A merchant's mark is an emblem or device adopted by a merchant, and
placed on goods or produce sold by him in order to keep track of them,
or as a sign of authentication. It may also be used as a mark of
identity in other contexts.
2 The East India Company's Merchant's Mark
3 See also
4 Further reading
Merchants' marks are as old as the sealings of the third millennium
BCE found in
Sumer that originated in the Indus Valley. Impressions
of cloth, strings and other packing material on the reverse of tags
with seal impressions indicate that the Harappan seals were used to
control economic administration and trade. Amphorae from the
Roman Empire can sometimes be traced to their sources from the
inscriptions on their handles. Commercial inscriptions in Latin, known
as Tituli picti, appear on Roman containers used for trade.
Symbolic merchants' marks continued to be used by artisans and
townspeople of the medieval and early modern eras to identify
themselves and authenticate their goods. These distinctive and easily
recognizable marks often appeared in their seals on documents and
on products made for sale. They are often found on headstones and in
works of stained glass, brass and stone, serving in place of
heraldic imagery, which could not be used by the middle classes.
They were the precursors of hallmarks, printer's marks and
To manage the risks of piracy or shipwreck, merchants often consigned
a cargo to several vessels or caravans; a mark on a bale established
legal ownership and avoided confusion. Early travellers, voyagers and
merchants displayed their merchant's marks as well to ward off evil.
Adventurous travellers and sailors ascribed the terrors and perils of
their life to the wrath of the Devil. To counter these dangers
merchants employed all sorts of religious and magical means to place
their caravans, ships and merchandise under the protection of God and
The Mystical Sign of Four, also called the "Staff of Mercury".
One such symbol combined the mystical "Sign of Four" with the
merchant's name or initials. The "Sign of Four" was an outgrowth
of an ancient symbol adopted by the Romans and by Christianity, Chi
Rho (XP), standing for the first two letters of Christus in Greek
letters; this was simplified to a reversed "4" in
Medieval times. The
evolution of this symbol is shown in M. J. Shah's article. The
"Sign of Four" is called the "Staff of Mercury" (Caduceus) in German
and Scandinavian literature on house marks.
The joint stock company or limited liability company was another way
to reduce a merchant's risks of loss of ships and merchandise from
dangerous voyages and travel. By royal charter a monopoly was assured
and a merchant's personal liability was limited to the amount of his
own investment. If a voyage succeeded the gains accrued to all of the
investors in proportion to their invested capital shares. Modern
institutions, corporations and trademarks, find some of their origins
in these symbolic and legal devices for limiting physical and
The East India Company's Merchant's Mark
Symbols on East India Company Coin: 1791 Half Pice
Symbols on a Blue
Scinde Dawk postage stamp (1852)
When the East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I, Queen of
England in 1600 it was still customary for each merchant or Company of
Merchant Adventurers to have a distinguishing mark which included the
"Sign of Four" and served as a trademark. The East India Company's
mark was made up from a '+', a '4' and the initials EIC.
This mark forms the central emblem displayed on the Scinde Dawk
postage stamps. Also, it was a central motif of the East India
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Merchants' marks.
Early modern Europe
Davies, H. W. (1935). Devices of the Early Printers, 1457–1560:
their history and development. London: Grafton & Co.
Elmhirst, Edward Mars (1959). Dow, Leslie, ed. Merchants' Marks.
Harleian Society. 108. London: Harleian Society.
Ewing, W. C. (1850). Notices of the Merchants' Marks in the City of
Norwich. Norwich: Charles Muskett.
Girling, F. A. (1964). English Merchants' Marks: a field survey of
marks made by merchants and tradesmen in England between 1400 and
1700. London: Oxford University Press.
Gloucestershire Notes & Queries, Vol. 5, p. 107; Vol. 6, pp.
Rylands, J. Paul (1910). "Merchants' marks and other medieval personal
marks". Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and
^ Seals were used to make impressions in wet clay as a means of
sealing shipments of goods. D. H. Kelley and B. Wells, "Recent
Progress in Understanding the Indus Script", Review of Archaeology.
Vol. 16, No. 1 : 15-23.(1995).
^ Asko Parpola, "Study of the Indus Script", p. 52. Paper read at the
50th ICES Tokyo Session on 19 May 2005 in Tokyo. Archived 20 April
2010 at the Wayback Machine.
^ Geoffrey Cook, "A Unicorn Seal", The Ancient Indus Civilization (on
^ J. Theodore Peña, Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record, p.
106. Cambridge U. Press (2007) ISBN 0-521-86541-7
^ Sylvia L. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of
Medieval London (1300-1500).
U. Chicago (1948).
^ http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/decoration/seal6.htm Medieval
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 October 2006.
Retrieved 23 November 2006. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi -
^ http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/decoration/seal6.htm%7C Medieval
^ "merchant's mark", House of Names
^ http://spencer.lib.ku.edu/sc/ptrsmark.shtml University of Kansas
Libraries. Kenneth Specer Research Library.
^ D. Christison, "The Carvings and Inscriptions on the Kirkyard
Monuments of the Scottish Lowlands; particularly in Perth, Fife,
Angus, Mearns, and Lothian," in Proceedings of the Society of
Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 36 (1901-02): Fig. 114, p. 117.
Scinde District Dawks - The Premier Stamps of Asia
^ C. G. Homeyer: Die Haus- und Hofmarken,
Berlin 1870, Tuve Skånberg:
Glömda gudstecken. Från fornkyrklig dopliturgi till allmogens
bomärken (2003) under
Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.5 licens Lund 2003,
Anders Bjønnes : Segltegninger fra hyllingene i Norge 1591 og
1610, Oslo 2010.
^ "Scinde District Dawks - The Premier Stamps of Asia", excerpted by
M. J. Shah from Manik Jain and S.B. Kothari, The Silver Key to The
Golden Treasure of Indian Philately.
^ East India Company coin 1791, half pice, as