In the collection of Museum Victoria exists a striking didactic display of trade needles, 1710mm (w) x 1760mm (h) x 90mm (d), constructed in the 1880s by the 19th century needle manufacturing giant of Redditch, England - William Bartleet and Sons.
W. Bartleet and Sons were established in 1750 in Redditch. By the 19th century, the industrial town was world famous for its needles and housed over 160 manufacturers who collectively produced millions of needles each day. The demand for Redditch needles was so great, that Japan artfully named a street in Tokyo 'Redditch', so that they could also legitimately label their own needle packaging with 'Made in Redditch'. (Rootsweb 2008)
This magnificent display is emblematic of the power and wealth of the 19th century needle manufacturing empire. The ecclesiastical and armorial mode of display chosen by Bartleet and Sons, transforms the simple needle into a mighty sword of manufacturing domination. Created to be exhibited at the world trade fairs of the 1880s, including the Adelaide Jubilee (1887) and the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition (1888) the display is like a pennant to be carried proudly into battle, offering a pointed challenge to rival needle manufacturers, and is representative of the might and main of the British Empire.
The Bartleet display showcases hundreds of needles of all descriptions: of gold, silver, bronze and stainless steel, alongside five gold medals awarded for excellence in innovation, quality and design.
The definitive collection of needle types and their peculiar usage is showcased as a magnificent emblem of needle making manufacture.
Within the display there are sewing needles, surgeons needles and pins, bodkins, crochet hooks and saddlers needles, steel paper threaders, yarn needles, ridged sharps, double long straw reeds, harness needles, shoemakers needles, fish needles, square pointed needles, mattress needles curved and straight, bleachers needles, needle points, tambour needles, embroidery needles, gold and tambour needles, hearth rug needles, gold ey'd needles, drilled ey'd sharps, drilled ey'd blunts, drilled ey'd downs, drilled ey'd straw needles, grooveless sharps, tapestry needles, beading needles, oval ey'd needles, double long ne edles, wool sharps, long ey'd blunts, 'Y' needles, wool blunts, darning needles for wool and cotton, pack needles, collar needles, upholstery needles, netting needles, sharos, bent and curved needles, sail making needles, gloving needles, knitting needles and lace making needles. There are also a variety of sewing machine needles suitable for numerous machine types including those manufactured by Singer, Raymond Man, Lancashire, Wertheim, Wilcox & Gibbs, Queen Mab, Wanzer, Little Wanzer, Groove & Baker, Groove and Baker Family, Thomas & J, Howes, Weib, Bartlett, Berthier, Excelsion and Florence.
Every needle in the display has been lovingly modelled using the skills of nearly twenty artisans with corresponding machines, each performing a distinct operation, such as cutting into lengths, pointing, stamping, hardening, scouring, drilling and polishing before it could be considered as a finished article. (1862)
However these stages of manufacture are not evident in the display. Each needle is mounted like a precious jewel, gleaming with its own inner light, chaste, perfect, and evocative of an immaculate conception. The viewer is not aware of the machinations of industry, the toil, danger, physical labour and technological expertise required by the workers for each stage of the process. One is shown an exquisite decorative object that combines function and beauty, an object that could materially benefit its owner as well as add to his or her prestige.
In the Age of Industry, the machine made needle was representative of the height of mechanised precision and technological advancement. For most needle manufacturers contemporary with Bartleet, this was glory enough, and they presented Spartan and utilitarian displays accordingly. For example an 1880's needle display made by a rival English manufacturer Henry Milward and Sons showcased the sixteen steps of needle refinement - from a length of steel to a pointed needle, presented in a minimal glass box, decorated only by the small trademark and title of the company. (Powerhouse 2009)
Bartleet and Sons, in splendid contrast, employed a far more theatrical approach to advertising. Their magnificent display truly glorified the needles.
Created in the style of the Gothic Revival, the trade display clearly references the Victorian predilection for ecclesiastical ornamentation and secular ostentation.
However Bartleet and Sons were not merely following popular trends when they chose their design.
Robert Bartleet, second generation head of William Bartleet and Sons, was a passionate antiquarian with a romantic enthusiasm for all things medieval. Like many wealthy landowners of his time, Bartleet was immensely interested in the history of his land and township, especially that which glorified the lineage and prestige of his family company.
The town of Redditch, where Robert Bartleet called home, is also near the historic site of Bordesley Abbey, which belonged to the Cistercian Order of the Monks and was dissolved in 1538. The Bartleet needle factory in Arrow Valley overlooked Abbey Meadows, where the picturesque ruins of Bordesley Abbey can still be seen today. In 1863, Bartleet excavated the ruins and commissioned an illustrated history of the Abbey from noted scholar and tutor to his children, James Woodward. Woodward was instructed by Bartleet to draw idealised illustrations of the Abbey in its pre-dissolution glory. (Bartleet & Woodward 1865, p.5) These illustrations indicate the holy industry of the monks that created wealth and prosperity in Redditch - a happy situation again reached in Redditch in the 19th century due to the booming trade industry of needle manufacture.
With such glorious forebears, it is no wonder that every needle manufacturer appropriated heraldic motifs such as the lion rampant, royal crown or rising phoenix to represent their companies. They represented themselves like knights of Industry, jousting for supremacy, and vying with each other for business, whilst also collectively carrying the banner for British trade monopoly in needle manufacture.
Bartleet's 'Archer' emblem whilst symbolic of strength, honour and accuracy, also cleverly refers to the location of the Bartleet factory in Arrow Valley, Redditch- the Bartleet 'Archer' metaphorically releasing his products of Arrow Valley to the world. The distinctively Tudor 'Robin Hood' motif also suggests a provenance for Bartleet and Sons that aligns the origins of the company (however fictitiously) with that of steel needle manufacture in Medieval England. The Bartleet Archer trademark is multiplied 33 times within the display- vividly referencing the heraldic Tudor badges that advertised regal lineage and were found within medieval stained glass.
The needle display comprising of a framed triptych of three lancet arches flanked at the centre by twin rose mounts is strongly reminiscent of a medieval stained glass window design. The use of the heraldic colours of red, blue and gold against which the needles are mounted, recalls the history of western ecclesiastical art; red referring to blood, the earth and the passion of Christ, blue the spirit, and gold of heaven- 'that mete emblem of brightness and glory'. (Jones 1986, p.10) The arches are divided geometrically into 'lead light' sections by dark blue paper strips that are gilt stamped with a floriated pattern. Each section of needles are specifically labelled, regimented and arranged into hierarchal groups, and their gleaming pattern forms the decoration of each casement- which could be considered the symbolic subject matter of stained glass illuminations.
The twin rose window mounts in the Bartleet display resemble Cistercian rose windows and stone tracery, typical to those that may have existed in the stained glass windows of the Abbey prior to its destruction in 1538. The architectural design and decoration utilised by the Monks was distinctively minimal, its structural features also forming the decorative elements of each building. The Cistercian monks believed that function and beauty were one and the same. In the 19th century ardent gothic revivalists such as Augustus Welby Pugin, John Ruskin and Owen Jones greatly admired such design ideals declaring that true 'construction should be decorated' (Jones 1986, p.10), and that 'ornament is the embellishment of that which is in itself useful.' (Pugin 1844, p.12)
Bartleet and Sons presented the needle as the perfect object that combines function and beauty, in geometrised decoration. Their trade display was constructed with fierce, hierarchical symmetry. It was designed to fascinate, challenge, and humble the viewer in a powerful inditement of British Industrial Supremacy. Today, the Bartleet display can be seen as an Industrial Reliquary from the Cathedral of Industry. It is representative of the end of an era, both of British trade dominance and Bartleet's power in the needle industry.
'Samual Thomas and Sons at the London International Exhibition 1862', 1862. Art Journal, London, cited at http://www.dincum.com/articles/redditch_needles_res.html, viewed 02/05/2009.
Bartleet, Robert & Woodward, J. M. 1865. Bordesley Abbey, Worcestershire.
Jones, Owen. 1986. The Grammar of Ornament: the Victorian masterpiece on oriental, primitive, classical, mediaeval and Renaissance design and decorative art, Portland House, New York.
Powerhouse Museum. 2009. www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=14151, viewed 02/03/09.
Pugin, Augustus Welby. 1844. The Glossary of the Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume, Henry G. Bohn, London.
Rootsweb, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~billburgoyne/needle_making.htm, viewed 26/5/2008.