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Industrial Transfers and the Art of Decalcomania

Origins of Transfer Ornamentation

The origin of transfer design is not certain. One debatable story, first recorded in 1871, suggests that John Sadler conceived the idea of decorating pottery with printed images while watching a group of children decorating their doll houses. Indeed, John Sadler and Guy Green—both well-known printers and engravers working in Liverpool—claimed to have invented the technique in 1756 to decorate pottery for the famous Josiah Wedgewood. This claim, however, is contested by evidence that in 1751 and 1755, John Brooks, an engraver employed by Battersea Enamel Works, attempted to patent the monochrome transfer technique, which involved etching and inking an image onto a copper plate and then imprinting it onto a wet paper, which in turn was pressed against a piece of pottery, leaving an impression.

By 1890, sewing machines were commonly decorated with gold leaf and transfers. (921234)
A clock made by the Arthur Pequegnat Clock Company, ca 1904, decorated with a transfer image of King Edward VII (750282)

But even if Sadler and Green did not invent transfers, they perfected the engraving process and printing techniques and inaugurated an underglaze printing, which by the 1770s brought the price of pottery decoration from £2 per piece to 6 pence. The technique spread from England to Sweden, Germany, France and to North America.

In Germany, the transfers were used to imitate gold leaf on iron sewing machines and wooden clocks, and soon they were applied to household appliances, coaches, railway cars and industrial machinery around the world. By 1890, decalcomania had become one of the most common methods of ornamentation of technological artifacts.

Transfers offered an inexpensive method of decorating household items such as this nineteenth-century cylinder player. (760134)

Canadians first ventured into industrial transfer technology in 1871, when Henry McElcheran, a painter from Hamilton, Ontario, searched for a new way to decorate coaches. During his experiments, he combined glue, sugar, glycerine and balsam of fir, creating a perfectly pliable sheet of material, which could be easily imprinted by wood cuts, and could adhere to any surface. Yet, in the nineteenth century, the Canadian market was generally dominated by imported British and American products. This situation persisted until 1911 when the Canada Decalcomania Company opened an office in Toronto and soon produced decals for many Canadian companies. Unfortunately, the transfers in their original paper form were very fragile and, unless properly stored, rarely survived more than a few years. Today, decals produced by Canada Decalcomania are very rare.