Wood engraving, developed in the late 18th century, allowed highly skilled engravers to simulate a range of tones by means of very much finer lines than could be produced by woodcutting. Their technique involved working on slices of wood cut across the grain using a variety of steel tools, such as the graver or burin. As in woodcutting, it is the parts of the block that are not cut away that print. Blocks could withstand long print runs and were frequently printed along with type. Such blocks could be cloned mechanically, making it possible to speed up production.
Wood engraving was the mainstay of journal illustration throughout the 19th century. By the 1880s, journal advertising took a multiplicity of forms, from brief (letterpress) newspaper-style inserts to full-page illustrated advertisements such as this. Many such images were ‘borrowed’ from chromolithographed posters and handbills. Engravers re-interpreted both images and text as best they could to preserve the strong branding associated with images. There is no reason to suppose that this is the case here, but this advertisement does reflect a sea-change: the image was dominant, the text subservient. Although this example maintains the verbosity associated with earlier advertising (replacing testimonials with quotations from fashion journals), the letterpress text is imaginatively disposed around the contours of the wood-engraved image.
In the late 19th century, Queen Victoria’s image appeared in many advertisements and countless souvenirs. The 1887 jubilee was a chance to capitalise on her increasing popularity and perhaps to see the monarch in a new light. In Consuming Angels, Lori Loeb writes: ‘in advertisements her unique political role is rarely highlighted: instead, advertisers promote the leveling theme of her feminine nature’ (p. 85).
Whereas most advertisements state or imply that the Queen is a consumer of the advertised product, this image is unusual in showing the monarch as a potential shopper. There is good reason for that. Despite the brand name “My Queen” Vel-Vel, it is highly unlikely that the monarch would wear substitute velvet, no matter what its stated advantages over the real thing. Her approval is implied, although she is looking elsewhere, unsmiling. She is surrounded by the trappings of monarchy, from the subservience of her attendants to the comfortable décor. These associations are transferred to the product and increase its desirability.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of advertising is the subtext. In claiming to have overcome deficiencies in products hitherto, advertisements reveal problems that (supposedly) blighted the lives of previous generations. Here, it is the problems of true ‘silk Lyons velvet’ and previous velveteens that are evoked. They were too heavy, prone to spotting and difficult to dry as they should not be exposed to direct heat. The ‘Lee finish’ of “My Queen” Vel-Vel solves these problems and is light enough for evening wear all year round and for fancy dress and theatrical costumes.
The John Johnson Collection is a treasure trove for historians of dress and textiles. Both our ProQuest and Zegami projects enable text searching of advertisements and trade cards respectively. For those who might like to explore velveteen, for example, there are 139 results in the ProQuest database, revealing manufacturers, rivals (such as ‘Louis’ velveteen), retailers, prices, etc. More unexpectedly perhaps, crime broadsides include descriptions of criminals wearing velveteen and crimes of theft, including an intriguing reference to Thomas Gales (aged 30), sentenced in 1828 in Durham to 8 months’ hard labour for stealing a velveteen jacket.
The ProQuest project is free to all in the UK: http://johnjohnson.chadwyck.co.uk/geoLocSubscription.do
Or you could search for velvet and velveteen in our Trade Cards project: Zegami