Throughout most of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, textile companies used a decorative label as one of their advertising techniques. A cloth label is not made of cloth—it’s made of paper and was designed to catch the eye of the buyer, either at the retail or wholesale level. As the name implies, it was attached to a bolt of cloth or a piece of finished cloth–either by the mill that made it, or more frequently by its selling agent. Collectors have had a bad habit of calling them “linen labels,” possibly thinking of those metallic-looking gold and silver labels that we associate with boxes of “linen” handkerchiefs.
Labels for cloth goods go as far back as the 14th century and probably further. Early European labels often bore the name of the workshop, weaver and place of origin, as well as the number of warp and weft threads, price and measurements. They were miniature works of art decorated with florals, fruit, scenes from classical mythology, elaborate coat-of-arms, symbols of wealth and prosperity, etc. Those in our collection echo this tradition.
For the first half of the 19th century, labels were primarily engravings or, to a lesser extent, woodcuts. After the Civil War there was an explosion of lithographic labels (most often brilliantly colored chromolithographs). This continued well into the 20th century although labels got increasingly less pictorial. Today bolts and fabric may have a small, plain “ticket” attached with specific information about the yardage and price, but little else. Furnishing fabric often has the manufacturer’s name in the selvedge.
Cloth labels are useful for several reasons: they are decorative, they tell us something about marketing strategies, and they can provide information about the manufacturer. They are great fun as pictorial items and make colorful exhibit objects. As advertising they can appeal to our fashion instincts, patriotism, romanticism, etc. Labels created for overseas markets, for instance, projected all sorts of stereotypes associated with foreign countries and what was thought to be eye-catching for the presumably illiterate. For the researcher, however, it is the text, rather than the image, that often adds to our knowledge about the manufacturer and what fabrics were sold. The most useful label, for instance, would contain all of the following information: the name and location of the mill that made the cloth, the type of cloth it was selling, the brand name, a trademark image or a picture of the mill, the name of the engraver or lithographer, the selling agent’s name, a date if the trademark was copyrighted, and, at the bottom, the size and lot number of the yardage in question. Of course, no label contains all of these details and most have only one, two or three of them. In fact, many contain nothing but an attractive image with perhaps a fanciful brand name invented by the agent or jobber. Such labels are attractive but tell no tale. Some, though without a manufacturer’s name, may contain a legitimate brand-name enabling us to tease out the name of the mill using the library’s textile brand-name directories. Labels can also tell us about the great variety of fabrics once available but seldom heard of now, such as drills, wigans, silesias, crash, cottonades, etc.
Labels were made by a few commercial stationery companies that made a specialty of printing cloth labels. They were manufactured in sheets and cut, presumably, by the selling house or jobber. The Osborne Library owns one of these sheets for the Merrimack Manufacturing Co. label. These printers often sold a standard label in a variety of colors that the mill could have customized with its name or brand. Hence many labels appear suspiciously familiar. The library also owns a salesman’s book of these pre-designed labels.
Cloth labels were ephemera—that is, they were designed to have a short life and to be discarded. Nowadays, however, such ephemera is a significant collecting category. Unlike today’s tickets or labels, they often provide a great deal of information. In fact, the label is occasionally the only evidence we have that such-and-such a mill existed except, perhaps, as an insignificant listing in a directory.
Note: There is little information about cloth labels. Much of the information above was gleaned from two articles: De Francesco, G. “Artistic trademarks,” CIBA Review (13), Sept. 1938 and Wright, Helena. “Cloth labels—please!” Ephemera News, Spring 1983.