Excerpt from “Labels of Empire: Textile Trademarks, Windows into India in the Time of the Raj” by Susan Meller

Dewalee Consecration of Ledgers. ca 1900. Label, 5½ x 7¼" Dewalee Consecration of Ledgers. ca 1900. Label, 5½ x 7¼"

In July 2013, after more than forty years of collecting textiles, I came across something that I had never seen before: a small paper label pasted inside a sample booklet that once belonged to a Calcutta fabric merchant. The brightly colored picture of a man and woman riding a white bull captivated me. What was the story behind it? Where had it been printed? And who were the two Indian figures it depicted—a blue man with a snake wound around his neck and the lady he so tenderly held? Charmed by its stylized simplicity and intriguing image, the collector in me began a quest that, thousands of labels later, continues to beckon.

Labels of Empire: Textile Trademarks, Windows Into India In The Time Of The Raj, Susan Meller (Goff, June 2023))
Labels of Empire: Textile Trademarks, Windows Into India In The Time Of The Raj, Susan Meller (Goff, June 2023))

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Goff Books.

It will be almost a decade from the day I saw my first label to the publication of Labels of Empire, and it still remains a source of delight to come across another old label with a story to tell. I find it ironic that the fragile paper tickets shown in Labels of Empire are now considered “ephemera,” defined as “anything short-lived or transitory; not meant to be retained; of no lasting significance.” They are actually long-lived survivors, precisely because people did value and keep them. This book is a testament to that. By showcasing these labels, Labels of Empire celebrates the mundane—and in so doing, celebrates the lives of everyone in this earthly world in some small way.


Everyday life

Townspeople. ca 1910. Label, 6½ x 4¾"
Townspeople. ca 1910. Label, 6½ x 4¾”

A textile label made for export needed to meet certain criteria. Since it would serve as the brand, or trademark, of the cloth manufacturer or its agent, it had to be exclusive. It also had to catch the eye of a prospective customer in what was a bustling marketplace. At any given time, hundreds of merchants and agents, both European and Indian, were competing to sell their goods in the Indian market, with each usually offering a large variety of textiles. Every product required a distinctive identifying trademark (chaap), resulting in thousands of different labels being sent to India each year. Firms zealously guarded their designs. Many of the labels in this book bear the words “copyright” and/or “registered.” Beginning in 1876, companies could register their label designs in the London Patent Office, which published them in the weekly Trade Marks Journal.

Indian court records of the 19th and early 20th centuries contain many lawsuits by textile firms claiming copyright infringement of their label designs. As the decades passed, it became more and more difficult for label designers to come up with original, commercially successful imagery. The pantheon of Hindu gods was vast, as was the range of characters and stories in the great Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but there were only so many ways one could uniquely depict a particular deity or battle scene. Other subjects, such as the English royal family and World War I were relevant mainly in their time. While there was always an audience for gods and goddesses, companies needed to appeal to a wide and diverse market. Quotidian scenes such as those shown in this chapter were an endless source of inspiration to label artists—and the majority of Indian people shopping for cloth in the bazaars could identify with them. To an illiterate customer, the words “John Orr Ewing & Co.” or “Anderson Wright & Co.” likely meant nothing. However an image of a fisherwoman with her catch on her head was easily remembered. The next time that customer wanted to buy more of the same cloth, they could ask for the “fisherwoman” label, and the bazaar merchant would know just whose cloth and brand it was—that of John Orr Ewing & Co.

Entertainment and Celebrations

Nautch Girl. ca 1910. Label, 6¾ x 5¼"
Nautch Girl. ca 1910. Label, 6¾ x 5¼”

Nautch girls, acrobats, snake charmers, and musicians were an abundant source of inspiration to the designers of textile labels. These subjects lent a touch of the exotic, or hint of erotic pleasures—perhaps a deadly cobra slowly swaying to the motion of a flute, or graceful dancing girls performing for the enjoyment of a raja and his guests. While in real life the professional nautch girls, as they were called, provided pleasure for the elite, their images on paper labels were available to all—and judging from how many were produced, very popular indeed.

Textile labels not only depict the amusements of the rich and powerful, but those of ordinary folk as well. Traveling troupes of street performers entertained with dancing bears and monkeys, jugglers, magicians, puppet shows, and all kinds of daredevil acts. Kite festivals drew throngs of people, and individuals with fighter kites (patang) would engage in rooftop duels. Villagers played a game called chaupar, which is similar to Parcheesi but played with cowrie shells instead of dice.

Celebrations such as Holi (Festival of Spring and Colors), Diwali (Festival of Lights), and many other special occasions were featured on labels. Royal processions presented artists with rich tableaux of caparisoned elephants, musicians, and attendants in colorful costume. A maharaja might be celebrating the wedding of his daughter, or the arrival of an important dignitary, to the delight of the thousands of people lining his way.

The British living in India had their own forms of  entertainment. There were endless dances—from afternoon tea dances held by the better hotels and clubs to the grand official balls hosted by the Viceroy at Government House. Amateur theater performances took place in stations all over India—until the cinema became more popular. And, of course, there were the private clubs that offered cricket, tennis, badminton, golf, and polo. The British brought their homeland customs with them to India and, as a result, seldom experienced firsthand the local culture surrounding them.


Susan Meller is the author of Labels of Empire, Textile Designs, Russian Textiles and Silk and Cotton.