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StickyBacks or Sticky Backs


In Peterborough during the early years of the 20th Century there were at least two different "Stickyback" photographer's studios. The operators of these studios are currently unknown. In trying to discover more about these two studios we have researched the whole "Stickyback" genre in the hope that some of the information here may eventually help with identifying the two mystery Peterborough studios. We hope this information will also be useful to local and family historians who come across examples of the work of the stickyback photographer.

Stickybacks were a type of portraiture appearing from around 1900 to 1920, positioned at the cheapest end of the photographic trade. (Stickyback photographs could be had for between 6d and a shilling a dozen) These were products for a wider mass market - those who had perhaps never been photographed before - a kind of "stack 'em tall and sell 'em cheap" mentality which was all about higher volume sales, reduced use of materials, small novelty end-products and affordable prices. We have documented on our site a wider genre of smaller less expensive portraiture products, which we have called "Sub Carte De Visite Size Portraits", within which the Stickyback photograph fits.

Stickyback photographs were small gummed back photographs, not much larger than postage stamps, which could be stuck to a mount, album or other surface by moistening the gum on the back. The photos were usually provided to customers in strips of 4 to 6 identical images - resembling the strips of photos obtained from later automatic photo booths, although the latter portrayed multiple poses. Once the name "Stickyback" had started to become known for this product, some photographers offering them incorporated the word "Stickyback" into the title of their firm, making it difficult today to identify individual stickyback photographers.

Because the Stickyback photographer provided cheap products, he or she geared up to deal with large numbers of clients. Usually customers had to call back to collect their prints. One aspect of this was to find a method of quickly and accurately linking a client with the correct image. Some customers being photographed for the first time might not easily recognise their own likeness in a tiny black and white image. Others might want to return later for additional copies. Including a job or negative number within the image ensured that links could be made at any time. The easiest way of doing this was to somehow display a job or negative number in the field of view and include this within the finished image. Some photographers took this a stage further and included within the image a sign board on which was written, not just a reference number but the name and/or address of the studio. Some photographers modified cameras so as to simultaneously photograph the job number on a ticket  held in the the camera itself and to combine this with the image taken. As the brand name “Stickybacks” spread, so many of the photographers producing these images used the name “Stickybacks” on an in-image sign board. The survival rate of these inexpensive tiny images is low, but a few of those surviving bear the Stickybacks sign and reference number on a board either above, or below the image of the sitter. (the position of the sign at the top or bottom of an individual photo could be affected by how the customer cut up a strip of photos - and probably in many cases when the client cut up a strip the image of the sign board at either the top or bottom was wholly or partially trimmed away). Some stickyback photographers offered either single or double width portraits, the latter needed to portray couples or multiple subjects. Often the double width stickyback photo included the entire advertising sign board, while the single width stickyback only included the part of the board with the photographer’s address and job number. Some, if not all, Stickyback photographers also produced more expensive products for those who could afford them. The most usual enhanced product was a portrait on a postcard. In this case usually the studio details were printed on the reverse, and it was still common to find a job number captured at the edge of an image.

Another issue frequently encountered with this type of product was the variable quality of the portraits produced, giving rise to the term "StickyBack Photographer" being applied in a derogatory sense to someone who was not very good at the photographic arts.

The origins of stickyback photographs can be traced back in part to the earlier products of "stamp photographs". Postage stamp sized photographs, some with printed postage stamp like borders, with gummed backs and in perforated sheets were occasionally offered as novelty items from a few photographers from the 1860s until the start of the 20th century. Here we describe the stamp photograph in more detail and list some practitioners who offered them.

The person who was most closely associated with the development of the Stickyback genre was Liverpool photographer Spiridione Nicolo Grossi (1877-1921). This link will take you to his biography on our site. He manufactured stamp photographs and applied the name "Stickyback" to them. He had a seasonal studio on the Isle of Man and is believed to have employed a tout to shout out advertisements for his stickyback photos to the crowds, making the name a popular joke with holidaymakers. The name was also picked up in a 1900 music hall song. Spiridione is known to have had a number of other photographic studios and to have patented equipment used in taking and printing stickybacks.

StickyBack photographs may crop up in family albums. There were a number of StickyBacks photographic studios up and down the country early in the 20th Century, some stand-alone single businesses, others multiple locations set up by individual entrepreneurs. In some cases travelling photographers might set up a stickyback studio for a few weeks then move on when the novelty wore off and sales started to decline. We have started to put together list of Stickyback Photographers for England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the rest of the world on the site. These initial attempts, with around 125 studios listed, are probably far from complete and we would very much welcome information and example prints to improve on this list.

This example stickyback photograph of two unknown young women is from a Stickybacks photographer in Oxford.

Size 2.25 x 1.6 inches, studio information printed across the top, including negative number.

(Author's collection)


Links to other Stickybacks pages on this site:

Stickyback portraits from Brighton and Dublin, believed to be by Spiridione Grossi. Note how the strip of photos with the four ladies has been cut up - the stickybacks sign board being visible at the bottom of the top example and completely removed in the lower version.


Edinburgh Evening News 27 November 1905 P3
"Identified by a sticky back photograph. The farmer at Cults Mill, Fife, has for some time been lodging complaints with the police about the disappearance of his poultry. While investigating the latest complaint the police found a "sticky back" photograph in the hen-house and following up the clue they apprehended one of the limestone miners named McKinney, who resides at Pitlessie. He appeared at Cupar today, admitted stealing one hen and was fined 10s or three days' imprisonment."

Chester Chronicle - Saturday 18 August 1917 p4
Notiification of the sale of equipment from the Midland Photo Co who were retiring from business. Included "Gossi's (sic) patent sticky back repeating back slide and camera and Gossi's patent sticky back and postcard printer"

Derry Journal - Wednesday 10 January 1906 p3
Report of concert in Glenvar N.S. on Jan 1st. "Mr E. McConnellogue opened the concert with his usual comic rendering 'O Mr Sticky Back'".

Nottingham Evening Post - Saturday 05 January 1907 p5
"BOY BURGLARS' CONFESSION. BELFAST MYSTERY SOLVED. The mystery associated with an extraordinary series of burglaries, which has baffled the police for a month past, was cleared up at the Belfast police-court yesterday, when two boys, Henry Jack, 15, and James Jack, 17, were remanded on no fewer than 46 separate charges. The burglaries were skilful and systematic. At one place one the burglars fell through a skylight, and, from a pool of blood which was found, it was supposed that he was seriously injured, but no suspicious man presented himself for treatment at the hospitals. At the beginning of this week the robbers' hoard was found under a wood pile at the docks, and with it the clue the mystery. Amid the miscellaneous heap of watches, chains, jewellery, purses, knives, footballs, postagestamps and clothing, the police discovered a " sticky-back " photograph of two boys, which put them on the scent. They were arrested on Thursday night, and made a full confession. The elder lad was in a pitiable plight. It was he who had fallen through the skylight, and there was an ugly wound on his head. Not daring to seek medical aid he had bandaged himself, and the wound was in a terrible condition. Ten charges were entered into yesterday, and the prisoners in each case admitted their guilt".


1. Early "stamp photographs" were around 1¼ inch square - those of taller/wider subjects could be up to 2½ in tall/wide.

2. They had gum on the reverse side which was activated when moistened..

3. Some had the studio name/address and a strip or image number at the top or bottom of the image. The more recognizable prints included the work "Stickyback" or a variation of it in the studio name. When the customer cut up the strip of photos they might trim these so the information bar appeared either at the top or bottom of the image, or was wholly or partially removed.

4. Uncut strips might contain 4-6 similar images.

5. Stickyback photographers generall also produced more expensive products if required. In particular images were produced in postcard format. Larger photographs and postcards were sometimes poorly framed, with excessive background above the subject/s. They often contain numerals just visible inside the edge of the image as a permanent record of the job / image number. These were probably provided as cheap proofs with a better framed image on offer as the final product. Because of this intrusive part of the image often postcard sized proofs have been cropped to a smaller size when they are pasted into albums.

6. The subjects of these portraits are usually from the less well off.

7. Because of the small size of the prints the usual pose was a head and shoulders shot looking straight at the camera. backgrounds were generally plain or slightly mottled without an obvious design..

8. Prints were usually on Bromide paper and today these have a rich, rather dark sepia tone.

9. In many instances keeping down costs also adversely affected quality and it soon became the habit of other professionals to use the term "StickBack" in a derogatory fashion. For example: Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian 1 Jan 1919, in an advertisement for Campbell's Studio in High Street Kirkcaldy boasted "Photos taken by Electric light in all kinds of weather from 10am to 9pm. No sticky back gaslight effects on the faces".

Two probably stickyback portraits with the informastion bar trimmed off the prints

Two portraits, almost certainly Stickybacks, but with the information board trimmed away

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www.FadingImages.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, listing photographers in Cambridgeshire 1840-2000
This page was last modified: 06 September 2018, 14:14

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