From 1933 Polyfoto Ltd of 7,8 and 9 St James St London SW1 advertised for agents in the following terms: "The Polyfoto system of photography offers you a unique opportunity of starting a studio of your own with limited capital but unlimited prospects. Previous professional experience is not essential, so if you possess ability and enterprise apply to us for further details, terms and agency agreement".
Their best known product was a 48 exposure proof sheet of images (6 images wide x 8 images tall) with a numbered clear paper cover sheet, from which the customer would select individual images for printing and enlargement. The set of images on the proof sheet was produced with a special camera. The photographer clicked away while the subject, with suitable encouragement, adopted a series of different poses, until the whole plate containing 48 images was exposed. In 1939 some studios were offering 48 different positions for 3 shillings. In 1949 the prices were 7/6d, reducing to 5 shillings and an alternative "baby-poly" format was being offered for just 2/6d. (Lincs Echo 31/12/1949). In many cases the customer was happy to cut up the proof sheet and to use the small images in the family album, as gifts to friends or family, and in wallets and purses as keepsakes, rather than order enlargements. Today irregular shaped cut-out sheets are often to be found in old albums - containing the images which were not chosen from the original proof sheet for distribution.
Below is a rare uncut example 48 proof sheet with clear numbered overlay, from the 1950s. It would appear that the earlier cameras (a dated example proof sheet in the author's collection is from Scarborough in 1942) produced 48 images each with square corners, while on later ones, each individual image had rounded corners. Also, for complete sheets, early examples had a waxed paper over-sheet with blue printing and more recent examples had a clear polythene oversheet with blue printing and the polyfoto logo printed in blue and white, then with red printing and red and yellow Polyfoto logo. Proof sheets had at least two different means of identification. Older examples had a reference number hand written in pencil on the reverse with two letters, followed by a number of digits. An August 1942 proof sheet from Scarborough has the number LR 7610. Some later examples had the reference number set up on a frame, which appeared in shot in the top right hand corner of image number 1, itself in the top right of the sheet. This may however have been a purely experimental method of linking negative, print, studio and customer, as it has so far only been noted on a couple of "48 sheets". Sheet number EW14077 had both an in shot frame carrying the reference number and had the number handwriten in pencil on the reverse. Two examples are shown below EW14076 and EW14077 which are believed to have been taken at Ewell, Surrey. Also shown below are a polyfoto advertising envelope and the covering letter which accompanied proof sheets.
If you have any whole or part Poyfoto sheets with code numbers hand written on them, or shown in shot, and you know the location taken and approximate year, please get in touch and we will try to build a useful list of the codes used. As a working hypothesis it seems that a one or two letter code was allocated to each studio, followed by a cumulative job number for each location. So far we have identified sheets as follows:
EW 14076 and EW 14077, Ewell Surrey, dates unknown
Examples of Polyfoto images and further information can be found at: www.photodetective.co.uk/Polyfoto.html. Shown below is a small portrait booklet in plastic, with a faux crocodile finish, containing 48 images of a child "Paul". Each page has six images from the Polyfoto system with fancy edges to the pages. On the rear page is written C 33894 and C34697, suggesting that the 48 images in the booklet were chosen from two different Polyfoto sheets. Next is a portrait of a uniformed woman, named as "Joan" and dated 1944 in manuscript on the reverse. The photo is 3.5 x 2.5 inches in a buff folded card mount with a monogrammed letter "P" on the front and "polyfoto" beneath the image. Next is a single Polyfoto image in card mount 77 x 63mm, in manuscript on the rear "Richard - July 19?6 (2 1/2 years)", believed from 1956. Beneath is a 6 in x 4.5 inch enlargement on a two tone mount with deckle edges and manuscript "Polyfoto", the whole having an individual hand-finished appearance, rather than appearing mass produced.
Two images of uncut Polyfoto proofs, 1950s, the second shows the numbered overlay with the numbers of individual images for ordering enlargements
Polyfoto portrait booklet 5in x 3.2in, showing 48 portraits of a young child, "Paul" from Polyfoto sheets no C33899 and C 34697
3 different individual mounted Polyfoto images with different mounts
Advertisement from Polyfoto envelope 12 x 9.5 ins, used to deliver proof sheets
Covering letter from Polyfoto sent out with proof sheets from their head office in Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire
Two examples of sheet numbers included in image No 1 on two proof sheets. Note the rounded corners of each image
Two further examples of single frames cut from polyfoto proof sheets - note the uneven hand cut borders. The image on the right, with square corners, is the older of the two.
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