Art in the Service of Commerce: Miniature Engravings on Bills of Lading


In the nineteenth century the trinity of “wood, wind, and water” which described the ship-borne commerce of the age could have been replaced by a description which more accurately described the transactions which circumscribed the mercantile activity of the age: “wood, wind, water, and paper.”     

Documenting the responsibilities and legal requirements of the purchase, sale and shipping of goods required a set of documents, often prepared in duplicate and triplicate which were sent with the goods with copies sent by mail and retained by the originator  For shippers and merchants the foremost of these was the bill of lading. 


Bill of Lading documenting the shipment of 20 barrels of flour from Boston to Charlottetown on the schooner Sax Gotha in 1855

The norm in the 19th century was that sellers would send goods to a distant buyer by sea. Even today, the carriage of goods by sea constitutes a significant portion of all long-distance commercial transactions. In a typical transaction, a shipper delivers goods to a carrier ship. The carrier, the ship’s captain, or a clerk then issues a bill of lading. Similar documents are used in both land and air transportation today. 

The bill of lading is an acknowledgment by the carrier that it has received goods for shipment; it includes an agreement to transport these goods to the consignee or his assignees at a specified destination. A bill normally contains statements concerning the nature, quality, and quantity of the goods. These statements reflect either the shipper’s representations to the carrier or the carrier’s notations from its own inspection of the goods. Often the bill of lading would contain information about how the parcels, bundles, barrels, bales or other containers were marked so they could be identified on arrival. Once a bill of lading was issued the carrier became responsible for goods. Invariably the words “Shipped in good order and condition” were  part of the pre-amble to the details of the bill. 

lading 6 At the receiving end, the goods would be checked for delivery and responsibility of  the receiving individual or firm for the goods passed from the shipper.

Similar documents are used today but in contrast to the bland nature of present-day commercial documents (now often in electronic form only), those of the 19th century frequently, but not always, contained tiny engravings proudly displaying the printers art. In some cases these engravings would be created by the printer but more often the type blocks would be purchased from an engraving firm. Even in the examples below there are several examples with the same image used by different printers.  For the printer the documents were a form of advertising and often the bills of lading contained elaborate and varied typefaces as well as the illustrations, Being documents associated with nautical commerce the engravings on the bills of lading were of marine scenes: sketches of the busy wharves, harbour scenes, or illustrations of ships, schooners, or steamers safely and competently  carrying goods from harbour to harbour. 

lading 2Printers used the illustrations to put forward their names and the phrase “sold by” refers not to the shippers of the goods but the printer of the forms.  J.D. Haszard, who was for part of the period the Queen’s Printer, was one of the Charlottetown printers who offered bills of exchange. This same illustration also appears over the name of Haszard & Owen.  Another Charlottetown forms printer was J.S. Bremner but he used a different illustration. 


IMG_1957The engravings themselves vary greatly in quality and detail. Some, such as the example above have the same humble appearance as simple woodcuts. Others have the delicacy of fine engravings and are excellent examples of the engravers art.  It must be kept in mind that most of these illustrations are about an inch or 2.5 cm square. The examples in this posting are for the most part much enlarged. 

lading 16bBeing commercial documents of little long term individual value few bills of lading have survived. However a small but exceptional collection is housed at the P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office (PARO).  The document have an interesting history. They were discovered in the 1970s in the attic story of Peake’s Brick Building at the corner of Water and Queen Street in Charlottetown and were the few surviving remnants of the voluminous business records of number of prominent waterfront merchants including James Peake and John Brecken.  In addition to the collection of bound day books and ledgers a primitive filing system of “spiked” orders and other documents hung from the building’s rafters. These records date from the 1830s through the 1860s and contain unique commercial information about trade and commerce on Prince Edward Island.  Transferred to PARO the records have been largely catalogued as the Peake-Brecken Collection (Accession 2881) and continue as an important source for P.E.I. history. 

lading 15Over forty different engravings have been identified on the  bills of lading in the collection. They span the 1840s and 1850s. Not all bills of lading carry illustrations and in the later years of the century they seems to have disappeared as the documents became more standardized – and at the same time somewhat business-like and boring. The Peake-Brecken collection of bills of lading contains examples from Charlottetown, Pictou, Halifax, Quebec  Boston, New York, Liverpool, Glasgow, Plymouth and London – all ports with which the merchants of the Island did business. Collectively the bills of lading form a gallery of marine miniatures helping document a world now lost.

Seen below is an incomplete catalogue of the Peake-Brecken bills of lading illustrations. When viewed on a desktop and some tablets clicking on any image will bring up a slide show view.      


1 thought on “Art in the Service of Commerce: Miniature Engravings on Bills of Lading

  1. J Reginald Porter

    That is a very interesting collection that you have assembled. I am very surprised at the quantity and VARIETY of these images. Its a whole sub-genre in itself.
    Thank you for that treat!!!


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