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Thursday, 25 February 2016


Glamour, Text, Collecting and Rotary postcards
“The Press is perhaps a good deal to blame for the prominence of the “star” actor, and, even more damaging, the prominence of the “picture-postcard” actress who is the mainstay of the pernicious twaddle that passes for musical comedy.”
Dublin Daily Express, August 31 1910

If dates are your thing then the history of the Rotary Photographic Company is obscure, or even murky. Some very credible sources say the firm was established in 1899 while others, equally respectable, put it at 1901. Likewise some say its end came in 1921 but newspaper reports have it on record applying for bankruptcy in April 1916. Of course, everybody could be right, depending on the definition of ‘established’ (a company can change its name and its identity while the owners remain constant) and ‘folded’ (as in either ‘matters were in the hands of lawyers’ or ‘it actually died’). As for the owner, J. Menger, not only are his birth and death details unknown but his first name is often followed by a question mark. That said, the only interesting thing about the facts is that we don’t have them. All we really need to know about the Rotary Photographic Company is that between 1901 and World War 1 it led the pack among British postcard publishers when it came to design, and this at a time when nearly 200 million postcards were bought each year. Bankruptcy must have seemed like a distant and unlikely threat.

  Rotary was known for several themes (landscape not among them) but it based its reputation on real photographic postcards of actresses. An article in the Leeds Mercury in August 1903 has a spokesperson from the company talk about the demand for postcards of musclemen and “masculine musicians” though the “matinee girls” are what the customers really want. Millions were produced, and millions still gather dust in English flea markets. It’s understandable that people quickly weary of sorting through piles of images of the Dare sisters but scattered among the ordinary are postcards that display a vivid sense of graphic design, all the better for being photographs. Here in a play on a postcard of postcards, Phyllis Dare shows off some of the cards she appears on. Some decades later, post-modernists would take the idea of self-referentializing tres seriously but for Rotary’s designers it was just the standard grist.

  The lettering is faintly macabre, but worse than that it is inelegant. Anyone familiar with the work of French studios like Reutlinger would know something of the same idea was being worked across the Channel though with a more sophisticated sense of style. In Paris the stars of the theatre were sold as beautiful creatures too chic to share space with ordinary proles, but in England they were always of the people. The women in Reutlinger postcards rarely smiled while the English actresses always did, and not just smile but look positively delighted to be with the customer. Airs were things they put on in private.

These postcards were constructed exactly the way the Reutlinger cards were. The three portraits would have been taken at different sessions; in fact Rotary wouldn’t have cared who was in the image just so long as there was an existing photo of her. They might have used the lettering and background on dozens of cards differing only in the actresses appearing on them. The difference was that Reutlinger was a studio while Rotary was a publisher. Mr Menger may never have set foot in a darkroom. 

 “”Do introduce your little friends,” smiling upon the rather awkward group, as Camel said afterwards, “just like a postcard actress”.”
This rather awkward line is from an inexplicably forgotten story called Bride from Bloomsbury by Anthony Upperton, published in the Dundee Courier on July 29 1925. It turned up after the age of the postcard actress; it, and she, had more or less passed into history by the end of WW1 but we get the idea. The postcard actress was a sweet and pretty creature though she was expected to have less personality than some six-legged inhabitants of the space behind the furniture. 

 In 1906 actress Florence Smithson took Rotary to court to prevent the company from publishing photos of her taken by A. E. Chandler of Exeter. The reasons why she didn’t want the photos used might have something to do with her not being paid any rights. We don’t know how the case turned out – the press quickly lost interest in following it – but if it was a rights issue then effectively she had none. Chandler may have paid her for the privilege of taking her portrait; that was common practice among the minor studios but once he had secured the images – prints and negatives – were his. When the Rapid Photo Company came up with the design for this card, it could have asked photographers like Chandler for any portraits. Only if Ms Smithson was appearing in a popular play would the company have snapped up her portrait. Even a major star like Sarah Bernhardt, at the bottom right, wasn’t likely to get a cent from this postcard even if it sold in the thousands. Behind these cheerful scenes lay some ruthless negotiating. 

Here’s a card from the rival Philco Company, interesting because it tells us as much about collecting as it does about how postcards were made. Like Rotary, Philco didn’t take any portraits but paid for existing ones. By setting the faces in a puzzle it was encouraging people to collect a whole set, here of the missing word series. Another card in the collection is identical to this save the message in the middle. 

 And here is a card copyrighted by Ralph Dunn, a photographer working out of 63 Barbican. Notice how the same portrait of Gertie Millar is used in the Philco card. It’s possible that Dunn took the original then sold rights to Philco but it is just as likely both bought rights from a third party. If that was the case, Dunn was making a claim on the idea of having Ms Millar jump out of a Christmas cracker. 

 Here’s another of Dunn’s postcards. He liked the surreal effects of photo-montage. Despite his claims to copyright, Dunn has liberally borrowed from Reutlinger, especially in this image. We ought not feel too much outrage given Reutlinger took a liberal attitude to borrowing himself. Mr Dunn was also taken by the idea of actresses popping out of things; as no doubt were many like-minded elderly gents.

 If the messages on the backs of these cards are any guide, the most serious collectors of postcards were young women. In the Flossie card below one young lady asks another specifically how her collection is coming along. But back to Lucy. The moon, the stars, the beautiful actresses making up the name: we are in the land of dreamy dreams, a pre-Freudian world where all things and all thoughts need only be beautiful. 

The idea of cramming the typography with portraits of actresses may not have originated with Rotary but it became something of a signature. Two things are happening here. The first is that the viewer is quietly impressed with the trickery; it’s like watching a magic show knowing all along you’re being played with. The second is that the collectors inevitably try to identify the actresses, which is another way of saying they intellectually engage with the images. 
No one is called Flossie anymore; even cats won’t answer to the name. 

Our final card is a tribute to an unaccredited designer’s eye and an example of why this era was destined to be brief. While the idea is not original there are dozens of individual photographic images sure to make some assistant’s week a nightmare while a recipient was bound to spend hours gazing at every detail. Excellent, on both counts, but at the same time we can see an aesthetic straddling the last dull edge of the Victorian age and the cleaner, sharper post-war modernism with some discomfort.