Stickyback Photographs - Spiridione Nicolo Grossi (1877-1921)
Spiridione Nicolo Grossi, (1877-1921), born in Liverpool, was a photographic printer, professional photographer, engineer, inventor, designer of photographic equipment and generally something of an entrepreneur. Spiridione is the photographer believed to be most central to the development of the genre of British portrait photography known as “Sticky Backs” or “Stickybacks”.
Spiridione’s father, Giovanni (John or occasionally Jean) Baptiste (or Baptista) Grossi, was born in Austria in around 1832. According to Spiridione, his father came to Britain in around 1865 and remained here for the rest of his life. He died in March 1895 of a heart attack while on his way to the Liverpool Infirmary and he is buried in St Annes Churchyard, Liverpool. (Liverpool Mercury 21 March 1895 p 6 and 23 March 1895 p 7). At the end of WW1, Spiridione, probably in order to demonstrate his own nationality and allegiance, was anxious to point out in a newspaper advertisement that his deceased father was a Slavonian-Austrian, not an Austrian, and that his father was loyal to Britain, his adopted country, where he had lived for some 25 years, rather than to the German Empire. (Liverpool Echo - Wednesday 18 December 1918 p1, 20 December 1918 p1).
In 1867 John Baptiste appeared in the local trade directory as a photographer at 27 Paradise Street Liverpool. In 1969 John Baptiste was prosecuted under the Foreign Deserters Act 1852 at the instigation of the Austrian Consul in Liverpool, for protecting an Austrian sailor deserter. John Baptiste, said to be living in Lambeth Street Liverpool, was described as the proprietor of a dance house in Whitechapel, Liverpool, and also mentioned having a clothing shop from which he had provided the deserter with a new coat. It was alleged that John “hung around foreign vessels” in the port of Liverpool – (probably to direct foreign sailors towards his businesses). (Liverpool Daily Post 10 Dec 1869 p7).
John Baptiste and his brother, Michele, ran the Argyle Refreshment Room, 10 Houghton Street, Liverpool. In 1871 Police visited the establishment and prosecuted the licensee, Michele Grossi, for harbouring prostitutes on the premises. When police returned a few days later they found that all that had changed was that the brothers had swapped roles and John Baptiste, formerly a player in a small resident orchestra at the Argyle, had taken over the licence to the premises while Michele had become a waiter. The court was not impressed and both were fined. (Liverpool Mercury 21 Jan 1871 p 8, Liverpool Daily Post 18 Jan 1871 p7 and 21 Jan 1871 p 8 ). A few days later John Baptiste, 4 Henry Street Liverpool, was advertising for a free vintner to take over the running of the premises (Morning Advertiser 3 Feb 1871 p8).
No trace has yet been found of John or his family in the 1871 census, but 4 Henry St was occupied by Hannah Hearne, widow and lodging house keeper and her daughter Mary E Hearne, later to become John’s mother-in-law and sister in law respectively. It seems likely therefore that this was his place of residence, but he was elsewhere or keeping a low profile on census night.
In July 1873 John Baptiste was again in trouble with the law, described as a refreshment house keeper at 13 Williamson Square he was accused of allowing improper characters to assemble on the premises. On this occasion he was not convicted. (Liverpool Mercury 26 July 1873 p8)
In August 1874 at St Peter’s Priory Catholic Church, Liverpool, John Baptiste Grossi of Paradise Street Liverpool, son of Spriidiou Grossi, married Margaret Hearne of Henry Street Liverpool b.1855 Liverpool, daughter of John Hearne, an Irish immigrant.
By 1875 John’s main occupation would appear to have been as a sailors’ outfitter, operating from 77 Paradise Street, Liverpool, where he lived with his family. (Liverpool Mercury 5 April 1875 p8 is a report of a thief stealing a coat from his shop)
In 1880 John Baptiste was described as a restaurant keeper in Houghton Street, and the 1881 trade directory showed him as running the Argyle Refreshment Room there. (Liverpool Echo 4 May 1880 p9). In 1881 he was again before the bench, this time as the manager of the Paris Dancing Academy, Oxford Street, Manchester, selling liquor without a licence and outside permitted hours (Dublin Daily Express 24 Jan 1881 p3 and Belfast Telegraph 25 Jan 1881 p4)
According to the 1881 census the Grossi family at 77 Paradise Street Liverpool included John Baptiste and Margaret and:
In 1889 John Baptise leased for six years the Cafe Trocadero in Back Lime Street (described as being in the basement of the Hotel St George in Our Liverpool: Memories of Life in Disappearing Britain, Piers Dudgeon Headline Review 2010 P.376 footnote 6). Over the next few years he tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to obtain various licences for the premises for singing and dancing and selling liquor. The main objections made by the police alleged the premises were badly run and habitually used by prostitutes. John Baptiste claimed he had sunk around £1000 into the venture. (Liverpool Mercury 1 Feb 1890 p6, 1 May 1890 p8, 30 Aug 1890, 12 March 1892 p7).
Despite (or perhaps because of) various brushes with the law, John Baptiste regularly gave £5 per year to the Police Court Poor Box (Reported in the local press, Christmas 1876, 1879, 1880, 1885)
By 1891 the family were still at 77 Paradise Street, John described his main occupation was as an outfitter. The family had grown and the children comprised:
Unable to get the necessary licences, John Baptiste transformed the Cafe Trocadero into a private members club; the International Trocadero Club. In 1893 the Club attracted the interest of Hugh C. Farrie, proprietor and publisher of the Porcupine, a weekly Liverpool based newspaper. The newspaper sent an undercover reporter into the club and published an exposure of what he proclaimed as "A Liverpool Gambling Hell;" and “A Gilded Resort of Vice and Infamy". The Club’s Committee sued Farrie for libel, but their allegations were dismissed in court on the basis that the newspaper’s comments were justified (i.e. true). (Manchester Evening News - Saturday 12 August 1893 p4).
The Porcupine’s exposure and libel trial spurred the local authorities into action and the police raided the Trocadero Club and brought a case before the local Police Court. John Grossi and other Club Committee members were put on trial for running disorderly premises. Grossi was convicted but obviously won some sympathy from the Recorder who sentenced him to a fine of just £20 and ordered him to enter into his own recognisance for his future behavior in the sum of £200 or be imprisoned for a month. (Manchester Evening News - Friday 01 September 1893 p2, Liverpool Echo - Saturday 28 October 1893 P4, Liverpool Echo - Monday 30 October 1893 P3)
The fall-out from the Trocadero case continued. The finances of the Porcupine newspaper were on a knife edge due to the costs of the case. A public fund was set up by two local philanthropists which raised the money needed to cover the Editor’s costs. (Liverpool Echo - Wednesday 08 November 1893 P3). In November 1893, a warrant was served on the Grossi household to recover costs owed by John Baptiste. His sister in law argued at court that items removed under the warrant were hers and were wrongly seized. She lost the case, and in her evidence she stated that for many years she ran a money changing business for John Baptiste from 77 Paradise Street. (Liverpool Echo - Tuesday 14 November 1893 p4).
The lenient sentence imposed on John Grossi caused further uproar in the local press and led to the local MP complaining about the sentence to the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. (Manchester Evening News - Friday 08 December 1893 p3).
In summary, John Baptiste Grossi was a man who had strayed beyond the limits of the law on a number of occasions, an entrepreneur, a gambler and someone well connected with the lower classes of Victorian Liverpool.
John Baptise Grossi’s work as a photographer was probably short lived – with just one local directory entry in 1867. There was however another Liverpool photographer with the same surname, Antonio Grossi, who operated from 17 Canning Place Liverpool around 1870. The surname is unusual, so it is possible they were related, but hitherto it has not been possible to prove such a connection. Photography was obviously a trade known to the Grossi family and two of John Baptiste’s children, Spiridione (Spiro) and his younger sister Stella, went on to have life-long photographic careers.
When John Baptiste died in 1895 the family continued to run the outfitter’s business at 77 Paradise Street – but it was John’s sister in law, Mary Hearne, rather than his wife, who took over the business and became head of the household. By 1901 the family at 77 Paradise Street comprised:
Pat O’Mara, a young lad going to sea for the first time in 1914, said: “I made my way down to Paradise Street to the spot where I knew Grossi’s Sailors’ Outfitters stood – he would tell me what I needed and cash my note. But Grossi had passed from the scene, dying from a broken heart when his Trocadero was done away with. Another as good as Grossi does the business and when I walked out of his place I looked like a lifeboatman putting out to sea. Very proudly I staggered homeward along Paradise Street sweating under the weight of sea boots, oil skins and souwester, with ten shillings in hand – the residue of my two pound advance". (Pat’s mum exclaims that she could have bought all the gear for two shillings). (Our Liverpool, Memories of Life in Disappearing Britain, J.P.Dudgeon, Headline Review 2010
Spiridione’s businesses and the birth of “Stickybacks”
The earliest traces of Spiridione’s photographic businesses found to date are a series of newspaper advertisements for a firm called “Grossigraph”. The earliest of these adverts from January 1900 give the firm’s address as 25 Lime Street Liverpool. Advertising was directed at those in the performing arts and appeared in “The Stage”. It offered:
“Your own photo. 50 for 1 shilling, postage 1 penny extra, copied from any size photo. Delivered following day, size 1 ¼ inch with adhesive back. Just the thing for your memos and cards. Best finished and cheapest in the world. Your photo returned uninjured. Grossigraph Copying Company, 25 Lime Street, Liverpool.”
By 20 April 1900 Grossigraph’s address changed to 77 Paradise Street, the Grossi family home. By Feb 1901 the firm’s offerings included photos that were “double size suitable for character or group reproduction” (50 for 2 shillings).
By April 1901 Grossigraph was advertising across a wide range of local newspapers, including editions from Cambridge and Peterborough. His adverts from that point included the description of his product as “stamp photographs” and the fact that Grossigraph had branches in Liverpool and on the Isle of Man where, according to their advertisements, “The Isle of Man Visitors say ‘They’ve all got sticky backs’ ”. By this time photos were 25 for one shilling, but by May 1901 this was back to 50 for a shilling. The Grossigraph advertisements ceased after March 1902.
Postage stamp sized photographs, some with printed postage stamp like borders, with gummed backs and in perforated sheets were occasionally offered as novelty items from a few photographers from the 1860s until the start of the 20th century. From these have evolved the Stickybacks genre of small photographic portraits which are around the size of postage stamps, have gum on the reverse which works when moistened. These small portraits were affordable by all, not just the middle classes. The stamp like border and perforation of sheets of stamp photographs disappeared. Usually the small stickyback photos were supplied to the customer in strips – multiple copies of the same image making up a strip of three or more images.
Because the Stickyback photographer provided cheap products, he or she geared up to deal with large numbers of clients. One aspect of this was to find a method of linking a client with the correct image. Some customers being photographed for the first time might not easily recognise their own likeness in a tiny black and white image. Others might want to return later for other copies. Including a negative, job or a ticket number within the image ensured that links could be made at any time. The easiest way of doing this was to somehow display a job number in the field of view and include this within the finished image. Some photographers took this a stage further and included within the image a sign board on which was written, not just a reference number, but the name and/or address of the studio. Some photographers modified cameras so as to simultaneously photograph the job number on a ticket or special negative held in the the camera itself and to combine this with the image taken. As the brand name “Stickybacks” spread, so many of the photographers producing these images used the name “Stickybacks” on an in-image sign board. The survival rate of these inexpensive tiny images is low, but a few of those surviving bear the Stickybacks sign and reference number on a board either above, or below the image of the sitter. Some stickyback photographers offered either single or double width portraits, the latter needed to portray couples or multiple people. Often the double width stickyback photo included the entire advertising sign board, while the single width stickyback only included the part of the board with the photographer’s address and job number. Some, if not all, Stickyback photographers also produced more expensive products for those who could afford them. The most usual enhanced product was a portrait on a postcard. In this case usually the studio details were printed on the reverse, and it was still common to find a job number captured at the edge of an image.
Example Stickyback photographs from 54 North St Brighton and 30 Grafton Street Dublin, possibly taken by Spiridione
Given that a number of photographers in different parts of the country used the “Stickyback” name from around 1900 to the 1920s and produced similar types of product, there was a market for specialist cameras with multi-position-backs and strip printing devices to facilitate the rapid production of these inexpensive portraits. To date no commercial advertisements for stickyback apparatus have come to light, but we do know from patent applications that Spiridione Grossi was designing and improving strip printing devices. Also, from a sale listing of all the equipment of a bankrupt photographer being auctioned in 1917 we find a reference to “Grossi’s patent sticky back repeating back slide and Camera and Grossi’s patent sticky back and postcard printer” (Chester Chronicle - Saturday 18 August 1917, Page 4 and 25 August p 4)
The description of these small photographs as " StickyBacks" seems to have its roots on the Isle of Man. In the Chemist and Druggist Magazine June 10, 1933 p 615 " Dal " Williamson's autobiography appears, entitled "From Behind the Drug Counter". Dal began his career in 1892, with W. A. Brearey & Son, pharmaceutical chemists, of Douglas, Isle of Man, as a bound apprentice and reminisced:
There was also a music hall song of the time "They've all got Sticky Backs" which no doubt helped to spread the catch phrase. The words and music were by JW Knowles - published in Feldman's Second Giant Budget of Copyright Songs 1900. The lyrics were:
As the words rang in my ear
I asked my pal if it was right
I said "They're nice but answer me one question
Girls may be fair, have golden hair
I'm fond of girls. By that I mean
She screamed aloud and fled
In 1902, Isle of Man directories recorded Grossi's American Card & Photo Co. at 10 Castle Mona Shops and Douglas Head. www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/tourism/pgrphrs/pgrhrs.htm
It seems likely that Spiridione was the young man described by the chemist’s assistant, or, if not, then he was connected with that same enterprise.
Liverpool directories show Spiridione Grossi as a photographer at 107a Bold Street Liverpool 1907-08. This address was, in 1902, “The American Studios” with addresses that year at 107a & 120a Bold Street Liverpool and at Conway Street Birkenhead. It is not known whether Spiridione only took over the 107A Bold Street address, or whether he bought into the American Studio with its multiple addresses. (we are grateful to Irene Geels who has a 1902 print of one of her ancestors from The American Studios, the mount of which bears these three addresses.)
Spiridione had a business in Dublin in 1906. The Irish Times on Monday 28 January 1907 p7 reported: "CAR ACCIDENT IN GRAFTON STREET. In Nisi Prius Court on Saturday, before Mr Justice Gibson, the appeal of the plaintiff in the case of Grossi v Collins was heard. It appeared that in August last (August 1906) the pony and cart of William Collins, of Fishamble Street, was in Grafton Street (Dublin). A passing motor car frightened the animal, and sent the cart against Sticky Backs plate glass window, smashing it and doing damage to goods in the shop. Spiriodne (sic) Grossi, popularly known as "Stickyback,” the owner, brought action for damages against Mr. Collins before the Recorder, and his Honor gave plaintiff decree for £20 6s. 3d. Against this decree the defendant appealed. After hearing the evidence of Police Constable O’Brien and other witnesses, Mr. Justice Gibson affirmed the Recorder's order, with costs."
Liverpool Directories again show Spiridione as a photographer at:
A photograph held by the Greater Manchester County Record Office shows that Grossi's business premises at 84 Market Street, Manchester went under the name of “The Post Card Studio”. (Greater Manchester Lives Ref GB124.DPA/652/11) – Spiridione may have used the name “The Post Card Studio” in other businesses.
The 1911 Kelly’s Directory for Sussex, shows Spiridione Grossi, photographer, 54 North Street, Brighton. David Simkin, whose excellent site on Sussex photographers, states that Grossi's studio at 54 North Street also went under the name of The Sticky Back & Post Card Studio. By around 1912 the Brighton studio had been taken over by another photographer, Abraham Dudkin.
The 1911 census return for 77 Paradise Street shows the occupants as:
Spiridione was not at the family home in Liverpool on census night 1911, but he appears in Bloomsbury, London, at 10 Russell Square, the home and practice of Dr Michael Joseph Longinotto b: 1870 Deptford, described as a general practitioner. Dr Longinotto was apparently living with two wives, (Gwendoline M Longinotto b: 1881 Uttoxeter and Ellie (or Ettie) Hill b: 1876 Bermuda ). Also resident were three nurses, a butler, three other servants and three patients. Strangely, among the patients was, Spiridiona Grossi, female, aged 34, b: Liverpool 1877, expert photographer, nationality Austrian. By 1920 Dr Michael Joseph Longinotto was listed in the telephone directory as a physician and surgeon at 88 Harley Street. He appear in the British Medical register 1943 – where it is stated that he qualified in July 1894. To date it has not proved possible to discover in what areas of medicine Dr Longinotto specialised.
Other entries for Spiridiona (female version of the given name) Grossi, photographer, 5 Marsden Square and 84 Market Street, Manchester appear in the 1909 Slaters Directory. Are these female renderings of his given name merely typographical errors in an unusual name; was he suffering from some sort of breakdown; experiencing some sort of gender identity crisis or making a subtle attempt to obscure his identity?
In 1911 Spiridione made his first patent applications. Patent no GB191110251 (A) application 27 April 1911, was for improvements in or relating to Photographic Contact-printing Frames. The inventor and applicant was Spiridione Grossi, address 262, Edgware Road, London, W., whose occupation was given as “designer of photographic apparatus”. His invention was a device holding two full plate negatives and strips of photographic paper. The device enabled each negative (there were up to 60 images on a whole plate) to be aligned with a magazine holding strips of photographic paper. By aligning negative carrier and paper strips in different combinations the device produced strips with multiple prints from each individual negative. Such a device was ideal for the inexpensive production of strips of small photos like Stickybacks, although that name does not appear in the patent documents. An application was made at the same time for a French Patent No FR434670 (A) for the same invention, also in the name of Spiridione Grossi.
In 1912 Spiridione, address given as 77 Paradise Street Liverpool and describing himself as “an engineer”, was working on another idea for photographic apparatus. He filed patents:
In both cases the invention was a device to enable the person being photographed to make the exposure while still keeping the shutter under the overall control of the photographer. It is interesting that Spiridione was obviously seeing merit in the concept of the subject taking his or her own photograph – an essential feature of the automatic photobooth and the selfie portrait of the future.
Any suggestion that Spiridione had gender identification issues would probably be dispelled by the extraordinary events in which he featured in 1913, when he was accused and convicted of abducting a girl under 18 from the care of her parent for an immoral purpose.
On 7 May 1913 in the Manchester Courier, p12, in the report of the alleged abduction case, Spiridione was described as having “business interests in Liverpool, London, Manchester, Brighton and Brussels”. There was mention by Edith that she had hoped Grossi might possibly have employed her in his art studio in Brussels – which the court felt was more fantasy than reality. To date no details have been found of Spiridione’s business interests in Belgium.
After serving his prison sentence, Spiridione returned to the family home at Paradise Street, Liverpool. During the years that followed occasional reports and local advertisements appeared in the press showing different aspects of his career.
The Western Mail, Friday 09 April 1915 p10 reported: “Pontypridd Photographer Summoned. Spiridione Grossi, photographer, of High Street, Pontypridd, was summoned at Porth on Thursday for obstructing the footway by causing a crowd to collect thereon. Evidence was given that number of people were outside defendant’s shop Sunday last looking at photographs in the window. Mr. D. Rees, Pontypridd, submitted that there must lie proof that there was some physical obstruction by defendant himself. Defendant did his best to keep the footway clear, and engaged a man specially for that purpose. The Stipendiary (Mr D. Lleufer Thomas) reserved his decision.”
In the Liverpool Echo, 29 May 1915 page 2, Spiridione advertised: “Gentleman requires shop in best centre of Southport for summer months for photographic business. Will pay double rent in advance”. It is likely that this advert succeeded as a short let of commercial property during WW1 would have been relatively easy to secure. In May 1916 when he submitted another of his patent applications, Spiridione gave an address at: 27, London Street, Southport. These might have been business premises secured by Spiridione’s advertisement – probably on a short lease as by 1917, No 27 London Street was occupied by a firm of auctioneers and estate agents.
The next year, in the Liverpool Echo, Tuesday 18 to Thursday 20 January 1916 page 3, Spiridione was trying his hand at selling motor parts, advertising “New Brougham and Victoria rubber tyres, best makers, will sell both £65 cost £265. Grossi 77 Paradise Street, Liverpool”.
By 1916 it seemed that Spiridione was again interested in the design and manufacture of devices for photographers. In the Manchester Evening News 24 March 1916 page 6 he advertised to buy a “miniature guillotine cutting machine, lever handle preferred” and in the Liverpool Echo 14 Nov 1916. Page 1 he advertised: “Persons wanted. Camera maker near centre of Liverpool”.
Spiridione’s 1916 Patent application, made on 15 May 1916, No GB 108691, was for "Improvements in Strip Printing Photographic Apparatus". The invention was “ enlarging-apparatus adapted to produce, from cameras containing several negatives, including fixed name- and-address negatives, a large number of repeats upon sensitive sheets of paper stacked in piles and arranged for intermittent feeding.” This could be used for different sized prints, including postcard sized prints. Movement of the apparatus was by way of a treadle. This is almost certainly the patent for the “Grossi’s patent sticky back and postcard printer” mentioned in the sale advertisement above (Chester Chronicle - Saturday 18 August 1917, Page 4 and 25 August p 4). In addition to the British patent application, Spiridione also filed simultaneously an identical French Patent No FR483401 (A)
By 1920 Spiridione was working on other non-photographic ideas. In GB Patent No GB142428 (A) he applied for protection of his "Improvements in or relating to apparatus for playing race games". The nature of this invention he described as “an improved race game of the type in which toy horses are progressed along a board or course by means of threads attached to a rotating spindle.” On 28 October 1920 Spiridione again filed a patent, GB19200030463 for apparatus for playing a race game.
The 1920 voters register for Liverpool St Peters Ward shows the residents of 77 Paradise Street as Mary Hearne and her nephew Spiridione Grossi. Spiridione, still resident at 77 Paradise Street Liverpool, died, aged 44 on 24 April 1921. His estate, valued at £80.14.6.was administered by his mother, Margaret Grossi, widow, of Liverpool.
No trace has yet been found of any direct advertising of Spiridione’s Stickyback apparatus, nor any surviving examples of his camera or printing device. His mode of operation as a photographer appears to have been to take a short lease on premises and attract customers using displays or advertising on the premises rather than through local newspapers. It is highly likely that more of his businesses and photographic activities will be discovered over time.
David Simkin, in his excellent site on Sussex Photographers, has uncovered most of the material on this page. David links Spiridione Grossi with two other photographers, Charles John Stewart Reed and Wallace Edward Allan who operated a photographic studio at 54 Market Street, Manchester under the name of "Sticky-Backs" in 1910. The partnership between Reed and Allan was dissolved in January 1911 and from that date Charles John Stewart Reed took control of the "Sticky-Backs" firm. David makes the link on the name, the proximity of this address to Spiridione's business at 84 Market Street Manchester in 1909-11, and the fact that an electrical engineer named Charles John Reed resided close to Spiridione's Brighton studio in 1911. (www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/BTNStickyBacks54%20NorthSt.htm).
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