The Search for "Karaktus"
(and the "F S" Catalogue")
by Chris Reynolds
[Draft under test]
One of the 30 different "Karaktus" cards published by the Crown Publishing Co. in early 1909
I have been collecting postcards of Hertfordshire for the Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site for over 15 years and my searches occasionally turned up distinctive comic cards by "Karaktus." These were published by the Crown Publishing Company of St Albans in late 1908 and early 1909. The above example caught my eye because my great grandfather, Jacob Reynolds, owned one of the biggest dairies in St Albans - and I was hooked. What I liked was the droll humour, the very simple lines, and the absence of a distracting background.
During my research relating to Hertfordshire I had investigated the backgrounds of many of the photographers and publishers involved (See Early 20th Century Photographers and Post Card Publishers). I decided to carry out a similar investigation to try and track down who was behind these cards. The task was very much bigger that I anticipated - and one of the results is a partial online catalogue of "F S" cards. I describe the "discovery process" below - but have rationalized the order as at any one time several research leads would have been progressing simultaneously. However it is important to note that research of this kind often produces false leads, which have to be eliminated - and also leads which may be improbable but not impossible.
What the St Albans cards tell us
Three different groups of cards were published by "The Crown Publishing Company" of St Albans
Clearly the signature "Karaktus" is a pseudonym - possibly referring to the St Albans Iron Age king Caractacus, and there is no other information about the identity of the artists. The number of different cards (possibly no more than 66 designs) suggests that a company so small was never going to be viable - and the long delay before the final groups is strange - but may be due delays in distribution (see later) or the small number of dated examples.
What books on post cards tell us
The book Picture Postcards and their Publishers, by Anthony Byatt records the following:
The book The Dictionary of Picture Postcards in Britain 1894-1939, by A. W. Coysh repeats the St Albans address (again without a source) and mentions another company with the same name operating in London, with Bristol printers, in 1936.
St Albans Information
It is not clear where the information linking the company with 23 Catherine Street, St Albans, originally came from, as the cards I have seen only say "St Albans". The 1901 census shows the address to be a small boarding house. The 1911 census shows that 23 Catherine Street was then an empty shop and house. It is not listed in the 1908 or 1912 Kelly's Directory for Hertfordshire. At sometime in 1914/15 the photographer L. L. Christmas moved to the address from Queens Road, Watford, but there is no reason to associate him with the company. Searches of the British Newspaper Archives and Google come up with no relevant information but (at the time of drafting this) the online coverage of the Herts Advertiser (the main St Albans newspaper) stops at 1907. Later searches, once I had possible artist names, also drew blank.
Because of the small size and short lifetime of the Crown Publishing Company of St Albans, and the uncertainty of where the address information came from, any St Albans-based information may be hard to find.
Chasing the Crown Publishing Company
One possible avenue was if the Crown Publishing Company was related to any other near contemporary company with a similar name which also published comic postcards. The most significant false leads investigated were:
In Search of other "Crown Series"
Many different publishers have produced post cards of many different types which they have called the "Crown Series" but the following series, and an earlier unnamed series provided important clues.
The evidence points to these cards being the forerunner of the Crown Publishing Company, and I decided to concentrate on trying to identify "F S" and find out why his cards were published in St Albans.
Who was "F S" - The Possible candidates
The follow artists are known to have used the initials "F S" to sign their cards.
In the post card collector world there are arguments about whether "F S" was Fred Stone or Fred Spurgin - or whether Fred Stone was a pseudonym for Fred Spurgin and in discussing the research one must remember that the aim is to find who was the artist(s) involved in the St Albans company and it is important not to record information in a way that could prejudice the findings by jumping to conclusions too early. As a result when discussing cards they will be described in terms of the most relevant of the three options.
The Fred Stone Cards
The task of identifying the work of Fred Stone in the period 1904-6 was relatively clear, although surviving cards are not very common. He produced several sets for the publisher Gale & Polden (who late published a number of "F S" cards), and single sets for Henry Moss & Co, the Davidson Brothers, and W & A K Johnston. There is no evidence that any of these sets were ever reprinted.
While the name "Fred Stone" occurs multiple times in the census returns for 1901 and 1911 all attempts to find genealogy type records of a suitable artist have failed to produce a candidate. One false lead was related to a Fred Stone who was listed as living in Brighton in the 1901 census.
The "F S" cards
The main group of "F S" cards were published between June 1906 and January 1908 and most were associated with the London View Company Ltd. There were a variety of backs including the following:
The London View Company name first appears on views of London and various mainly south of London towns in 1905. Soon its name appeared on many other cards and it became a limited company in 1906. Its owners are currently unknown and it seems likely that it was a wholesaler which sold cards produced by other companies but with its name added. It is also likely that it was the London agent of an as yet unidentified Saxony printer. Bryant notes that it was the source of the very distinctive (and unsigned) moonlight romance cards and these were investigated in case the artist was "F S" - but this proved to be another false lead.
The important thing to note is that from mid 1906 virtually all the comic cards issued by the London View Company Ltd. were the ones already mentioned above and drawn by "F S."
What happened in August 1907?
The nature of the contract between "F S" and the London View Company Ltd is not obvious. It seems likely that he was either a free lance contracted to produce about a new set a week or that he was actually an employee of the company. What is important is that in the summer of 1907 the London View Company went out of business. "F S" was presumably actively producing a series of new sets - and had undoubtedly got draft artwork ideas for other sets. In addition various sets would have been passing through the engraving and printing stages, and it seems that some of these were later reprinted circa 1908/9 by the "Green Back" publisher with a Lined Address back.
What is clear is that after August 1907 Fred Spurgin seemed to follow several different routes to get his cards published, in some case with cards in the "F S" style (and sometimes with the "F S" signature). The "Crown Publishing" trail is has already been described but the following trails were explored in parallel to see if they could help in identifying who "F S" was.
(1) The American Trail 1907/8
Late in 1907 or early in 1908 a number of "F S" sets (Take a Friend's Advice, Mistakes will occur, Who said lair? and Advice to ...) appeared in Britain published either as "The Popular Series" or with no series or publisher names. At about the same time the same sets were printed by the short-lived firm A. Q. Southwick of New York - including some modifications for the American market. Southwick also published three sets (Leap Year, Saucy Little Bird and Affinity) which are unsigned and which appear to have been produced specifically for the American market, but while it is possible it is more likely that the artist was not "F S". Two further U.S. sets (Dear Hubby and Dear Wifey) are very much in the "F S" style - so are almost certainly by him.
(2)The Vertigen Trail
When the London View Co. Ltd. ceased it seems that H. Vertigen may have continued to publish "F S" cards (often unsigned) using the same Saxony publishers. When Vertigen ceased trading some cards were reprinted by the "Green Back" publisher with a Writing Space dot back, including these:
(3) The Watkins Trail
Various members of the Watkins family were involved in post card publishing from Victorian times until about 1910. Bernard Watkins was a joint publisher, with the London View Company Ltd of the earliest "F S" cards. Eustace Watkins produced many view cards of areas also covered by the London View Company - using the same printer and maybe the same photographer. In about June 1909, as a partner in Watkins & Krake, he started to published the distinctive cards by "Dauber" (now known as a pseudonym used by Fred Spurgin) and later in the year the unsigned Infantastic series - generally accepted to be by Fred Spurgin. In 1910 Eustace decided that selling motor cars was more profitable to selling post cards, and not long after some Dauber cards first published by Watkins & Krake were reprinted by the "Green Back" publisher with a Number Only [PC. I] back.
Kute Kiddies and other Children Cards
Grace Gebbie Weiderseim post cards of young children appeared in England by 1908, and by 1911 Fred Spurgin was producing and signing similar cards. There are three intermediate groups of unsigned cards which could well be by Fred Spurgin and these are discussed in Round faced children cards.
(4) The "Green Back" Trail
The identity of the "Green Back" publisher is far from obvious, as all cards are printed with no publisher details or series names - although sometimes there is a country of printing and some of the later cards are numbered. There are six different backs (Lined Address, Writing Space II, Writing Space Dot, Number Only [PC. I], Number Only [PC II], Entirely British) and at first sight the strategy seems to be to acquire art work from businesses that have closed down. At about annual intervals someone would go through the increasing collection of art work selecting which cards to reprint. Apart from the last batch (which included new cards signed by "Chalker" and "FP") which may well have been affected by the outbreak of the First World War and a change in printing arrangements, the only companies selected as a source of new material seems to have been companies which had been publishing "F S" cards before they went out of business!
In addition to the "F S" related cards which had previously been published by companies that were no longer trading there are many cards, some naturally falling into sets, which had not been previously published. Some of these cards naturally fall into sets (about a dozen have so far been identified) including:
The reasons why "F S"/Fred Spurgin could well be responsible foe these cards are discussed below.
Variant Copies of "It is very Breezy"
The appearance of signed Fred Spurgin cards in 1910
In the summer of 1910 it would seem that Avenue Publishing tooks over the "Dauber" cards from Watkins and Krake - and also produced many children cards in the Paternoster series, signed by Spurgin. At about the same time Felix McGlennon (Shamrock & Co) produced cards with figures in a landscape signed by Spurgin and unsigned children cards in the Humorous Art Studies series.
Inter-Art from 1911
He continued to produce cards until the beginning of 1916, including many relating to the war effort. when he switched his activities to publishing cards for Art and Humour - but these cards fall outside the scope of this current project unless they can be explicitly linked to his pre-1911 work.
Later Cards - including Art & Humour from 1916
In 1915 Maurice Spurgin (Fred's brother) founded the company Art and Humour and Fred became the principal artist. While I have sampled some of these later cards they are only of interest where they can be directly related back to Fred's pre-1911 work, or the unsigned "Green Back" cards. What is of particular relevance is that many of the cards were issues with no publisher name, or with the name of an alternative "publisher" - usually keeping the set title and reference number.
Art & Humour finally closed in 1926 but this was not the end of Fred Spurgin's career.
But who actually "published" Fred Spurgin's Cards?
In order to understand what was going on - particularly in the period between the failure of the London View Company and the cards for Inter-Art and Art & Humour - we need to know, at various points in time, who commissioned Fred Spurgin to do the art work, who instructed the printers to publish it and who decided what publisher details (if any) should appear on the address side of each card. This is particularly relevant as many Spurgin cards were being printed with several alternative "publisher" names or with no publisher details at all.
And to Conclude ....
This project set out to find out about the Crown Publishing Co, of St Albans, and its artist(s) and on the key questions it has only been partially successful:
However at the same time the research has filled in a poorly documented period in the career of Fred Spurgin, between the closure of the London View Company Ltd in 1907 (involving many cards signed "F S") and the appearance of many cards signed "Fred Spurgeon from about 1911. IWhile it is only theory and more work needs to be done, it now looks as if there was an agent (perhaps Fred Spurgin and/or his brother Maurice) who effectively controlled the copyright of Fred's artwork and arranged for cards to be printed with various company names appearing as the publisher, or with no publisher information. This included perhaps a thousand unsigned "Green back" cards between about 1908 and 1916. The "Green back" company could have ended up in 1915 as the Art & Humour Co, run by Maurice Spurgin, which also promoted Fred Spurgin's cards and made them available with no publisher - or with an alternative publisher name.
The research has also been very useful by demonstrating that most post card collectors (and most post card sellers on ebay) loose at lot by overlooking the wealth of information on the backs of the cards, This research show that by carefully looking a the backs of cards, even in cases of unsigned cards with no publisher details, can provide valuable historical information.