The Making of "Made in."

Despite the sometimes underdetermined discourse surrounding it, there is nothing particularly new about the identification of a product with its place of production. Given a world of global production and far flung supply chains, there is more than a little ambiguity in what these supposedly simple identifications might mean. And it might not be surprising that the history that gives birth to them is just as uncertain.

This is part of a series on the history of “made in.”

British Empire Marketing Board

British Empire Marketing Board, 1927.

Despite the sometimes underdetermined discourse surrounding it, there is nothing particularly new about the identification of a product with its place of production. One the earliest examples can still be found preserved in the ruins of Pompeii, on amphora inscribed with the word “Vesuvinum”—wine, from Vesuvius.1 But despite this comparatively ancient origin, recent initiatives tend to be more about state strictures and national identity than simple geography. For every properly provenanced bottle of Champagne or basket of Vidalia onions there are countless more materials marked only as “Swiss-Made,” “Made in” Italy, Germany, or the USA. Given a world of global production and far flung supply chains, there is more than a little ambiguity in what these supposedly simple identifications might mean. And it might not be surprising that the history that gives birth to them is just as uncertain. Sometimes toponymic tags were stamped on a product to mark their passage through a particular center of trade. Sometimes they arose through other sorts of imaginative associations. At times they stood as proud marks of a nation’s manufacturing might. At others they became loathsome emblems of its diminishing powers of production.

One of the most famous—and long-lasting—associations, is for the porcelain productions that we still call “china.” It was not a brand mark, but a trade name, and one reached by a somewhat circuitous route. An extensive exonymic diffusion from Eastern Asia’s Persian trade brought the name Chīnī into common use on the Indian subcontinent. When the supply route of porcelain finally arrived in England in the 17th Century, the imported products were almost universally identified (but not, universally spelled) as “china-ware.” But with every name coming complete with its own origin story, any history of “made in” must account for a remarkably wide range of associations. It must include things like Damascus steel (which was sometimes forged, but not produced, in Damascus) and Damask (which was), Angora wool (from Ankara in Turkey), Calico (from Calicut), and Manila (from hemp to folders). It must include Muslin (from Mosul), Panama hats (which were sold in Panama), and Tuxedos (which were seen, but not made, in Tuxedo Park, New York). It must account for foods (from Currents to Sardines) which take their names from places of production or common ports of trade, just the same as it does the more abstract or uncertain ones (from the Bikini to Badminton). It must also grapple with the fact that some of the most long-lasting productive identifications are not uniquely defined by their historical invention or, quite often, their current circumstances (Venetian blinds come to mind).

Indeed, given the archaic attachment of some of these labels, it is remarkable how many of them still convey a certain productive purchase in the contemporary context—and how few still stand, as far as their material manufacture is concerned. Especially as the imaginative inscription of casual claims has given way to far more technical definitions for production. In some cases these were adopted by merchants and marketers; in others they were forced upon them. In either case, the application of “made in,” over the course of the nineteenth century, became a specific designation—a legal mark—detailing not just the circumstances of a product’s trade, but the meaning of its making.

Merchandise Marks

The British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 was, by all appearances, a rather simple update to regulations that had already been in place for the last twenty-five years, laws that had made it a misdemeanor to forge, counterfeit, or falsely apply any trade mark. Ostensibly the revision seemed to offer an alternative to some of lingering concerns emanating out of the Paris Convention of 1883, which had focused on the lack of international patent protections that had problematically surfaced at the international exhibition of inventions in Vienna in 1873. The British had been present at the subsequent conference in Rome that had been held the previous year. But this act made a more pointed effort to address the rules governing the appellation of origin on imported merchandise—to combat the unfair competition that could arise from trade marks that directly or indirectly indicated a false source, producer, or manufacturer. A description like “Mode de Paris,” intended to convey the idea that a product had been made in that French city, should, the Act read, represent that reality.

The legislation outlined a number of definitions still familiar to us in commercial presentation. Not only did it “cover” the application of marks placed on the goods themselves, it presciently prohibited their presence on any “label, reel, or other thing in or with which the goods are sold or exposed.” A “label,” the act offered, “indicates a piece of paper, or some other thin substance, which is made to adhere to the goods to which it is applied,” and which included “any band or ticket.”

It also interrogated the forms of marketing the authors saw as most suspect for misrepresentation. While eighty years later urban legends would offer the city of Usa, Japan as the imagined site of fraudulent labeling for goods destined for the United States, British merchants expressed similar apprehension about supposedly deceitful denominations like London, Ohio. Given how many “American or colonial towns” bore similar names to English ones, the law demanded that their country always accompany them, by “well-known indications by letters such as U. S. A., in the case of goods coming from America.” It likewise prohibited “trade descriptions” for product classes or manufacturing methods that included the name of a place in the United Kingdom. “Kidderminster Carpets,” and “Windsor Soap” were out, as were any items “known as the usual product of a particular place or country, and marked with that name” but shipped from another country (like”Havana” cigars arriving from Germany). The simple supply chains the act seems to have imagined would be an almost impossible proposition today.2

But if some of the sections of the Merchandise Marks Act seem oddly specific in detail, it’s because they were. British manufacturers had been subject, the authors argued, to unfair and intolerable trade practices. Protectionist tariffs, combined with access to cheap and unregulated sources of labor, had allowed poor imitations of Britain’s renowned craftsmanship to flood the world market. This had been made possible, they insisted, by brazen acts of industrial espionage and an unprecedented proliferation of false marks that benefited from (and indeed, entirely depended on) their association to Britain’s hard-won international reputation. Most of these products had been found to originate from one particular country. A knock-off nation—Germany.

The Treason of Sheffield

The influx of German goods into British markets had not only become an increasing concern, it had become a regularly feature of newspapers and industry periodicals alike. In March of 1886 the British Trade Journal published a lengthy missive in response to the Sheffield Independent’s feature, the “treason of the Sheffield traders,” which had attacked merchants and manufacturers who were “seriously injuring the trade of their town” by supplying German imitations of “Sheffield-made” merchandise. While the extent of the misrepresentation varied considerably, each allegation would find an appropriate remedy in the Merchandise Marks Act the following year. Still, some circumstances had seemed innocent enough. Many manufacturers simply sold imported imitations unmarked, or stamped with some generic appellation identifying it as “warranted,” “shear,” or “best” steel, refined and cast. But others employed more intentionally misleading measures. Goods could be blind stamped with the label of a non-existent (but appropriately evocative) firm, or set beside show-cards that advertised them as the very best of the country’s cutlery. In the most outrageous case, the Journal reported, they would go as far as to etch the mark of “Sheffield” onto their very wares.

Merchant and Manufacturer advertisement

Merchant and Manufacturer advertisement, June 13, 1883.

But even absent a masquerading mark, it was almost always the case that the items were wrapped in parcels with the label of the local merchant, their name and address in full—”the inference of course being that the goods in the parcel have been made by him.” And this, was an outrage. “By purchasing a common, cheaply made, but showy German knife, pair of scissors, or tool,” the Journal deplored, “and passing it off as Sheffield made, a merchant from the grimy town on the Don may make a larger profit than if he sold the article for what it really is.” The only question was at what a price he obtained that profit. The “deception” attached to these inferior articles was cast as a grave injury to the good name of the workmen and traders of the region. Unmet, it had the potential to be an unmitigated disaster for the reputation of both Britain, and the brand.3

The traitorous traders offered some defense of their actions. The problem, they suggested, was “neither so great nor so special as is represented” and the quantity, after all, was still “comparatively small.” As the firm of Lazarus and Rosenfeld put it, while Solingen could not compete with Sheffield at the highest qualities, in “medium goods” the German imitations had proven quite competitive, lesser in quality but better in finish. As to the question of fraud, they argued their innocence, pointing out that there was already a law in place that required “every article which bears the name of any town or place in the United Kingdom” to also mark, “in a prominent place” the name of the town in which it was made. While their merchandise might, “occasionally,” be offered as “a present from Brighton” (or Blackpool, or Scarborough, “as the case may be”), they were clearly stamped “Made in Germany.” Still, they conceded that some less scrupulous sellers might have made a habit of showing on cards that bore the Sheffield name. Outright misrepresentation, however, was reserved largely for one particular case (and, it seems, one particular country). German goods were regularly stamped as Sheffield if they were destined for export outside of the United Kingdom—especially, they explained, if they were intended for the sizable American market.4

While men like Messrs Lazarus and Rosenfeld argued that the growing concern over German imports was symptomatic of a problem in production, not in trade, pressure mounted to punish the traitors before further damage could be done on the international market. When it was enacted in 1887, the immediate impact of the Merchandise Marks Act was the appearance of a new mark of making, the inscription of “Made in Germany” on all of the imported merchandise moving through the island. The final result, however, was something entirely unexpected.

Made In

An Odious Mark

On the face of it, there was every reason to believe that the act would be disastrous for German industry. Admittance to British markets (and consequently, the full extent of the Empire) represented the opportunity to enter into the single most valuable trade network in the world. And the reputation of German production had been notoriously poor. As Franz Reuleaux remarked at the Philadelphia world exhibition of 1876, “cheap and bad” were his country’s most recognizable domestic products. Indeed, a decade later E. P. Crane, the American consul in Hanover, wrote that the requirements of the law and its harsh customs enforcement had made the mark “Made in Germany” “particularly odious to the German people.” “These three English words,” he recorded, “are familiar to the eyes and lips of thousands whose English vocabulary goes not a syllable farther.” But, as he went on to report, this “odious mark” had also come to signify something altogether unanticipated, much “to the confusion and chagrin of those who legislated it into being.”

It is a recurring refrain for these sorts of labels, from “Made in Germany” to “Made in Japan”—fear gives way to desire. This was a symbol that had been intended to “scare consumers,” to make them “buy British” and not German. But the consequence was to make consumers more aware of how just many German products they already encountered in everyday life. As they became “aware of the source of supply of the goods” and as they satisfied themselves that these products were not only cheaper, but of an acceptable quality, they turned increasingly to now familiar brands. When one German letter joked that marking their goods as “Made in Bavaria,” “Made in Westphalia,” “Made in Silesia” and so on, “would probably stagger nine-tenths of the British intellects,” Crane wrote that the editor had responded by asking why they should “tamely surrender” all of the trophies that had been won under this “proud banner”—unwittingly furnished by their industrial foe.5

Wilbur Will Not Tolerate Such a Thing

Walter Allman, “Wilbur Will Not Tolerate Such a Thing,” in Doings of the Duffs, 1917.

Though its value would ebb and flow in the years to come, as Ernest Edwin Williams wrote in 1897, the phrase “Made in Germany” was not only on the lips of German manufacturers, but now “fluent in the mouth” of the British consumer. His treatise on the transformation exhorted his readers to simply observe their surroundings, to find an “antidote to that form of self-sufficiency” that had previously been “indigenous” to the British climate but which might, he suggested, now be mere pantomime. If they had, what they would have found was that:

The material of some of your own clothes was probably woven in Germany. Still more probable is it that some of your wife’s garments are German importations; while it is practically beyond a doubt that the magnificent mantles and jackets wherein her maids array themselves on their Sundays out are German-made and German-sold, for only so could they be done at the figure.

Before delving into the figures that outlined the stark reality of German trade, before analyzing the impact of tariffs and taxes, he delivered an account of globalism drawn from the most ardent protectionist’s nightmares. “Your governess’s fiancé is a clerk in the City, but he was also made in Germany.” The toys, dolls, and “the fairy books” which your children “maltreat in the nursery” were also, he reminded, along with the material of your favorite newspaper. “Roam the house over, and the fateful mark will greet you at every turn, from the piano in your drawing-room to the mug on your kitchen dresser, blazoned though it may be with the legend, A Present from Margate.” Descend to your domestic depths, he suggested, and you would find the very drain-pipes German made.

You pick out of the grate the paper wrappings from a book consignment, and they also are “Made in Germany.” You stuff them into the fire, and reflect that the poker in your hand was forged in Germany. As you rise from your hearthrug you knock over an ornament on your mantlepiece; picking up the pieces your read, on the bit that formed the base, “Manufactured in Germany.” And you jot your dismal reflections down with a pencil that was made in Germany.

From the material necessities of everyday life to the cultural objects of civilization. After all, the opera, too, was “Made in Germany,” and enacted by singers, a conductor, and players—with instruments, sheets, and music—correspondingly imported. And one may still find a fitful night long afterward.

You go to bed, and glare wrathfully at a text on the wall; it is illuminated with an English village church, and it was “Printed in Germany.” If you are imaginative and dyspeptic, you drop off to sleep only to dream that St. Peter (With a duly stamped halo round his head and a bunch of keys from the Rhineland) had refused you admission into Paradise, because you bear not the Mark of the Beast upon your forehead, and are not of German make. But you console yourself with the thought that it was only a Bierhaus Paradise any way.

One might imagine that this was enough torment for Williams’s unhappy reader. But no, he assured them, you’d be roused from your slumber by the “sonorous brass of a German band.”6


  1. CIL, IV, 2557; 559 (Pompeii); CIL, VIII, 22640, 31 (Carthage); and the 14th book of Pliny’s Natural History for his account of wine in the Roman world. This was not an uncommon device. Surrentinum, for example, was wine from Sorrentum. See also Theodore Peña and Myles McCallum. “The Production and Distribution of Pottery at Pompeii: A Review of the Evidence; Part 2, the Material Basis for Production and Distribution.” American Journal of Archaeology 113, no. 2 (2009): 165-201. 

  2. Howard Payn, The Merchandise Marks Act 1887 (London: Stevens and Sons, 1888). 

  3. “Sheffield Merchants and German Goods,” British Trade Journal 24, no. 279 (March 1, 1886): 133-135. See also the report detailed in the London Iron for February 19, 1886. 

  4. Messrs Lazarus and Rosenfeld, “Sheffield and German Cutlery,”British Trade Journal 24, no. 280 (April 1, 1886): 215. 

  5. E. P. Crane, “Made in Germany, Dispatch from Hanover, July 19th” in Consular Reports: Commerce, Manufactures, Etc. 49 (Washington DC: GPO, 1895), 117-118. 

  6. Ernest Edwin Williams, Made in Germany (London: William Heinemann, 1897), 10-12. For a more contemporary account, see Klaus Ulrich, “125 years of ‘Made in Germany,’” Deutsche Welle (August 23, 2012) and Johanna Lutteroth, “Dreist, Dreister, Germany,” Der Spiegel (August 24, 2012).