Actresses (Talma): Sniders and Abrahams cigarette cards

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In the early 1900s, cigarette cards, like postcards, featured everything from footy players to flowers. BOB FERRIS takes a closer look at the Actresses (Talma) series of cards that were distributed by Melbourne-based manufacturing tobacconists Sniders and Abrahams.

07032021085656 0001 Page 2 Copy 3Miss Tittell BruneThe photographic studio of Talma & co. was established in 1892 by Andrew Barrie and his business partner, Henry Weedon. Located in Swanston Street Melbourne, Talma was a leading portrait studio attracting clientele from ‘high society’, celebrities and visiting and local theatrical performers, especially women. As an astute businessman, Barrie saw a market beyond individual photographic portraits—establishing a product sideline of creating and selling black and white postcards of his famous female clients. For their part, actresses were keen to be involved in this new enterprise as it provided excellent exposure and the cards were also a way to attract new clients; for emerging young actresses to be seen on a Talma postcard was a boost to their careers. (see ‘Andrew Barrie and the Talma Studio’, Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia, 7 December 2019—theatreheritage.org.au)

Not content with black and white images only, Barrie soon expanded his line to include colour cards; cards with portraits in decorative framing; and cards stylised with adornments and glitter. These latter elements, such as ‘gold’ hair clips and pins, jewellery and other decorative accessories along with embossed gowns were innovative and attractive—and can be seen on his postcards.

In the early 1900s the Melbourne-based manufacturing tobacconists Sniders and Abrahams accessed these images from Barrie to produce a set of cigarette cards—‘Actresses (Talma)’.

Cigarette Cards and Sniders and Abrahams

From their original point of sale, cigarettes were sold in flimsy paper packaging which provided little protection to the actual cigarette. In order to protect the cigarettes from damage, a stiff piece of cardboard was inserted into the packet to provide it with some structure. Soon after, cigarette companies saw this piece of cardboard as a useful advertising vehicle and over time more and more images of general interest—such as sporting figures, wartime heroes, and building and places of significance were added to ‘the cigarette cards’ to encourage (the mostly male) consumers to buy a particular cigarette brand.

Sniders and Abrahams was one prominent company who from around 1905 actively used ‘cigarette cards’ as an important marketing platform, and cards were issued with their ‘Standard’, ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Milo’ cigarette brands. Over its history, Sniders and Abrahams issued thirty-three card series—all of which are now highly collectable. One series was ‘Actresses (Talma)’ and on today’s values it is not unusual to pay up to $20 for a card in mint condition.

The company was established by partnership between Gershon Sniders and Lewis Abrahams and was originally located at 23 Lonsdale Street east, then 270 Lonsdale Street and with continued growth was later re-located to 7 Drewery Lane around 1910. In January 1885 the partnership was dissolved, however Abrahams continued the business and retained the name ‘Sniders and Abrahams’. Around 1889, Louis, son of Lewis, joined and managed the firm until his death in 1903.

Actresses (Talma)

‘Actresses (Talma)’ is generally agreed to be one of the finest cigarette card series issued by Sniders and Abrahams and as the title indicates, the cards are reproductions of Talma postcards and in some cases, Talma photographs which were never reproduced as postcards.

The ‘Actresses (Talma)’ cigarette cards were issued in two unnumbered series—one of 30 cards with a gold background (‘the 30 Card Set’) and one of 14 cards with a white border (‘the 14 Card Set’). On the front of each card the name of the actress is printed below the portrait at the base of the card. Interestingly, on some of the cards the names are incorrectly spelt, however for the purposes of this article they have been spelt correctly. 

The cards were included in the ‘Milo’ cigarette brand and were printed by the Melbourne firm, Osboldstone and Atkins (see back showing O&A) which would date the issue prior to 1908 (we know this date, as after 1908 Atkins was no longer involved and the firm became Osboldstone & Co). The cards measure 6.7 cm x 4.0 cm (compared to postcards 13.8 cm x 8.8 cm).

Of the 30 Card Set, four actresses appear twice—Miss Tittell Brune (with and without her dog), Miss Nellie Butler (head and shoulders and full length), Miss Pansy Montague (as a hussar and in evening gown) and Miss Pressy Preston (in fur coat and in summer dress). All of the 14 Card Set repeat an image from the 30 Card Set [including Brune (with dog), Butler (head and shoulders) and Preston (in summer dress)]—however the set includes a picture of the pianist Renee Lees which is not included in the 30 Card Set (for reasons unknown).

As cigarette card collectors would be aware, the ‘Actresses (Talma)’ series are an uncharacteristic issue for Sniders and Abrahams as their cards generally portrayed masculine imagery to appeal to their male based clientele; sporting and military cards were particularly favoured. By the early 1900s however, smoking by women was becoming more fashionable and less frowned upon in society and as such Sniders may have been responding to these changing social norms by producing a set which would also appeal to female smokers. Certainly, the mass production of theatrical postcards—mainly of actresses—in the early 1900s by Talma capitalised on the boom in postcard collecting as a hobby, particularly amongst women.  As such, the Sniders issue coincided with the postcard collecting craze - which was fortuitous. It is quite possible, however that the cards of ‘stage beauties’ were issued to appeal to the male ‘viewer’.

Of the many hundreds of actresses who appear on Talma postcards, what was so special about those who featured in the Sniders and Abrahams cigarette card sets? And, who made the selection? Was it Louis Abrahams, his wife Golda or his brother, Lawrence, all patrons of the arts and avid theatre goers or was the selection made by the photographer Barrie? And what were the commercial arrangement between Sniders and Abrahams and Barrie’s photographic studio? 

The Sniders sets feature both Australian and overseas performers and include the well-known English actress Ada Reeve who frequently performed in Australia; Maesmore Morris who was a much photographed beauty; the popular American Tittell Brune; Grace Palotta a regular visitor to Australia, together with the favourite local artists like the ageless Nellie Stewart, the audience favourite Florence Young, Pressy Preston and Pansy Montague to a handful of rising stars such as Carrie Moore and Daisy Holly.

It is interesting to suppose that while most of the subjects of the Cigarette Cards were included for their theatrical talent alone, it could be argued that some actresses were included for their ‘looks’ given the many contemporary media references to their ‘beauty’. Such subjects could include the likes of Eloise (Elise) Cook, Daisy Holly, Norah (Nora) Kerin, Renee Lees, Lillah McCarthy and Cerita.

The majority of the cards show head and shoulder portraits of the actresses, other than Pansy Montague, Billie Barlow, Elaine Ravensberg and one card of Nellie Butler who are shown in full length poses and in character costume. What also makes these four cards unique is that unlike the rest of the cards, there is no Talma Melbourne & Sydney logo in the bottom left or right-hand corner nor copyright on the opposite side. This is possibly because these four cards were either publicity photographs for a show or photographs for the press, and were not reproduced as postcards. Another oddity is the card of Miss Florence Young which is tagged ‘Talma Melbourne only’—as the Talma Studio in Sydney did not open until March 1899, Young’s portrait photograph would have been taken prior to this date.

A Brief Biographical Note on Selected Cards

One of the truly great overseas actresses included in the set is Ada Reeve, a British pantomime and vaudeville performer, and a star of numerous musical comedies and plays. Barrie would have taken the theatrical portrait of Reeve in costume in 1897 when Reeve appeared as Suzette in the Australian production of the French Maid at the Melbourne, Princess Theatre (Punch, 9 December 1897, p.10).

Another English actress is Mrs Maesmore Morris. She performed in Australia in numerous productions between 1897-1899, returned to the English stage until 1904, and back to Australia the same year. The card image was taken in late 1904 from her performance as George Anne Bellamy in Pretty Peggy, produced by Nellie Stewart’s comic opera company.

A youthful Australian actress is Carrie Moore who was Reeve’s understudy for Suzette. Later, Moore had the leading role in San Toy which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne on 21 December 1901. The card image is of Moore as San Toy. After four years with the Royal Comic Opera Co., Moore travelled to London in 1903 where she soon became a favourite, with successful roles in San Toy (this time playing Dudley, the maid), The Blue Moon, Dairy Maids and Tom Jones. She also appeared in several pantomimes and was voted the most popular ‘principal boy’ in 1904. After an absence of five years she returned to Australia in 1908 for the lead role in The Merry Widow.

Another Australian to feature is Daisy Holly, a talented dancer. She was a member of Williamson’s Juvenile Comic Opera Co. and in 1891 appeared in the opera La Mascotte as Frascello.  She was much in demand as a dancer and was the ‘premiere danseuse’ of the Macmahon Pantomime Company before travelling overseas. She received accolades as one of the Debutantes in the Orchid at the London Gaiety Theatre in 1903. The photograph of Holly which appears on the Sniders card was most likely taken in the late 1890s as it appears as a study piece in ‘Studies by Talma & Co.’, Melbourne and Sydney, published by Atlas Press, Melbourne in 1900.  Frequently described in the media as one of the ‘prettiest women’ on the Australian stage and the ‘little ballet beauty’.

May Beatty was the principal star with the George Stephenson’s Musical Comedy Co. The card image is of her as Rose of the Riviera in the production of the same name.  Performances were held at several venues, including Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in July 1904.

Norah (also known as Nora) Kerin made her name as a Shakespearean actress and toured Australia in 1903/04 as a member of George Musgrove’s English Shakespearean Company with leading roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. She returned to England in early 1904 so her portrait photo, not in costume, most likely dates from 1903. Her inclusion in the Sniders set is odd, given her limited exposure to Australian audiences—but perhaps (as noted earlier) it was due to her beauty with Kerin described as ‘the youngest and most beautiful Shakespearean actress on stage’.

Another stage ‘beauty’ was Eloise (also known as Elise) Cook, a young English soprano on stage in Australia in 1900/01 under engagement to George Musgrove to play the principal girl role in the Cinderella pantomime at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Sydney. The cigarette card image is Cook as Cinderella in her Fair Scene dress. She was variously described in press reviews as a ‘charming young actress’, ‘as pretty as a picture to look at…’, a winsome, pretty little lady’ and ‘of course there is always pretty little Cinderella herself; she is a very nice little girl’.

Delia Mason was a British musical comedy actress and vocalist who toured Australia in 1904 with the New London Gaiety Company and performed in Three Little Maids, Kitty Grey and The Girl from Kay’s. The card image shows her as Edna in The Three Little Maids.

A lesser known performer who appeared only in the 14 Card Set is Renee Lees, a gifted young Australian pianist. Lees performed at the Opera House in Wellington, New Zealand before she left Australia for Europe in late 1899 to continue her musical studies and while still a teenager made a successful London debut in May, 1900. After a short stint as a dancer with the John F. Sheridan’s musical comedy company, Lees returned to perform as a pianist and organist around mid-1903—at which time her Talma portrait may have been taken.

One the actresses in a full-length pose is Billie Barlow, a popular burlesque artiste, shown on the card as the Prince—the principal boy—in Rickard’s production of the pantomime Puss in Boots held at the Sydney Tivoli Theatre (see Punch, 27 December 1900, p.25). Her costume shown on the card was the subject of a famous theatrical libel action in April 1901, when Barlow sued the Bulletin for £5000 for alleged libel contained in a review of her appearance which suggested that she was ‘wandering about … clothed in her naked soul’, the insinuation being that she appeared in a costume that was indecent. The defence offered no evidence to refute this and after an hour’s deliberation the Jury found for the Bulletin.

Nellie Butler is also shown in a full-length pose. Butler was an American actress who performed in the Royal Comic Opera Co. production of A White Milk Flag at the Melbourne Princess Theatre in October 1896 where she played the role of the Captain (of the Corps). The Talma photo of Butler in costume for this role was published in the Melbourne Punch (15 October 1896, p.3), which is the image that appears on the cigarette card. Also, in a full-length pose is Elaine Ravensberg who arrived from England in December 1904 under engagement to William Anderson to play the principal boy, Sinbad in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor and her card shows her in costume for this role (see Talma photo of same image in the Sunday Times (Sydney), 26 February 1905, p.3). Ravensberg had previously played the principal boy in several British pantomimes.

Less biographical success was met in sourcing the two cards of Pansy Montague—with no reference found for the image of her in an evening gown or for the card of her dressed as a Hungarian soldier (although there is a photo of her in the same costume in Table Talk of 13 August 1903, where the caption refers to the Princess Theatre but not the play or the role she played). In an earlier Table Talk (9 July 1903) there is a photo of Madame Slapoffski, dressed as a hussar in a like fashion for her leading role in The Fortune Teller. The article does mention that Montague appeared in this production as a servant to the Lord Mayor, but there is no explanation as to why she was dressed as a black hussar in the August edition photograph—perhaps she was the understudy to the lead role?

Lastly, described in the media as ‘the most beautiful woman on the English stage’, Lillah McCarthy visited Australia in 1901 as the leading lady of Wilson’s Barrett’s London Company. During the season she appeared in Man and His Makers, The Sign of the Cross, Virginius and The Manxman.  The card shows her as Kate Cregreen in The Manxman performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in August 1901.

In researching this article, every attempt was made to match the card image to a particular theatrical performance and role played by the actress, or with a photograph taken by the Talma studio. This also allowed for a more precise issue date for the Sniders cigarette cards, rather than the 1904-08 range of years quoted in various references. The one card which appears to assist in clarifying the issue date is that of Cerita (Ada Cerito) a lesser known English actress who arrived in Australia in late 1905 and first appeared at Rickard’s Opera House in mid-December as a comedian, serio comique and character actress. It is unlikely that her portrait was taken at this time (see the Herald, advertisement, 19 December 1905, p.2) due to her hectic schedule. Her photograph by Talma, which became the postcard and cigarette card image, appeared in the Gadfly, 14 February 1906, p.10, which would date the Sniders issue at 1906 at the earliest.

The actresses shown on the Sniders and Abrahams cigarette cards were outstanding theatrical entertainers, performing at a time when live theatre was at the height of its popularity. A handful of the actresses have been singled out for comment, but they and the others in the set deserve much more than the few lines given to them in this article.

My thanks to Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia for information on many of the actresses and for making time available for several conversations.

All cards are from the author's collection with the exception of Carrie Moore and Elaine Ravensberg.

Read 129 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 March 2021 17:08
Bob Ferris

Bob Ferris is a member of the Australian Cartophilic Society of Australia and has collected cigarette and trade cards since the late 1970s. He has been a regular contributor to the Society Newsletter and Magazine—The Australian Card Collector—for over twenty years and has been Co-editor of the magazine since 2016.

Bob was awarded Life Membership of the Society in 2019.