Calico Printing

Earlier this week I began working with a calico printer’s recipe book and a calico printer’s record. Though there are no indications either is from Connecticut, several of us at CHS have enjoyed paging through, looking at the various patterns and colors.

The printer’s recipe book contains over 280 pages, each with approximately four different color recipes. The recipes are accompanied by a fabric sample, pasted onto the page.

George Haworth recipe book, ca. 1834-1839, Ms 74352. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

(Click on images to enlarge. They will open in a separate window.)

The colors and patterns shown vary greatly but the process is often very similar, many times referring the reader back to a previous color for instruction. They have names such as “olive for block,” “steam purple,” and “wash of pinks for blacks.”

Ingredients used include bark, berry liquids, pot ash, vinegar, water, nitrate of copper, and flour. Different colors required different boiling times, resting times, and finishing methods. Varying chemical reactions would yield different shades of the same color. An article in the September 1908 issue of Textile American (34-36, via Google Books) explains how silk, immersed in a mixture of specific acids for about twelve hours, will turn bright yellow. To change the bright yellow to a buff color, the same fabric should be rinsed in water and dried in the dark. This will give it a sensitivity to light, and will fade the color when exposed to sunlight.

While there are many earth tones in the recipe book, there are also several bright colors. Number 781, below, is a brilliant shade of blue. It is actually made from two other blue shades recorded in the volume. The instructions also detail which recipes to follow to achieve the red and gold shades. This particular cloth was prepared for steam work.

Calico print with deep blue

George Haworth recipe book, ca. 1834-1839, Ms 74352. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Equally impressive is number 787, the final sample in the book. There are slight differences in the way the two samples are prepared. Though it may not be visible in this scanned image, the top color is slightly darker than the bottom.

Red calico samples

George Haworth recipe book, ca. 1834-1839, Ms 74352. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

The calico printer’s record dates between 1872 and 1876. Each page is labeled “Pentagraph Engraving” and contains nine columns for recording various aspects of the engraving process. Pentagraph engraving, as I learned from the same article in Textile American, was a process used in the production of textiles and wallpaper. Copper rollers were engraved by the machine, which was quicker and less expensive than engraving by hand (thus lowering the cost of calicoes). The rollers, one per color, then were used for printing the fabric.

Page from the Calico printer's record

Calico printer's record, 1872-1876, Ms 74353. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

The information gathered in the record includes a sample of the print, the name of the person tracing the pattern for the roller, the number of patterns in a set and the number of sets. The samples in the record are similar to those in the recipe book, though they are a mixture of fabric and paper.

The pentagraph engraving process seems to have originated in England and many working in the Cranston, Rhode Island print works emigrated from England and Ireland. In many cases their children followed them into the trade. Several of the names listed as tracers in the record can be found in the 1870 census for Cranston. People of all ages were working in the print works. On the pages I read, the youngest worker was eight year old William Berry, the son of Irish immigrants. His ten year old brother Thomas, and father William, were also employed there.

Both of these volumes are available for research. Come take a look!


2 thoughts on “Calico Printing

  1. This is one of my favorite things at CHS… and I’m a Berry, so I’ll have to do some work ony genealogy. I wonder if anyone from this mill went to work for the Cheney’s?

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