The first time I heard the word “airbrushed” was in relation to photo enhancing. For example, as a youth I was told that images of fashion models in glamour magazines were often airbrushed to emphasize the effects of certain types of makeup, the allure of a particular brand of lingerie, etc. In my case, there was lots of airbrushing done to my high school graduation photograph as my blemished skin never looked better! Another common term for this is photo retouching. These days, with digital photography being the norm, “retouched” has been replaced with “photoshopped” in reference to the popular software program.
The word airbrush itself actually refers to an air-operated tool that sprays paint, ink, dye, etc. And this is what postcard publishers were referring to when they marketed airbrushed postcards. Brantford’s Stedman Bros. Ltd., one of the biggest publishers of postcards in Canada during the golden age (1900–1914), sold several excellent series of airbrushed postcards. Quite recently, I found three such series, “Famous Boats,” “Fruit Series” and “Butterfly Series” described in an ad for “airbrush work” cards in a 1908 Stedman Bros. catalogue. The lead paragraph in the ad touts their handmade quality: “For the benefit of those dealers not familiar with this style of work, we would say that these cards are not printed, but are first extra heavily embossed, then coloured by hand. This special process of embossing makes designs stand out very prominently, and as the colour work is done by hand, effects are produced that would be impossible by printing.”
As luck would have it, I recently added a Stedman Bros. airbrushed butterfly postcard to my collection and present it here as Figure 1. I know there are more out there because the catalogue ad mentions different colours, the addition of tinsel, etc.
Another prominent Canadian publisher responsible for several excellent series of airbrushed postcards during the golden age was Toronto’s Warwick Bros. & Rutter. Thanks to decades of collecting and recording Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcards by the Toronto Postcard Club’s Bill Buchanan, we know that there are at least 80 different airbrushed Warwick Bros. & Rutter cards to collect. A couple of my favourites are shown as Figures 2 & 3. Note that with more than 7,300 different postcards in its repertoire, Warwick Bros. & Rutter has for years reigned as Canada’s most prolific golden age publisher. However, with the amount of new discoveries that have turned up under the Stedman Bros. banner over the past several years, I’m convinced that this Brantford publisher will soon bump Warwick Bros. & Rutter out of first place. At last count, there were more than 6,300 different Stedman Bros. postcards recorded – an average increase of 500 cards per year since the 2011 handbook was released. And believe me, they just keep coming!
W. G. MacFarlane, whose postcard ads often began with “Canada’s Greatest Post Card House,” was another golden age publisher in Toronto with airbrushed postcards. The Figure 4 card is an embossed image of the SS Cayuga, published by MacFarlane around 1908. As many airbrushed postcards in Canada at the time came from the same manufacturer, it’s conceivable that an identical SS Cayuga postcard was marketed by Stedman Bros. in its aforementioned “Famous Boats” series. The Figure 4 postcard also shows some of the tinselling mentioned in the Stedman Bros. 1908 catalogue.
Although not as striking as the Warwick Bros. & Rutter Christmas postcard shown earlier, the MacFarlane Easter postcard shown as Figure 5 is attractive nevertheless. I’ve seen this card in a least three different colour schemes and it’s a safe bet that there are more colours out there to find. Note that although Stedman Bros. and Warwick Bros. & Rutter had the facilities to make many of their own cards, MacFarlane is known to have imported all of its postcards. Most came from Europe, especially Germany, with a lesser amount from the US. To help with the import side of his postcard business, MacFarlane established branch offices in Buffalo, New York City,Berlin, Leipzig, Munich and Vienna. For the record, I have even seen a series of MacFarlane postcards
printed in Switzerland, but there’s no indication of a branch office there. Sadly, with all his eggs in the import basket, MacFarlane was out of businessby 1910. The ripple effect caused by America’s 1909 Payne-Aldrich Act, which imposed a tariff on all imported cards to protect American printers, had a negative impact on the entire industry.