ultimately sees it;

The art promotes the appeal of creativity over mass production;

The art questions why copyright laws are still as illogical as they were back in 1842 and why nobody seems to care. If someone wears the t-shirt the art is barely protected at all, but if they frame it for the wall, it is fully protected as a piece of painted art. That the recipient decides what copyright protection the art is granted, rather than the artist, is ridiculous;

The art promotes the concept of original ideas, even using 130 year old stamps, rather than the current norm of design “inspiration”, which is just a genteel way of describing copying.

I like it and appreciate being able to show you some examples here, even though the artist would rather remain anonymous and does not create them by request.


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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Shipper’s Tickets

by Adrian on 09/08/2010

Often incorrectly called “bale labels”  even though they were never used on bales of fabric, shipper’s tickets became very popular with fabric merchants. They were very colorful, relatively cheap to produce and were glued onto the front of the fabric piece along with the trademark stamps.

This South African “Meysale” brand ticket above shows a fabric piece would have been sold in a store, with a ticket attached. Below is an actual fabric piece including the original ticket, probably showing the merchant importer.

Specialist tickets began life as plain paper labels such as the ones below, which would have been created by any general printer and stuck on the fabric alongside the stamps

As technology improved, options included colors, foil and embossing

Labels evolved into specialist Shipper’s Tickets once cheap color printing technology developed in the late 1800’s and by the turn of the century, the majority were lithostone printed in about 16 colors. Specialist printing firms such as B Taylor grew huge and at one point employed 20 full time artists just to illustrate shipper’s tickets. Smaller merchants could buy “stock” tickets from printer’s sample books rather than commission their own, with any company name being able to be overprinted on the ticket. Larger merchants created tickets to match their stamp designs, or created tickets which were much more decorative than the stamps. Women and animals were always popular subjects but merchants serialized designs to make them collectible, including Hindu fables such as the Ramayana on tickets. Ilay Cooper made a detailed study of the icons used in remote temples in India. He found many original shipper’s tickets still attached to temple walls where they are still worshipped, or even copied in paintings, complete with their western merchant names!

As with the stamp designs, shipper’s tickets were carefully designed to attract a multitude of cultures and beliefs to buy a merchant’s brand of cloth. What follows is a random selection from my archive which show designs from around the world. Some are glossy finish, some are matte to emulate Asian silk paintings but this is a tiny representation of the diverse of ethnic images which Victorian textile merchants used as specific marketing tools.