Exporting to the Empire: labels of the British cotton trade

A bolt label destined for the Indian market

A cotton label destined for the Indian market

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera holds many thousands of rare advertising labels representing every imaginable product. Among the most visually striking are these chromolithographed labels produced by British companies for the export of cotton cloth.

Cotton as a commodity was of great importance to the British Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries; the cotton industry had experienced massive expansion during the Industrial Revolution and by the mid-1830s cotton textiles accounted for more than the half the total value of all British foreign exports.

"East meets West" was a popular theme among sellers

"East meets West" was a popular theme for exporters

Raw cotton was brought to mills in Scotland and the North West where it was processed into bolts and bales of cloth. Before leaving the mills each bolt was stamped with the mark of the exporter and a colourfully-decorated paper label was often added. These labels, also referred to as tickets, were attached to the ends of the bolts and acted as trade marks, identifying a particular mill or producer’s product in the marketplace. They were designed to be visually appealling to the cloth buyer and individual labels were often created to target a specific market. Bright, colourful designs were instrumental in selling British cotton to far-off markets in India, Africa, China and Japan.

As bale and bolt labels were supposed to catch the eye of the shopper, they often employed local scenes or symbols which would be familiar to intended buyers. The example below is one of many produced for the Indian market which show scenes of the state visit by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, in 1875-6. Edward returned from India with four Asian elephants for London Zoo.

A delightful label of 1901-1910

"For the King": a delightful label from the early 1900s

One of the earliest references to the labelling of cloth is mentioned in Wadsworth and De Lacy Mann’s The cotton trade and industrial Lancashire 1600-1780. Describing the textile trade with Africa in the late 17th century, the authors talk of fabric “packed in a stiff paper cover with a gaudy picture of an elephant , the device of the Royal Africa Company on the outside.” The gaudy elephant is probably an early version of the bale label, not too different from the one shown here. – Ken Gibb

Indian prince. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 17 (8) (ProQuest durable URL)

Rug merchant. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 17 (28) (ProQuest durable URL)

Elephant. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 17 (10) (ProQuest durable URL)

Copyright  © 2009 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.

3 Responses to Exporting to the Empire: labels of the British cotton trade

  1. Adrian Wilson says:

    The labels you talk about were never used on bales as merchants never wanted anyone to know the contents or customers who ordered the fabric. Bales were covered in hessian and marked with stencils in code.
    The labels are correctly called “shipper’s tickets” and were only used on the “faceplate” (front) of fabric pieces sent around the world. They were used in conjunction with water soluble ink trademarks to identify the brand, type and length of fabric in the piece.
    I have a collection of around 1,000 different tickets, 3,000 trade mark stamps and several thousand trade mark designs, plus related ephemera. This was all collected while living in Manchester and the fabric packing houses were being converted into apartments.
    I sometimes lecture on the subject and show the collection in New York.

  2. juli says:

    Love these labels, the pictures are so fab. And Adrian, thank you for this valuable addition. I’m off to browse your website right now!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: