Reconsidering Mechanization in the Industrial Revolution: The Dye Book of William Butt

By guest contributor Lidia Plaza

On my way to Covent Garden this summer, I spotted a Muji store and popped inside.  A few months earlier I had picked up a pair of Muji socks in Terminal 5 of JFK, which had since become my favorite pair.  Determined to acquire more, equally lovely socks, I studied the sock selection until I found some in the same style, size, and color as my beloved pair.  I grabbed them and headed to the till.  I didn’t bother to inspect the socks; I assumed the knit tensions were all perfectly even, the densities were consistent, the colors were identical.  I also assumed that they were exactly like the socks I had purchased a few months earlier in New York.  I didn’t compare the socks because I take consistency for granted.  I expect it.  I insist upon it. My expectation that socks I purchase from a Japanese retailer in New York will be identical to socks I find in London months later is a testament to the success of the Industrial Revolution.

In the history of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanization of cleaning, processing, spinning, and weaving textiles has become Chapter One of the gospel, but in this telling there has been undue emphasis put on the mechanization of manufacturing.  The triumph of the Industrial Revolution was not the machines themselves, but the processes that could produce consistent products at a mass scale; machines were just one tool of those processes.  This point is well illustrated in an often-overlooked verse of the gospel: dyeing.

Dyeing’s neglect is partially understandable, as dyeing is almost as difficult for the historian to study as it was for the eighteenth-century apprentice to learn.  Unlike paints, dyes must chemically bond with the textile fibers, and variations in the fibers, the pH of the water, the quality of added mordants and dye-assistants, or even the composition of the containers used can affect the results.  Only in the nineteenth century did chemists begin to understand dye chemistry, and when histories of industrialization include dyes, this, for instance, is often what they highlight. But early modern dyers spent their careers learning to achieve consistent, even dyes, and, more recently, scholars like Giorgio Riello have included dyeing innovations in their examinations of early textile industrialization.  It is now becoming clear that dyers and clothiers like William Butt were making critical strides in early textile industrialization.


William Butt began his dye book on November 24, 1768.  As a clothier, Butt oversaw the entire process of producing a woolen textile from cleaning the raw fibers to weaving the fabric.  Yet his book, the product of almost daily work, is just about dyeing.  Why then did Butt devote so much effort to just one step in the manufacturing process?  The answer is simple: half the price of a finished textile could come just from the quality of its dyeing.  It was not uncommon for clothiers to set up their own dye houses, unwilling to trust someone else’s work with such a critical step.  William Butt was such a clothier.

Between 1768 and 1785, he recorded 794 recipes, filling over 88 pages with rows and columns of cryptic numbers, strange symbols, bizarre ingredients, and round little pieces of colored felt, stuffing little scraps of paper between its pages.  After weeks and months of pouring over the book in the reading room of the Beinecke Library, I made some sense of the book; each row documents a new recipe, and each column contains a separate piece of information about the recipe.  In this way, Butt recorded the amounts of wool he worked with, the merchant marks of his wool suppliers, and the dyestuffs used in each recipe, always providing samples of the results and assigning a unique recipe number.


The book shows that Butt was able to dye more wool with better results by systematically experimenting with his dyes.  Starting around 1777, about page 35 of his book, Butt began to treat his book less like a cookbook of collected recipes, and more like a lab notebook to record his experiments.  He started dating his recipes, and the dates suggest that Butt began to intensify his production.  Butt filled 35 pages between 1768 and 1777.  Assuming this was his only dye book, this means he only filled 3 or 4 pages a year during this period.  However, after 1777 he usually filled at least 6 pages each year.

Number of Pages Filled by Each Year in William Butt’s Dye Book Between May 1777-May 1785
Year Approximate Number of pages filled
1777 (May-December) 6
1778 6.5
1779 8
1780 6
1781 7
1782 6
1783 6.5
1784 5
1785 (February-May) 3

Not only was Butt working with more recipes but he also became more meticulous in his work.  He got pickier about how he classified a new dye recipe by assigning a new dye number to recipes that varied only slightly from other recipes in the book.  He began experimenting with his recipes, recreating previous recipes using wool from different suppliers, for example.  In another instance, he experimented with technique, noting that recipe 20129 was the same as 19917, “differing from 19917 in method only.”  His book gets more cluttered as he began recording the merchant marks of the merchants who supplied the wool in each recipe, and as he makes more notes and comments.



Part of Butt’s success may have come from the fact that he seems to have been a specialist.  He was clearly skilled at using many dyestuffs, but he relied on other dyers to provide him with indigo-dyed wool.  Indigo is a vat dye, which has an entirely separate chemical process for bonding to fibers than the other dyestuffs Butt worked with, which were almost exclusively mordant-dyes.  Not all dyers specialized, but there is evidence that indigo specialists were common, and so it is not surprising that Butt would also specialize in one type of dye.  By focusing on dyes that all required similar methods, Butt was able to refine those methods and increase his efficiency.  By the end of his book, Butt had more than doubled the amount of wool he dyed in each recipe.

Technology was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, but, as Butt’s dye book illustrates, if all we imagine when we think of technology is machines, we are missing a large part of the picture.  Technology is simply the practical application of scientific knowledge, and in this sense William Butt’s dye book is as much a piece of technological advancement as the spinning jenny and the power loom.  He could not have known the chemistry underpinning his work, but he knew he could maximize his output by systematically experimenting with dyestuffs and applying what he learned to his processes.  All the spinning jennies and power looms in the world would have been useless if all those threads and fabrics could not be consistently and reliably dyed, but dyeing at larger scales required a better understanding of the dyes, not new machines.  Butt and the many others like him understood this.  Hiding in record offices and archives, there are other dye books, all written by clothiers and dyers trying to master dye processes.  It was their mastery of process that achieved the consistency that I take for granted every time I browse a wall of socks.

Lidia Plaza is a PhD student in British history at Yale University. Her research focuses on industrialization and British foreign policy in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries.  

Tracing the perceived merits of Robert Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763)

By guest contributor Laura Tarkka-Robinson

In the eighteenth century, the sundry genre of early-modern travel writing – or ‘travels’ – was not only popular but also notorious for leading gullible readers astray. In this regard, it is hardly remarkable that the improved second edition of John Henry Grose’s fairly inconsequential Voyage to the East Indies (1766) plagiarized a passage concerning judicial practice in India from another recent publication. Furthermore, given that this passage was added to increase the appeal of the Voyage as a source of knowledge, it might seem equally unremarkable that the text from which it was appropriated was still praised as better ‘than almost any of the more recent productions on that subject’ in 1805 (xxix).

Yet, Indian customs were not the express subject of the plagiarized book, the highly successful History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763), which earned its author Robert Orme the title of ‘the first official historiographer of the East India Company’. Thus, the hierarchic relationship between Grose’s eye-witness travel account and Orme’s military history becomes very interesting in light of the affinities which these works actually display. For in fact, both drew on the author’s personal experience in the service of the English East India Company while describing Indian customs and manners in the language of Oriental despotism, in accordance with Montesquieu’s notions on the influence of climate (10).

Hence, it is surprising that despite other Orientalists’ critique of subjective observations (34-35) Orme’s work gained and sustained a high status of authority on Hindu customs. I argue that this puzzle can, however, be solved by considering the opinions expressed by contemporary reviewers in conjunction with the structure of Orme’s History and its epigone, the new edition of Grose’s Voyage.

The trajectory of Grose’s Voyage helps us to recover the perceived merits of Orme’s History, for besides the plagiarized passages, the improved edition of the Voyage also boasted an additional volume describing the military affairs of the British in India, thus setting the two publications into a competitive relationship with each other. The addition of the second volume suggests that the anonymous editor of the Voyage was reacting to the rising taste for historical narratives, especially since some reviews had expressed impatience (318) with Grose’s miscellaneous observations. Indeed, although the Voyage had been swiftly translated into French and recommended for an abundance of reliable detail (viii) on Indian customs and manners, its sense of immediacy never attained as much appreciation (96) as the more literary performance of Orme.

However, while Orme’s manner of writing set him apart from first-person eyewitness accounts, the reception of the History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan in the press indicates that the success of this work was owing to the symbiotic relationship (p. 305) of Orme’s ‘classical’ military history and the well-digested chorographical dissertation which he prefixed to it. Some reviewers were more interested in the actual History and some in the accompanying dissertation, but in both cases, Orme was commended for the character which he made as a historiographer.

Upon the first appearance of Orme’s History, The Critical Review found it ‘pleasing and perspicuous’ (249), ‘truly historical’, and ‘classical’ (258). Fifteen years later, The Monthly Review also praised the second volume as an example of ‘the true simplicity of historical narrative’, providing just enough detail ‘to fix the stamp of authenticity to the narrative, and to entitle the Author to the character of a faithful historian’ (431).

Orme’s favorable reception was perhaps partly based on tacit knowledge about his scholarly pursuits since, after establishing himself in Harley Street in 1760, Orme befriended numerous literary gentlemen of the day. Moreover, despite having left India on account of extortion charges, Orme still presented the East India Company in a favorable light. In contrast, though introducing himself (1) as an East India Company servant, Grose used his experience to criticize ‘the inexperience and aim at independence (38) in the appointed members of the several Courts’ in India, arguing that their authority was so dangerous that the Company’s royal charter had better not been obtained.

Moreover, Orme’s allegiance to the English company was no inhibition to becoming widely acclaimed abroad, as French and German reviewers praised his ‘liberal’ attitude and devotion to public rather than private interest. Thus, even though Orme’s History was about an Anglo-French conflict, Le journal des sçavans (677-679) found it devoid of national bias. Similarly, the preface to its ensuing French translation stressed that while misapprehended patriotism could entice historians to wrap their facts up in fables, this was not the case with Orme.

Another highly illuminating review in Allgemeine historische Bibliothek also commended the skillful, modest, and truthful manner in which Orme’s History described the characters of nations and individuals. Nevertheless, this review directed special attention to his dissertation of Indian customs, reading it as a summary of the current knowledge on this topic in Europe. The reviewer regretted that the English had not contributed more to such inquiries although they were not lacking capacity. This suggests that service in the EIC was perceived as an opportunity to communicate information that was both valuable and authentic. Indeed, the reviewer pointed out that no sources were listed for the military narrative itself, but the dissertation mentioned not only the well-known works of Herbelot and Bernier but also a lieutenant called Frazer, whose eye-witness character supported the authority of Orme’s words (222-234).

The perceived value (78) of Orme’s dissertation thus explains why some of its third section (24-27) ended up in the second edition of Grose’s Voyage – hidden away in the fifth book (336-338) to avoid the detection of plagiarism. While nothing suggests that this improved the status of the book in the literary market, it is striking how the recycled passages navigated around the question of sources, providing no assistance to critical readers. However, in all its ambiguity, especially the following excerpt (see also 162 here) was clearly relevant to on-going debates about the age and character of the Indian civilization:

Intelligent enquirers assert that there are no written laws amongst the Indians, but that a few maxims transmitted by tradition supply the place of such a code in the discussion of civil causes; and that the ancient practice, corrected on particular occasions by the good sense of the judge, decides absolutely in criminal ones.

Strikingly, Orme’s original dissertation was no more specific about the ‘intelligent enquirers’ whose assertions it invoked than Grose’s Voyage, because the strength Orme’s authorial voice was based on avoiding the interference of external references as well as refraining from the first-person statements. In so doing, it proved pleasant enough to stand the test of national rivalry in France and compelling enough to be favorably received in German translation as late as 23 years after its first appearance.

As Grose’s Voyage likewise appeared only belatedly in German, the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek complained that the observations it contained had already lost their novelty value. At this point, the translator’s copious references to further reading – including 18 works on Indian religion – only served to underline the outdated appearance of Grose’s Voyage, which the reviewer also perceived as dubiously unpatriotic (234-236). In a striking contrast, the adapted translation of Orme’s History, entitled Die Engländer in Indien (1786), was much more successful. Echoing to the translator Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz’s views (v-vi), the Historisch-politisches Magazin (13-14) noted that especially those Germans who practiced trade could easily sympathize with the English, and stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the ancient and cultivated Indian nation. This review fixed its attention to Orme’s dissertation, while that of the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (202) celebrated Orme’s character as a military historian who, though English, could appreciate a great Frenchman.

Accordingly, the trajectory of Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan provides a further caveat to the notion of a sudden and sweeping turn to linguistics in eighteenth-century Orientalist scholarship. For according to his nineteenth-century biographer, Orme’s authority remained intact even though he had ‘little or no acquaintance with learned languages in Asia’, and therefore ‘appears’ to have relied on ‘his own actual observations’ (xxix). In addition, however, a comparison with the fate of Grose’s Voyage also suggests that much remains to be said about the concept of private interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, especially as regards its relation to the political nation.

Dr Laura Tarkka-Robinson studied history and comparative literature at the Universities of Helsinki, Hannover and Edinburgh, earning her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2017. Currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Intellectual History, University of Sussex, she is revising her doctoral thesis “Rudolf Erich Raspe and the Anglo-Hanoverian Enlightenment” to be published as a monograph while also working on a post-doctoral project concerning the transformative impact of eighteenth-century notions of ‘national character’ on the early-modern Republic of Letters. More generally, her research interests revolve around the transfer, translation and exchange of ideas, the construction of national literatures and cultures, as well as the scholarly use of travel literature and the conceptualisation of historical progress in the long eighteenth century.