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Stickybacks - From the Customer's Perspective

We are most grateful to Don Chapman, former journalist and Senior Features Writer with the Oxford Mail between 1959 and 1994, for permission to use here an article which he wrote in 1975 for the newspaper's Anthony Wood column. This draws upon first hand accounts of the impact of the Stickyback on the public and the client's perspective on how the Stickyback shop operated. Don is currently working on a publication in book form incorporating a large number of his articles, which will include the article below.

Shortly before the First World War if you had gone into Oxford you would have seen a long queue outside No. 29 Queen Street, and if you had joined it you would — eventually — have found yourself enjoying the novelty of being photographed. ‘Nearly everyone in Oxford had their picture taken,’ wrote my old friend, ‘Dolly’ Gray, who used to be night watchman at Newspaper House when we were in New Inn Hall Street, in a contribution to my saga about the shops that used to line Queen Street, and it would seem he wasn’t far wrong. The Stickyback bug bit everybody. For the first time in the comparatively new art of photography a commercial operator was offering ordinary folk the opportunity of portrait studies of themselves at prices they could afford and, not surprisingly, they flocked to take advantage.

Quite who Stickybacks were and quite how long they remained in business I can’t tell you because, maddeningly, for most of the first two decades of the twentieth century the Oxford City directories list an establishment called The Empress Tea Room at No. 29. But there is no doubt they did operate from the premises. With such a large clientele the firm couldn’t afford to make mistakes. So they gave each customer a number. That number was pinned to a board above their head when the photograph was taken and on the board was the address of the shop.

Mrs Lily Dear of Bartholomew Road, Cowley, who has the clearest idea of how they conducted their business, remembers travelling on the bus from Iffley to Broad Street when she was about eight, walking across Oxford for what seemed a terribly long way — not much more than half-a-mile! — to Queen Street, then queuing outside No. 29. In the window were boards filled with strips of numbered photographs waiting to be collected by customers who had been photographed the previous day. ‘The price,’ she says, ‘was three pence a dozen but you could also get enlargements at extra cost.’

Once inside the actual portrait session was short and sharp. ‘There was no ceremony,’ says Mrs Dear. ‘There were two girls at the counter, one of whom handed you a number and the other took your money. Then you were ushered into a bare room, told to sit down on a chair and that was that. You were on your way out and the next customer was on his way in.’ The pictures you received a day later were called Stickybacks because they were gummed on the back and the idea was you stuck them in Stickyback albums measuring three inches by one-and-a-half. In that way you could build up a miniature collection of photographs of your loved ones — and, of course, encourage further members of your family and friends to patronise Stickybacks at the same time!

But in practice once the family had got over the excitement of having twelve pictures of themselves — or maybe 24, possibly even 36 or 48 — they then had to decide what to do with them. Mrs Dear remembers her school-friends saying to one another: ‘I’ll give you one of mine if you give me one of yours,’ and the result is that 60 years later neither she nor Miss Anne Cooper of Headington can put a name to all the faces in their albums. Along with the proud pictures of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, they gaze out of the past teasing the memory. A school chum? Possibly! The girl next door? Maybe! The milkman? Who knows?

Patrons who didn’t fancy Stickyback albums, or couldn’t afford them, had two other choices. Either they could mount them in miniature frames or they could keep them as they were and by an odd coincidence Mr and Mrs Gardner of North Hinksey Lane both have examples that fall into this category. Fred Gardner, who was born in 1906 at 2 Cowley Road, has one un-mounted snapshot of himself taken in the sailor suit specially bought for him when he first attended Sister Alice’s Infant Schools between Butler’s and Nichols’ in the Cowley Road. His wife, Helen, who was born in 1909 in Observatory Street, has three: one in a cardboard mount, one taken at the time, which is un-mounted, and a third taken sometime later when she was a year or two older. It is this photograph that offers the only clue to what might have happened to Stickybacks after they left Queen Street. Though the number pinned to the board slightly obscures the lettering, the address is unmistakable: ‘Stickyback, it says, ‘St. Ebbe’s.’

All the form would point to Stickybacks being the sort of firm that moved into a town for a few months, exploited the market until it was exhausted, then moved on. The fact that the addresses are printed at the top of every picture suggests they may even have had processing studios at some central point, serving firms operating in several towns at once. As for No. 29, Mrs Dear remembers a waxworks there for a short time afterwards — ‘There were models of Royalty and a Bearded Lady, which I thought was funny. A lady should not have whiskers!’ — then Mr W.T. Braine set up in business as a printer. In 1925 Mrs Dear’s brother, the late Bill Pulker, took over, founded the Oxonian Press with Frank Harvey and Frank Bint, and that of course is still going strong, or was then!

Anthony Wood Column Oxford Mail 1 December 1975

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This page was last modified: 15 August 2021, 18:39

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