The Mystery of the 19th-Century Cotton Samples

An archivist from England wanted to know more about a surprising find—so he turned to the internet.

Jan Smearsmith unwraps one of the textiles.
Jan Shearsmith.
Museum of Science and Industry

We take color for granted. Name your shade, and you can find a garment or fabric in that hue. But color used to be a challenge. Before manufacturers could produce them artificially, reds came from minerals, bugs, plants: madder root, kermes, cochineal, brazil wood, cinnabar. Even if you controlled the natural resource, the dye process could take weeks to months to achieve the desired effect.

That’s why when Jan Shearsmith, head archivist at the Science and Industry Museum of Manchester, uncovered a set of 19th-century cotton samples, he was impressed and wanted to know more. He turned to the internet to help him solve the mystery and, along the way, stumbled on the history of a once high-profile Victorian legal suit about fraud and international trade.

The cotton samples were about the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper and dyed a vibrant red. They were stored in a set of folded sheets, wrapped in light gauze. When they were made, they would have been important examples for purchasers to get a sense of the cotton products that the business imported and exported. Yet, apart from the beautiful patterns, the only identifying features of the cotton samples were small trademarks, which included writing in a non-Latin script, and an industrial scene, like the kind of illustration one might encounter between the pages of the Victorian edition of a Charles Dickens novel.

Over the past few years, crowdsourcing has been a creative way for museums and archives to solve mysteries from their collections. Back in 2010, Shannon Perich, who is the assistant curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History, sought help through the museum’s official blog to identify whether a Houston City Marshal’s 1870s portrait was either R. Van Patton, the first marshal to appoint black officers to the force, or Alex Erichson, a son of the well-known ammunition and arms owner. More recently, in 2017, the National Library of Ireland uploaded photos to Flickr where “Photo Detectives” commented and traced the histories of the various figures. And in 2018, the Smithsonian helped identify a “hidden figure”—the only woman in a group shot of scientists—in a picture shared via Twitter.

Shearsmith published the samples online back in February because he hoped readers might be able to help him identify what was written on the textiles. At the time of the blog post, the Manchester Science and Industry Museum staff was editing the archive’s card catalog and updating its information to support researchers who needed to access the museum’s collections, which include a range of resources on the Industrial Revolution—factories, technology, inventions, textiles.

Jan shows off some fabric samples.
Jan shows off some fabric samples.
Museum of Science and Industry

While editing, Shearsmith came across the description for the samples. The museum had purchased them at auction in 1999, but no one knew much about them except that they were from around 1820–1850. According to the catalog description, they were a set of four swatch books, a book of samples of 19th-century textiles, with “bold printed dress cottons” in various colors. After he read the entry, he went to the museum’s strong-room and brought the box out to examine the contents. He could not have been more blown away. The textiles were stunning. Deep reds, golden yellows, velvety greens—the samples were covered in ornate, intricate geometric patterns and nearly as vibrant as they were when made 200 years ago.

The dramatic red that forms the background of almost all the pieces in the swatch books was a uniquely prized color during the textile revolution. The color came to Europe through Ottoman Turkey, which is how it became known as Turkey Red or Adrianople Red. This shade of red was in high demand in the Netherlands and England during the 18th century. But it was notoriously difficult to manufacture because the Turkish dye process was labor-intensive and expensive. Called the “most complicated dying process ever invented by man,” it required numerous dips in the color bath and could take weeks before achieving the desired result.

From the 18th century onward, British and French academies of sciences offered prizes for formulae that could simplify the process and lower costs while maintaining quality. The English dyer John Wilson twice won the Manchester prize in the 1760s for his rich colors. The French dyer Emanuel Osmont also won recognition for a red he called the rose of Smyrna. By the 1830s, British textile merchants dominated the market, exporting the color around the world. According to the historical archives of the Society of Dyerists and Colourists, one such factory was producing 18 million yards of the fabric in 1859.

A wide array of textiles.
A wide array of textiles.
Museum of Science and Industry

But the colors were just one reason why Shearsmith wanted to share the images. Many of the textiles had labels with non-English script on them. Shearsmith was unable to read them and hoped that by sharing the photos of the collection online, he could get help to understand more about the origins of these unique samples.

He was not disappointed. Within a few days of posting, Animesh Chatterjee, a Ph.D. student at Leeds University, offered a clue. He wrote that the labels were written in Bengali, the official language of today’s Bangladesh, and read: “Robert Barbour and Brother” and “Coloured in a factory in Manchester.”

This information led the team to do more research. They determined that the samples were connected to two companies: Williamson Brothers of Calcutta and Robert Barbour and Brother Ltd. of Manchester. That’s when the case took an unexpected twist. As he read more about the companies, Shearsmith realized that they were part of a high-profile legal case in 1877 that shed light on the shady business practices of textile merchants and agents hoping to recover costs.* During the U.S. Civil War, Manchester manufacturers’ cotton supply lines dried up, slowing down trade. Some agents took advantage of the supply chain disruption and market dynamics: If an agent purchased supplies at low or discounted prices, the agent nevertheless reported prices from higher selling days to the corporation that had hired the agent. In other words, the agent was manipulating prices and profiting from the difference.

The Barbour Brothers in Manchester purchased goods on behalf of the Williamson Brothers in Calcutta for nearly 24 years. But then the Williamson Brothers suspected the Manchester-based company of overcharging them for services and filed a lawsuit. The Williamson Brothers demanded the court examine the Barbour Brothers’ account books.

During the trial, the court identified several ways that the Barbour Brothers had been “cooking the books.” In addition to price manipulation and not passing on discounts, the Barbour Brothers misrepresented insurance fees. Although the Williamson Brothers had purchased insurance on the goods, the insurance premiums they were charged did not correspond to the insurance accounts taken out on the goods. The Barbour Brothers were constantly changing the negotiated prices established for the insurance. Such gray-area business practices caught the attention of merchants, and the case spread throughout the media, who started calling it the Great Agency Case. The Barbour Brothers eventually lost the case and were found liable for damages.

A set of colorful textiles might seem mundane compared to identifying people from Civil War portraits. But this new information is a boon to the museum and researchers. Before posting the images online, the museum knew very little about the textiles: where they were from, who was making them, and how they were traded. Now they can add more description to the catalog and develop additional exhibits about Manchester and global trade. For researchers, the samples connect new global business and legal practices to our growing understanding of the Empire of Cotton. And for the rest of us? Perhaps the takeaway is that maybe you could be the next person to solve an archival mystery.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.