“T” for Trade: 18th century Handkerchiefs – The Swedish East India Company Trade. Viveka Hansen, Textile Historian, The IK Foundation, (UK)

The aim with this study is to focus on a small branch of the Swedish East India Company’s dealing in fabrics used for handkerchiefs. Observations from my earlier research related to Carl Linnaeus and his “Apostles”, a hand-written Swedish account book from one of the Company’s ships and preserved pieces of cloth will give some evidence for such goods. 18th century handkerchiefs seem overall to have been an accessory that was worn out – the most natural cause for its rarity – or dropped, used for various purposes as collecting insects/plants, given away or even stolen according to notations in some travelling accounts and journals from the 1740s to 1760s.

Map of Cadix, Dagbok hållen p. Resan till Ost Indien, Begynt den 18 octobr: 1746 och Slutad den 20 Juni 1749, Carl Johan Gethe. Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, M 280, p. 29. This map, illustrated in the East India traveller Carl Johan Gethe’s journal (1746-1749), is of the ideally sheltered harbour of the city of Cadix, where many of the Swedish East India Company ships lay at anchor in order to replenish their stores and carry out trade. The Linnaeus’ apostle Olof Torén’s first voyage stopped over there in 1748; the apostles Pehr Osbeck (1750) and Christopher Tärnström (1746) spent several months in Cadix and its environs on their way to China.

18th century handkerchiefs are sometimes mentioned in contemporary hand-written letters, travel journals or account books connected to the Swedish East India Company trade. One reason for repeated mentions of such an accessory appear to be its multiple functions. Handkerchiefs were connected to sadness and emotions, snuff-taking, practical uses like wrapping up plants or catching insects, a beautiful present or invaluable during illness. It came in varied designs as one colour only, striped, checked or woven in more advanced diaper techniques or with printed patterns. The materials were either silk, cotton or linen – sometimes embellished with laces and embroidery. Silk has always been associated with costliness, but even cotton was still regarded as a luxury material in mid-18th century Sweden. It may also be noted that the limited amount of fabric needed for a small handkerchief, made it reasonable in price for a wider society. Judging by artworks of the period, this useful piece of fabric was normally tucked away in a pocket or concealed in some other way – probably due to traditions or practicality or etiquette.

It is quite rare to find preserved 18th century textiles in Sweden of this category and if so, hard to evidence any origin from the East Indies. Fine woven cottons or silks may for instance originate from the East and later on the patterning was printed by a Stockholm manufacturer and there after sold on for local or national consumption. Another possibility was that the raw material was imported and the cloth woven as well as printed by Swedish manufacturers, which for many years was preferred by the country’s mercantile economy and widely extended sumptuary laws.

Account book (1762-1763). Stockholm, Maritime Museum, SH 511:24. Prices for ‘Näsdukar’ [handkerchiefs] were listed in gold Ducats, Spanish piasters and Chinese taels in double entry bookkeeping. This currency calculation was included in an Account book for the ship “Stockholms slott” within the Swedish East India Company, dating 1762-1763. The return goods on this voyage from Canton in China to Göteborg (Gothenburg) in Sweden were mainly porcelain, tea, lacquer-work and ‘handkerchiefs’ – as was registered on this particular page. In the main originating from Canton, with an exception of Bengal in India, named as ‘Canton Single Cloths’, ‘Canton double Cloths’, ‘Bengal cloths’ etc. These cloths for handkerchiefs were presumably marked with differing colouring at regular intervals already during the weaving process, to be cut into the acquired number of handkerchiefs at arrival. Either by the East India Company traders in Göteborg themselves or sold on in full length to merchants or private buyers in Sweden.
A decade earlier in 1750 to 1752, the Linnaeus’ Apostle Pehr Osbeck worked as ship’s chaplain on another Swedish East India Company ship destined for Canton. For instance in the trading stores it was possible to buy single pieces of woven cloth for the private use of the Chinese as well as the Europeans. That was best done ‘in the porcelain street, which is the broadest in the whole town…’ where one could buy silk fabrics, silk stockings, handkerchiefs, ribbons and cotton cloth in September 1751. In the same year he also listed all sorts of goods possible to purchase in Canton, including handkerchiefs and some enlightening notes about imported fabrics from India via the British East India Company. ‘…Quilts, cotton-tick at four or five mess, stockings, handkerchiefs, &c. are plentiful here…Fine chintz, Madras linen, Madras handkerchiefs, &c. are likewise to be had at Canton; the English ships bring them to that place; but they are very dear, since they are second or third hand goods.’

Another of Carl Linnaeus’ Apostles, who also worked on a Swedish East India Company ship as chaplain, was the somewhat earlier Christopher Tärnström. Even if he sadly died on the way to Canton on Pulo Condore (Côn Sơn Island) in 1746, he made a detailed note about handkerchiefs in the form of presents. This was reflected in some notes on the life onboard in the Javanese archipelago and reveal details of his own private belongings and the manner in which the time might be passed on an East India ship. The island of Lucipara was a welcome spot for the priest as it was the custom on these ships for the officers to give all kinds of small gifts to the chaplain onboard when passing the place. Among the many gifts of food and drink were also to be found some ‘beautiful and pretty handkerchiefs and caps’ (13 Sept. in 1746). Those were probably made of the finest silk or cotton.

Fabric sample from the sample collection gathered by the economy professor Anders Berch around the 1750s-1760s and linked to the Surat trade of the Swedish East India Company. Stockholm, Nordic Museum, Anders Berch Collection No. 17648b:67a. Fine cotton named ‘Surate Duties, finest sort’, a quality which at the cotton manufactures in Sweden was regarded as providing the best result for fabric printing. Handkerchiefs were one of several possible uses for such fine cottons added with fashionable prints.

A third Linnaeus’ Apostle, Pehr Kalm was not part of the Swedish East India Company travels, but as an informative comparison he kept a meticulous travelling account during his journey via Norway and England to the North American colonies in 1747 to 1751. Among many necessary items and clothing needed, he purchased handkerchiefs in London on more than one occasion. The origin of the purchase is unknown, probably English woven fabrics, but even the East Indian quality is a possibility.

‘– 13 February 1748. One cotton handkerchief, 1Sh. & One Silk handkerchief, 3Sh.’

‘– 16 March 1748. Silk handkerchief, 5Sh.’

‘– 22 April 1748. Silk handkerchief, instead of the one that was stolen, 3Sh. 6d.’

The three purchases give several facts of interest. Silk qualities were more expensive than cotton as may be expected, but the one bought on March 16th which later on got stolen, was the most costly one. It seems like this particular item was of a more luxurious kind, and Kalm replaced it with an “ordinary” silk quality, either for cost saving reasons or to avoid a new theft of an eye-catching handkerchief.


– Hansen, Lars ed., The Linnaeus Apostles – Global Science & Adventure, 8 volumes, London & Whitby 2007- 2012. [Volume Seven: Journals of Pehr Osbeck & Christopher Tärnström]

– Hansen, Viveka, Textilia Linnaeana – Global 18th Century Textile Traditions & Trade, London 2017.

This post is published parallel with textile historian Viveka Hansen’s TEXTILIS textilis.net

Cite this blog post
Corinne Thepaut-Cabasset (2017, May 21). “T” for Trade: 18th century Handkerchiefs – The Swedish East India Company Trade. Viveka Hansen, Textile Historian, The IK Foundation, (UK). DRESSING THE NEW WORLD. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nwqn

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