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Stickybacks - Definition and Description

A "Stickyback" (sometimes Sticky Back or Sticky-back) was a type of small sized photographic portrait which enjoyed popularity in some parts of the UK in the early 20th Century, disappearing during and after the first World War. This link will take you to an article by Don Chapman, published in 1975, drawing on the memories of some of the customers of an Oxford stickybacks shop.

They were tiny black and white portraits, produced cheaply and quickly, for a new mass market - the working classes. At this time serious commercial photographers were producing cabinet photographs, cartes de visite, various mounted enlargements and postcard format portraits. Their business was directed towards a middle class clientele, and having your portrait taken was still a serious and expensive business. The stickyback photographer made the process not only affordable, but also fun, often taking short leases on premises in prominent positions which they then plastered with advertisements. Some photographers taking up this style of photography incorporated the word "Stickyback" or some variation into their business or studio names. For others, this could have been simply an addition to a range of services already offered. Many of their clients had never been photographed before and for some, 12 portraits for sixpence, or even at times for three pennies, was an exciting experience. The clientele attracted to the Stickybacks establishment would have been very different to those attracted to a top photographic studio; hence a number of newspaper advertisements by Stickyback studios for doorkeepers. The price was such that some clients would have been tempted to return and provide the photographer with repeat business. A newspaper report on a travelling stickyback photographer in Cookstown commented, no doubt with some exaggeration, that "the inordinate vanity of some of the local shop assistants has led them to get upwards of twenty dozen of photos taken"

The "Stickyback" name originated from the fact that the original differentiating features of this format was that the rear of the photograph had adhesive applied, which operated, as with a postage stamp, with the addition of moisture. The earliest use of the title "Stickyback" dated from the promotions of one particular Liverpool photographer, Spiridione Grossi, who ran a photographic copying and printing business and a seasonal portrait studio on the Isle of Man.

An article, THE "STICKY BACK " MAN, in the Daily Mirror, Friday 29 March 1907 p10 attested to the impact of the Stickyback and other changes on the professional photographer. "All over the country his trade is diminishing. Amateurs are doing his work, and they are to the fore in all classes of society, from Queen Alexandra, who is an expert with the camera, to Tommy, who, with a Kodak costing a few shillings, takes pictures of mother, father, and the baby in the back yard. But the advent of the " sticky back " man has done even more than the amateur to curtail the business of the photographer proper. In every town a " sticky back " man, who produces a dozen photographs for a shilling, occupies expensive premises in the main street and, especially at watering-places and other holiday centres, takes the trade that used to go to the legitimate artist."

In response, mainstream professional photographers referred to their stickyback colleagues in disparaging terms, sneering at their inferior products. Years after the first appearance of the Stickyback, Mr C Stanley Priestley, an official in the Institute of British Photographers, described to a reporter the main object of a local photographic exhibition as: "... to get the public more photo conscious. We do hope to guide them to tell the difference between a 'sticky-back' photo and a real photo: between rubbish and good work". (Croydon Times - Saturday 05 April 1947 p8)

Stickyback photographers generally exposed their plates in cameras with multi-position camera backs. This allowed them to take multiple tiny images on a single plate, much reducing their costs. Examples of two different multi-purpose backs by Marion are shown on our site here . Stickyback photographers also used multi positioning printing frames, allowing them to make multiple prints from the same part of a negative onto strips of photographic paper. A number of camera manufacturers produced multi-position camera backs, but some photographers, interested in this trade, patented special stickyback camera backs and printing apparatus. Some of those involved in designing and patenting stickyback equipment included Spiridione Grossi, Dennis Benjamin Seaman, and George Thomas Bayley. The writer is not aware of the survival of any specific stickyback photographic equipment and would welcome any information on this topic.

A minority of Stickyback photographers may have used stamp cameras instead of moveable back cameras. The stamp camera was a multi-lens camera simultaneously taking multiple images on one plate. These cameras are illustrated on our pages on stamp photographs.

Higher volume low cost portraiture posed a particular problem for the photographer – when the subject picked up their prints, how to match the right print to each sitter and to do so quickly? Someone photographed for the first time might well not recognise their own likeness. Many stickyback photographers matched the client to their photograph by showing a negative, job or ticket number within the image itself, matched to the customer's ticket or a written list in the studio. The number was sometimes shown by the simple expedient of hanging a slate on the backdrop, scratching the number on the slate and including this in the photograph. Sometimes the number was recorded using a counter inside the camera which simultaneously photographed the internal counter and the sitter. Sometimes a number on a card was propped up on the studio floor and included in the image.

Some Stickyback photographers posed their sitters under, or behind, a sign board bearing the studio name and address as well as the negative or job number. These often have the name "Stickyback" on the sign board, making it simple to identify these as Stickyback photographs. As the reverse of these photographs could not be printed or rubber-stamped, and as the photos were not sold on printed mounts, the in-shot sign board was used to remind the sitter of the studio taking the photo. These photographs were usually printed and sold in strips, sometimes attached vertically and sometimes horizontally. Usually the customer cut up the strip after purchase. This meant that sometimes photos survive with the sign board at the bottom, sometimes at the top of the image. Sometimes the whole sign board was trimmed from the image altogether, sometimes a tiny fragment can be found with the very edge of the lettering visible. But it seems safe to assume that many stickyback photographers did not use a sign board and found some other way of inserting a reference number into their images. Some scratched the number into their negatives. In an advertisement in 1907, Sharp and Hitchmough, of 101-103 Dale Street, Liverpool, described numbering systems they had sold: "one form of which was, and still is, employed, consists in a frame, bearing a number at its lower extremity, which is suspended behind the sitter so that the figures appear at the upper edge of the negative. This position is adjusted by a balancing weight which the operator moves while focussing the sitter. Such a system, though valuable, is less satisfactory than one in which the numbering device is concealed from view in the camera itself" (The British Journal Photographic Almanac 1907 p614)

The Aptus midget numbering box, marketed by Sharp and Hitchmough 1907

The Aptus midget numbering box, marketed by Sharp and Hitchmough, price 15 shillings, British Journal Almanac 1907 p1372. The number was suspended in shot above the sitter's head. A moveable back camera is shown in the foreground.

The size of the stickyback photograph is variable, particularly bearing in mind that they have probably been trimmed by the owner after purchase. The largest tend to be up to 60 x 40 mm, the smallest 28 x 35 mm. Where the photographer has used a Stickyback" sign board, the whole board is often only visible when the photographer has posed two or more sitters together in a landscape format. Where a photographer using a sign board has taken a portrait of a single individual then usually only part of the signboard is visible, usually the part of the signboard with the studio address or town and the negative or job number.

Lighting of the subject is another feature. In most surviving stickybacks the sitter is fairly uniformly lit from the front, giving the subject a sallow look. In a minority of examples lighting is arranged to show the facial features with a more expressive mix of light and shade. It seems most likely that the stickyback photographer used gas lighting for portrait work, probably using a light with a number of burners arranged in front of a large reflector. This would have meant that the stickyback photographer could work an extended day, summer and winter and once the lighting was mastered, the camera settings could be fixed and the operator required little by way of photographic skills. The Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly News on Saturday 15 April 1905 confirms this with an advertisement by the Sticky Back Photo Co (Late of Earls Court Exhibition, London) who proudly stated "We take photos at night" and added that they used "The latest American Patented Process by Edison's Pressured Incandescent Gas Light 1700 Candle Power". Two other newspaper items provide clues about lighting, the first commenting on the effect of the lighting, the second on the type of lamp used. In the Fifeshire Advertiser on Saturday 18 December 1909 p7 there is an advertisement: "Photos taken by electric light in all kinds of weather from 10 a.m. to 9 pm at Campbell's Studio, High Street, Kirkcaldy. No “Sticky Back" Gas Light effects on the face. The above lamp is so powerful that all Photos are taken by reflected light only, the lamp being turned away from the sitter's face. Experts are baffled to know whether the Photos are taken by electric or day light. This photographic electric lamp is the only one in Fifeshire giving daylight effects." Years later the Western Daily Press on Friday 21 May 1920 p1 had an advertisement: "Grand Exhibition Weighing Chair and Machine; Electric Shock Machine, two sets of handles; four Sweets Delivery Machines on heavy iron standards, 15s each; 12-Light Sticky-back Gas Lamp, 25s—Apply Davis, 4, Lower Oldfield Park. Bath."

Aptus gas lights from 1905 and 1906

Two different models of Aptus Gas Lights: the 1906 pattern on the left and the 1905 pattern on the right. The 1906 pattern is shown with five burners of 150 candle power each and was sold as being suitable for stamp and midget photographs. Extra burners could be added if required. The 1905 pattern is shown with 15 incandescent gaslights and was for taking photographs at night. (British Journal Almanac 1906 p1390)

Below are four stickyback photographs from the author's collection. The top two of unknown ladies are from 54 North Street Brighton. The pair below, cut from a strip, are dated on the reverse 1912 and were taken at Mr Stickybacks in Dublin and feature, left to right, Miss Dolly Hill, Mrs Ludlow Carlemes (Florrie), Miss Amie Rigby and Miss Kate Young. Note that there is no trace of the photographer's sign board in the second of these examples from Dublin - but we would obviously still describe this as a "stickyback" photograph.


Some Stickyback photographers also produced real photograph postcards. In some of these cases details of the photographer are printed on the reverse. These generally did not include a sign board in the image, but postcards were sometimes poorly framed, with excessive background above or to the side of the subject/s. They often contain numerals just visible inside the edge of the image as a permanent record of the job / image number. Because of this intrusive part of the image often surviving postcard sized proofs have been subsequently cropped to a smaller size when they are pasted into albums. If the customer wanted an enlargement from the negative, they were probably provided with a better printed product without the visible job number.

Much of the research into this genre of photography was undertaken by photo historian David Simkin (see the amazing, but with that notable exception, there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest out there into this whole forgotten sub genre of smaller size portrait photographs.


1. sizes tend to be small in size - 25x30mm (portrait) to around 50x75mm (landscape). Individual images show single individuals or up to four subjects.

2. Stickybacks generally had gum on the reverse side which was activated when moistened (hence the name "Stickybacks). Over the years however this gum has often been lost. Because of the gum, the reverse was generally blank.

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 word "Stickyback" or a variation of it in the studio name. Others might have numbers scratched into the negative, or a simple number on a card just visible at one edge of the image. When the customer cut up the strip of photos, they might trim these, so the information bar or number appeared either at the top or bottom of the image. Often the information bar / sign board was wholly or partially removed, particularly where these photos have been put into an album. The information bar / sign board was the easiest way the photographer could include his/her own advert with the product. The negative / job number in the image was used to link the sitter with his or her prints.

4. Uncut strips might contain up to 4-12 identical images. (later photobooth photos and American Ping Pong photos were also in strips, but with different poses within the strip.) Sometimes, rarely, a stickyback shop might produce a strip with different, rather than identical images.

5. Some Stickyback photographers also produced portraits in postcard format. They often contain numerals just visible inside the edge of the image as a permanent record of the job / image number. Because of this these postcard images were often poorly framed, with excessive background above or to the side of the subject/s to accommodate the included job number. With this odd intrusion into the image, often surviving postcard sized proofs have been subsequently cropped to a smaller size when they are pasted into albums. Backgrounds were usually fairly plain.

6. The subjects of these portraits are usually from the less well off, probably enjoying newly found leisure time. Mainly these were individuals who had little or no experience of being photographed and a sitting would have been very quickly executed - hence many of these images show individuals with an apparently apprehensive, tense or even startled expression.

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. Some Stickybacks photos taken outside the studio may include brick walls as a background.

8. Prints were usually on Gaslight / Bromide paper and today these have a rich, rather dark and murky sepia tone. Individual prints were generally border-less.

9. In most cases lighting was by multi element gas lamps giving a front-lit flat lighting effect.

10. 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


Durham County Advertiser 13 Feb 1903
A report on a Trade Exhibition at the Drill Hall, Durham, "Stickybacks appear to be in great demand".

Weekly Irish Times 26 March 1904 p 10
[A comic piece describing a visit to a stickyback shop] Murty's Letters - Murty among the Sticky-backs
"So in I walked and a young whipper-snapper of a chap had me pushed into a chair, put in position and properly shaped before I had time to pass the time of day with him. "Don't stir" sez another wild looking chap at the machine, as I was going to pull out my pocket handkerchief to settle my features. The whole thing was over in about three seconds by the clock. I got my 3d worth about ten minutes ago. Though I have a startled kind of look on my face - and no wonder for they took me on a sudden and gave me no time for puttin' on a proper demeanour - and though there's a bit of a suggestion as if I was looking at a jury who'd been after bringin' in a verdict of "Guilty My Lord" agin me, still on the whole I regard it as a natural enough likeness, and I wonder how they got me crammed into such a small compass, for advancing years isn't in my case favourable to such an operation."

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
Notification 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 (sic) 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, jewelry, purses, knives, footballs, postage stamps 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".

Top of page is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, exploring smaller sized portrait photographs and those who worked in this trade.
This page was last modified: 24 November 2021, 12:40

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