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Industrial Transfers and the Art of Decalcomania

"Who has not admired an American railway train, when cars and engine are newly painted and decorated? Who does not look with preference at an omnibus, when finely decorated, and placed along side of one which has only the streets painted on it in large red letters?”

The American Painter and Decorator, March 1876


The Canada Science and Technology Museum possesses a rich and comprehensive collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial transfers. Industrial transfers were a form of decal commonly used in Canada, and around the world, replacing the expensive method of hand painting coats of arms, trademarks, signs, ornaments, letters and numbers on railway equipment, ships and industrial machinery.

A nineteenth-century coach decorated with gold leaf and the Royal Coat of Arms (680879*)

A beautifully decorated Midland Railway of Canada steam locomotive, No. 15 “Adolph Hugel” type 4-4-0, ca 1880 (CSTM/CN Collection 002546)

Properly affixed, transfers were highly durable, making them an especially desirable form of lettering and decoration on equipment exposed to various climatic conditions, such as rail stock running in extreme tropical or dry climates, and extensively used with limited maintenance on long distance routes.

The Museum’s collection has a unique historical and educational value. Even though the word “transfer,” or its American equivalent, “decalcomania,” was often used to describe a drawing, design, or pattern that could be moved from one surface to another through direct contact, and the decorative technique itself was well known, both terms were usually associated with chinaware and pottery decoration. Yet industrial transfers, applied for example to railway stock or commercial vehicles, were not as common.

Transfer ornamented pottery, manufactured by Creil et Montereau, ca 1870 (871483)

In this regard the collection is a valuable resource, allowing for the analyses of printmaking techniques of the late nineteenth century, such as the lithographic process, as well as studies of industrial object design and the early graphic arts.

* The numbers in brackets are the accession numbers of artifacts held by the Museum.

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