Just when you thought that there are no more vintage typographic and graphic design artifacts to be uncovered and reproduced online for time immemorial, think again. Prepare to slide down a deep rabbit hole of riches with your guide, the incomparable Adrian Wilson: photographer, street artist, social satirist, and impassioned collector who — like a dog or pig trained to search for truffles— has uncovered hoards of rare graphic marvels.
One of his special finds include hundreds of metal stamps used to brand textiles from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries. They are more than just examples of exotic letters-in-the-raw, but original typefaces and distinctive wordmarks (to use a more contemporary term). Wilson’s blog, Textile Trademarks: Ethnic Art and Typography of the English Cotton Merchants, is a veritable garden of colonial era delights, from which he’s allowed me to pick a few bouquets to share with you.
Like any top notch explorer, Wilson has a sixth sense for discovery (aided by a network of enablers). “I got an email from someone who ‘found a few crates of stamps’ while clearing out an old cotton mill in Conestee, SC,” he says, “and upon looking at some of the stampmakers’ names, I found they matched the ‘condor stamp‘ I had purchased a couple of years ago.” Wilson nimbly pivoted from what he was doing and took the first plane to South Carolina. Those “few crates” turned out to be a treasure trove.
The stamps— used to identify textile and fabric importers, exporters and manufacturing companies— were already on his radar. Wilson collected scores of volumes of compiled printed manufacturers’ sample marks from the four corners of the globe, especially the UK (this collection fills out his American material). He’s done intensive research on how they were used and where they were made.
“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,” Wilson explains. “Artists who had made blocks for fabric printing had [originally] used small metal pins and metal strips, so it was an obvious progression to use that technique to create a whole stamp designs”.
Merchants could commission their own word stamps, or use standard individual letters to create whatever they needed. Either way, the stampmaking trade was huge and its practitioners often designed their own typefaces. Wilson learned 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.
Wilson collects, then restores: “As I cleaned, fed the wood with linseed oil, and removed old nails and fixed bent metal on these forlorn objects, they revealed their history. I always feel like I am polishing long lost gravestones when I go through this process stampmakers’ names I had never heard of start appearing from beneath years of dirt”.
Below are a few of the hundreds from Wilson’s ongoing preservation.