The means of passing anywhere; a master key: a kind of simple picture frame, usually of pasteboard; a method of framing, or a picture framed, with glass front and pasteboard back, the picture being fixed by strips of paper pasted over the edges: strong paper, gummed on one side, used for this and other purposes. [Fr., - passer, to pass, par - over, tout - all.]
The name "passe-partout" (not to be confused with Passepartout, who, of course, went around the world in eighty days!) is still used by picture framers today, but for many years was particularly associated with the method of picture framing which required using a special paper tape pasted over the edges to hold glass and pastboard together. The tape itself was labelled "passe-partout" on its packaging.
Passe-partout picture framing tape was extremely popular in the days before cheap, mass-produced picture frames - an affordable method of framing pictures for the less well off, and a pleasant hobby for others.
Once wet, the gummed side of the passe-partout tape became highly sticky and when applied to a surface would harden and be stuck for good. I have an old passe-partout text which was framed in the early 1920s - and it is still holding fast.Turner & Sons, Trinity Street and Regent Street, a Cambridge newspaper advertisement from 1927.
My grandmother, Grace Hinchcliffe, attended Sunday school at the Wesley Methodist Church in King Street with her cousin, Muriel Ashman, from c. 1915 to 1924.
“We both liked Sunday school,” Gran told me in 1989. “It was a good job really because playing truant would’ve been impossible! Attendance was mornings and afternoons and we were given a small text at the end of each day - usually of the ‘Thou Shalt Not…’ variety - to take home to our parents to prove we’d been! When we’d collected twelve of these, we could hand them in and get a bigger text for Mum to frame in passe-partout and hang at home.”
An in-depth history of the sticky art of passe-partout is yet to be written but, from what I have been able to piece together, it seems that production ceased c. 1989 and the final reels were sold in the early 1990s.
The last reel I bought was from Heffers, in Sidney Street, Cambridge, in 1986. Heffers had no passe-partout in stock, but was able to obtain some for me within a few days.
An attempt to obtain another reel for the restoration of an old religious text in the late 1990s (I was not, at that time, aware that the manufacture of passe-partout had ceased) was met with an incredulous "That hasn't been sold for years!!" from one young female shop assistant. Although I was only in my early thirties, this had the effect of making me feel very old indeed!A brand of tape is sold today which is sometimes referred to as "passe partout", but it is cloth, not paper, and bears no resemblance to the tape described here.
If readers have any further information about the history of passe-partout, I would be most interested to hear from them.Some sealed reels of Samuel Jones' Butterfly Brand passe-partout. The tape came in many attractive colours and finishes.