In its prime, the Dresden-based firm of Stengel & Co, founded in 1889, was the largest producer of postcards in the world.
The firm’s principal claim to fame was as the publisher of superb full-colour art cards in its World’s Galleries series, which have been described as some of the finest-quality postcards ever produced.
Stengel’s local-view cards, however, were of lesser quality.
Almost all the postmarks on my Stengel cards of Worthing are from between 1902 and 1906, and the firm seems to have stopped publishing cards in Britain soon after 1906 – and certainly by 1907 or 1908.
Emil Stengel, the firm’s founder, died in 1906 and the firm then became a limited company. These events may have brought about a change in the firm’s strategy.
However, the main reason the firm withdrew from Britain – where its cards were distributed by O. Flammger of Southwark – was perhaps that by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century there was so much competition from other publishers of local-view postcards.
Some of these firms were producing a new generation of cards that were much more striking than Stengel’s; and indeed numerous postcard firms went out of business around this time.
Yet there is something very evocative about Stengel’s earliest local-view cards of Worthing, which, although produced in the Edwardian age, somehow have a late-Victorian look to them; and the sense of a long-ago era is enhanced by the messages on the fronts.
When standard size postcards were introduced at the end of 1899, the Post Office initially required the entirety of the backs to be left blank for the recipient’s address.
Therefore, postcard publishers had to leave space on the fronts of cards for the sender’s message.
From the start of 1902, it was permitted to divide the backs of postcards – with space for a message on the left, and the right-hand side used for the address – but it was a while before most publishers took advantage of this concession.
Initially, the new provision applied only if a postcard was sent to a location within the British Isles.
People sending cards abroad still had to use the entire back for the address – and therefore many publishers continued to leave blank space on the fronts of cards even after they had started dividing the backs.
Stengel produced two main sets of postcards of Worthing, each with sequential reference numbers and consisting of about a dozen cards.
There are also one or two stray cards independent of these sequences.
The first main sequence – initially with undivided backs – was on sale from early in 1902. The first four and last four cards in the gallery at the top of the page are all of this type.
Within a year or two, the cards in this sequence were being reprinted with divided backs, but the blank space on the front was retained so that messages could be written on cards sent abroad.
The second sequence of Stengel cards of Worthing – on which the five-digit reference number is preceded by the letter “E” – was first on sale in the summer of 1905.
On these later cards the picture occupied almost all the front, apart from a narrow strip at the bottom that included the caption.
The Christmas postcard, fifth in the gallery, comes from this second sequence.
At the very end of Stengel & Co’s presence in Britain, some cards in the second sequence were re-issued with the photograph occupying the entire front and the caption printed on top of the image.
Most of Stengel’s postcards of Worthing were available in colour-tinted versions as well as the standard monochrome versions.
In the case of the first sequence, the colour cards were produced in relatively small numbers and are very rare. (All the cards in the second sequence are rare, whether monochrome or colour-tinted.)
Different postcard publishers used different systems to tint monochrome photographs. Some used machine-based processes. Others, such as Stengel, had the images tinted by hand, resulting in a delicate pastel effect.
The colour-tinting process Stengel used seems to have allowed only two or three colours to be applied and – although on first impression the cards appear to be in full colour – on closer examination it can be seen that much of each image is still monochrome.
Like many other large postcard firms of the Edwardian age, Stengel published special postcards for Christmas.
Today, we would find it rather odd if our friends sent us their Christmas greetings on postcards, but in the early years of the 20th century it was normal to do so, and millions of Christmas postcards were committed to the post every year.
Part of the reason was economy. Monochrome postcards cost less than Christmas cards sold with envelopes, and even colour-tinted postcards were probably cheaper than standard Christmas cards.
In addition, open postcards were less expensive to post than Christmas cards sent inside envelopes. Until 1918 postcards cost only a halfpenny to send through the post, whereas cards in envelopes required a one penny stamp.
However, cost was not the only factor. Ordinary Christmas cards had been around for many years.
The arrival of the standard size postcard in 1899 offered a new and exciting alternative, and postcard publishers were quick to exploit the opportunity.
Also, while few people collected ordinary Christmas cards, there were many people that collected postcards.
Therefore, far from a postcard being regarded as an inferior alternative, for postcard enthusiasts of the time – and there were hundreds of thousands of postcard collectors, young and old – a Christmas postcard to go in their album would have been very welcome.
Although most Christmas postcards were specially designed for Christmas, or at least used wintry scenes, some publishers took the lazy option of overprinting random views with a Christmas message.
The Stengel Christmas postcard in the gallery is an example of this, the dull view of the western end of Worthing seafront having nothing in the least “Christmassy” about it.
Moreover, the die-stamping machine was clearly set to print the Christmas message on the left of all the cards being overprinted, regardless of how this positioning suited any individual image.
In this case, the result is that the left-hand side of the message is all but lost among the buildings.
It would obviously have been better if the message had been located in the middle of the card, in the centre of the patch of empty sky.
• Antony Edmonds’ books ‘Worthing: The Postcard Collection’ and ‘Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon’ are for a limited time available at Worthing Library at the special price of £2-50 off RRP.