The Daily Heller: A Sampler of Chinese Merchant Shipper’s Tickets

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B. Taylor in Manchester, England, was the biggest printer of textile export labels, otherwise known as Shipper's Tickets—an early form of branding. The firm was established in the early 1800s and employed 20 full-time artists. The tickets were printed in around 16 colors on lithostone, some bright and glossy for markets such as India, and some subdued and matte, to emulate the silk-painting aesthetics preferred in China. B. Taylor would create custom imagery or use art provided by local merchants across the world that would be suitable for attracting buyers to their pieces of cloth.

Manchester supplied over 80% of the cloth used throughout the world in the 1880s, and some of the 800 British and foreign merchants who worked in the city could have up to 10,000 different trademarks for each particular market. In 1913, 4 million miles of cloth were exported around the world, all hand-folded into 250 million pieces, with these trademarks attached.

In the 1870s, there were so many different images used, a special office had to be opened in Manchester just to determine who could claim an image as theirs. The record office still has 450 volumes of these trademarks—and Adrian Wilson has been assiduously collecting these rare items for many years.

"These aren't cigar box labels, they are a remnant of what was the biggest collection of ethnographic art in the world," he explains. "The most diverse direct marketing and branding exercise in history."

Due to art world snobbery and dislike of imperialism, the images and branding are a huge but sadly overlooked or dismissed part of art history. Yet they respected their customers 100 years ago way more than brands like Nike or Coca-Cola do now.

An archive, which contained about 12,000 different designs from 1870 to 1940 in their original pattern books, had been kept by the Taylor family, and Wilson had known about it since the 1990s. "Thanks to my blog, the family contacted me because they were closing their factory, needed the space and wanted the collection to go to a good home," he continues.

The collection contains original sketches and paintings, invoices from the artists, foreign correspondence between merchants, and the detailed trademark registration and customer paperwork.

Wilson says he was contacted by the new Museum of Art & Photography in Bangalore, India three years ago, and 6,000 of the Indian labels and artwork are now back in a country where they can be appreciated and studied.

As for other parts of the collection, "The Chinese art is amazing but I have zero clue what most of it signifies," Wilson admits. "Unlike the Indians, who collected these tickets and used them in shrines, the Chinese ones were rarely kept and the cultural revolution made sure even less survived. The Chinese collection of around 2,000 labels, 50 original paintings and related ephemera spans the period from 1880–1940, when China transitioned from being a country with an emperor to a Republic with a Communist Party. The tickets document that change, and so are a unique artistic and cultural artefact from that important period."

Wilson has decided to sell the collection because "it really should be in the possession of the Chinese, Chinese experts, or those who can appreciate the things I don't understand. Ideally, I want them to go in one lot to an institution where they can be studied." If you or any scholarly institutions are interested, contact Wilson directly here.