Have you ever simultaneously made a discovery and recognized its familiarity?
Thanks to Instagram, I recently acquired some lovely vintage postcards from Sorensen Books in Victoria, Canada. These charming scenes of little birds and chicks and their soft colours caught my eye.
I’ve always loved vintage art and sweet scenes with animals but during this incredibly difficult time as we all cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, I found them especially heartwarming. I needed something to smile about.
When the postcards arrived, one of them had a company name on the back and of course, I had to research it. My curiosity led me to the inspiring story of a hardworking immigrant family whose business had a lasting effect on commercial art and written communication.
I hope the tale of Raphael Tuck & Sons is new to you, too. Of course, if you’re one of the many devoted collectors of Tuck Postcards my newfound appreciation will already be obvious.
Raphael Tuck & Sons was started on Union Street (today Brushfield Street) in Bishopsgate, London, in 1866. They sold pictures, postcards and other related items which quickly became popular for their artwork, quality and the Tucks’ clever marketing.
The Tuck family came from Prussia (Germany.) They had seven children, and their sons were salesmen for the family business. Family stories include the boys’ motivation to sell; he who had the most successful day would get the bigger egg for breakfast the next morning.
Raphael Tuck was trained in graphic arts and became a renowned commercial artist. He expanded the industry for artists, lithographers, engravers, printers and other related trades and professions.
His business was a testament to the Victorian “age of printed pictorials” and despite his devout Orthodox Jewish faith, was credited as one of the companies that helped popularize both religious and secular Christmas cards.
As their success grew, Raphael Tuck & Sons expanded globally. Much of their colour printing was done in their native Germany and they opened offices in New York, Paris, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto.
Sadly, Raphael Tuck didn’t live to see his postcards at the height of their popularity. He passed away and his second son, Adolph, took over the business. Soon, Tuck’s Postcards were stationers to the King and Queen and Adolph was created a Baronet in 1910. The Tuck Baronets’ coat of arms includes an artist’s palette!
Tuck’s Postcards’ innovative marketing included competitions for artwork submissions. Thousands of entries were sent in, and many were displayed at the Dudley Galleries and used on Tuck products. These initiatives helped further demand for Tuck’s Postcards as an incredibly popular form of social communication, and made them a collector’s item from the start.
While the company’s history was unknown to me, in researching Tuck’s Postcards I realized I was familiar with a lot of their art, and I suspect you may be, too. I’ve seen many of their beautiful cards, especially those featuring animals, before. I simply didn’t associate them with a particular business or artist!
While best known for their postcards, the Tuck family’s business also produced beautiful, quality Victorian greeting cards, calendars, paper dolls and toys, jigsaw puzzles and even books.
During World War II, Tuck Postcards used their materials and expertise for a different purpose; to assist Britain and its Allies. They became suppliers of “special brown paper” for escape and evasion materials to MI9, the intelligence agency during the war.
While their work was classified Most Secret, it is thought they were responsible for producing cards that were layers of paper and tissue to be sent in to Prisoner of War camps. When wet, the cards would reveal maps that could help Allied prisoners escape.
Sadly, Raphael Tuck & Sons also suffered greatly during the war. During the Blitz, on December 29, 1944, Raphael House was destroyed and along with it 74 years of company history and more than 40,000 original images that were used on their products.
After the war, the family business carried on for many years, although there is some indication they were never quite the same. How could they be, after such a significant loss?
Still, they moved their headquarters to London’s west end and built a factory in Northampton. Under the leadership of Sir Reginald Tuck, Adolph’s son, many employees came back and soon, they were making progress again.
When Reginald passed away in 1954, his son Bruce became the third Baronet but left the business to a relative, Desmond Tuck. When he in turn retired in 1959, the family business merged with two others and became the British Printing Corporation.
By the 1980s, the British Printing Corporation had become the Maxwell Communications Corporation. Postcards were no longer in such demand, replaced by more technologically advanced forms of communication.
Coincidentally the headquarters of Maxwell, the communications giant which grew from the ‘postcard boom’ started by Raphael Tuck & Sons, was just a few blocks away from the shop he’d started with his family over 100 years earlier, selling sweet postcards like mine.