Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Did YOU Passe Partout?

My old school dictionary, published in 1979, defines passe-partout as:

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.”

Religious texts were often framed with passe partout.
Passe-partout was manufactured in Cambridgeshire by the Samuel Jones company at St Neots (formerly in the old county of Huntingdonshire). In its heyday, there were several manufacturers in England, but I have been told that Samuel Jones was the last to cease production. Were there other manufacturers elsewhere in the UK?
Passe-partout picture framing tape began to decline in popularity c. the early 1960s and, by the mid-1970s, was looked on as decidedly old fashioned.

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.

From the "Our Home Corner" feature in the "Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal", December 1926.


  1. WE certainly "passe-partouted"! We used to get it at Heffers and make a right old mess with it. It was very hard to get straight lines on the glass because the tape would slid around when it was wet.

  2. I've just found some Samuel Jones black passe partout on it's butterfly reel, in some old pepers I am sorting out. just checking to see if it's valuable!!

  3. Not really in my experience, but you may get a few pounds for it on eBay.

  4. I use Samuel Jones Passe Partout in the restortion of Victorian taxidermy cases (see If anybody has any black complete reels, I would be happy to pay £5 per reel. Bob