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The shamrock and red hand: a Barbour trade mark


Barbour label photo

Product label, William Barbour & Sons Ltd. (LMILC.1998.44.9, gifted)

The symbol of an open, red, left hand was synonymous with William Barbour & Sons Ltd. of Hilden. The trade mark appeared on their products, which included linen thread, twine, and nets, and became associated with quality. It was also incorporated into the many advertisements they commissioned throughout the world.

There are several stories surrounding the origins of the red hand symbol, which is most often associated with the province of Ulster (though it is normally portrayed as a right hand). The most popular legend involved a boat race between Scotland and Ulster, and whoever won could claim Ulster as their kingdom (sometimes the story is told that the race took place across Lough Neagh and that County Tyrone was the prize). Finding himself lagging behind, one of the Gaelic clan O’Neill allegedly cut off his left hand and threw it ashore to win the province.

Barbour netting twine advert photoAdvertising label, Barbour’s Irish flax salmon netting twine (LMILC.2023.318, gifted). This label includes the red hand trade mark, and makes extensive use of the shamrock.

Barbours claimed that the red hand was associated with the company since 1784 when John Barbour of Paisley, Scotland, established a linen thread works at The Plantation, Lisburn. They wrote:

‘In 1784 the Barbours invaded the shores of Ireland with their Linen Threads, and adopted as their Trade Mark the … “Red Hand”: but, so far from being treated in a hostile way … they were received in the most open-handed manner. The steadiness with which their business has increased, and the avidity with which their productions have everywhere been used, are satisfactory proofs, if such were needed, that the Open Hand is as supreme (in the trade it represents) today as ever it was in the palmy days and high fortunes of the kingly O’Neills.’ (William Barbour & Sons Ltd., Linen thread (Lisburn, 1926), p. 139)

There were many variations of Barbour’s red hand trade mark, but the most common version featured a wreath of shamrocks. As a symbol of Ireland, the shamrock was adopted by other companies and helped to promote the superior quality of Irish flax/linen products.

Barbour trade mark 2 photo

Product label, William Barbour & Sons Ltd. (LMILC.1998.44.35, gifted). An alternative version of the trade mark in which the red hand and shamrocks are without colour. This version was popular on spools of linen thread.

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