Practically infringing Letraset's patent on dry rub-down transfers, for many years Hasbro were able to promote their own less-sophisticated technology with relative impunity. Essentially a method of smearing surfaces with smudges of pre-printed ink, these had some success in the US for several years, & now they have their own naive retro charm.
The Topps confectionery company first used this technique way back in 1961, & it has to be said in their favour that they beat Letraset to the use of colour in children's dry rub-down transfers by four years (although of course colour waterslide transfers had been available for well over a century).
In the UK, a company called Trans-Action had a brief fling with patent infringement around 1975, using much the same idea.
This page is just intended to quickly outline this alternative to Letraset's dry rub-down technology, but if there is enough interest, I can expand it with many more examples; there is easily enough material available for a full, detailed article.
A pair of Topps 1966 Baseball Magic Rub-Offs. Firstly the view from above, through the carrier paper; then the view from below, which is more detailed & colourful, but also reversed. The rub-offs came in packets with a nasty stick of chewing gum; the idea was that the gum was the product, & the rub-offs merely free gifts, but I don't suppose anyone took these priorities very seriously.
Topps produced three series of Baseball Magic Rub-Offs, & three of temporary tattoos. By 1984, however, they were getting their transfers printed by Acorn in the proper Letraset manner via Sodecor in Italy.
The wording is identical on all three of the years of interest, 1961, 1965 & 1966:
PLACE TRANSFER AGAINST ANY
SURFACE AND RUB THIS SIDE
WITH A COIN. PRESTO! PIC-
TURE TRANSFERS COMPLETELY"
The process involved is printing on waxed paper, which means that the printing ink doesn't stay on the paper if you rub it; it comes off. Messy!
The 1966 series have a nice dynamic range for cheap low resolution printing; they must have had a very skilled print designer who really understood what the presses could manage.
They are also the most sophisticated in terms of palette, with the 1961 & 1965 series just using very straightforward spot colours.
Note also that the 1961 series feature the artwork of several famous E.C. Comics artists…
Although Topps Magic Rub-Offs is inferior printing technology (a bit more DIY than Letraset's fully-professional product), it is very nearly a patent violation. It would not have been a true rival to Letraset's Instant Lettering, but it makes clear certain references in John Chudley's book "Letraset: a Lesson in Growth", & I can see why Letraset reacted quickly to the possibility of competition by establishing a US office.
By 1970 Letraset & Topps had come to an arrangement, & were co-producing product lines such as the Topps Magic Rub-Offs version of Mini-Toons (which were simply Letraset Mini-Toons repackaged by Topps) & Topps Speed Wheels (which had original Letraset transfers).
Hasbro & Topps certainly had a business relationship, but while it looks as if Topps was first with this transfer technology, it's hard to establish whether Hasbro's product was either a consequence of sharing, or of competition.
At any rate, the result is the same. Hasbro kept their quaint transfer products going for a considerable time, & marketed them widely not only as retail products, but also as promotional items such as the eight Beatles Yellow Submarine Rub-Ons sheets which were given away with Nabisco Rice Honeys & Wheat Honeys breakfast cereal. (I have a good collection of those, if there is demand to see them…)
However, the product I've chosen to illustrate these Rub-Ons is the Banana Splits Stand Up Rub-Ons set.
This is a good set for our purposes, because the previous owner has already rubbed down a few of the transfers onto their backing cards. This demonstrates at once both how good & how bad the technology could be.
Above, the remaining transfers still on their sheets; below, the unused cards. The small pieces slot into the larger ones at right-angles, allowing them to stand up; hence the name "Stand-Up Rub-Ons". A wooden stylus, similar to an ice-lolly stick, was provided in the pack for use in rubbing the transfers onto the cards.
Here are both sides of the enclosed leaflet, describing the other titles which were available at the time. Since the copyright date is 1968, this would most probably have been published that year or the year after.
"Pop-Up Rub-Ons" were similar to, but more elaborate than, the Stand-Up Rub-Ons, since complex diorama-style backgrounds were provided & there were over a hundred Magic Rub-Ons rather then merely ten in a set.
"Picturama Rub-Ons" came with over two hundred Magic Rub-Ons, but they were strictly two-dimensional; much more like Letraset Panoramas, in fact, right down to the three-foot long backgrounds. I don't think this can have been a complete coincidence!
As a final note on Rub-Ons, in 1977 Letraset produced a range of eight Super Heroes & Hanna-Barbera Rub-Ons, licensed by Hasbro. So once again, an accord had been reached!
A longstanding mystery clung to various sets of transfers produced in around 1974-75 which were not by Letraset & which appeared to infringe their patent. Who produced them? How did they get away with it? Years went by without a solution, until one day John Hunt happened to mention…
JOHN HUNT: Sodecor were producing rub down transfers before Letraset bought them [in 1976 — Ed.] but whereas Letraset's patent relied on stretching the plastic carrier film, Sodecor's product worked by adhesive transfer — not stretching.
TOM: I wonder if these were the same technology as the Topps/Hasbro rub-down transfers (which were basically just blobs of ink that left a smudge when you rubbed them)? There were transfers from a company called Peace Transfers (who made Adventureplay transfer sets in 1974) & Alan Lythgoe's company Trans-Action (who made D-Day Landing sets in 1975); and Bowyer's "Action Sport '75" promotional transfers used the same technique. So those were all around 1974-1975, & it would make sense if they were all printed at Sodecor. (I have to say they were all truly horrible!) The first Bowyers transfer promotion, in 1974, was indeed one of yours & was called "Sport in Action Transfers". But the very next year (1975), Bowyers had another similar promotion called "Action Sport '75".
JOHN HUNT: I was not aware that Bowyers did a second promotion!
TOM: It would seem quite neat if they, the "D-Day Landings" packets & the "Adventureplay" sets, which all appeared around 1974 to 1975 & used an inferior transfer technology, should account for the otherwise mysterious non-Letraset dry transfers which you said Sodecor were printing at exactly that time. Here are some square pegs, & here's a square hole!
The bottom left packet is Letraset's Bowyers Sport in Action; the other three are Bowyers Action Sport '75.
JOHN HUNT: Not sure if you were aware but Alan Lythgoe used to work for Letraset — not sure of his position it might have been technical director.
TOM: You're absolutely right! I had completely overlooked that connection. It looks like he left Letraset, set up his own company 'Trans-Action Products', produced his own "D-Day Landing" packets & then he poached Bowyers as a client… perhaps you should have a word with him about that!
JOHN HUNT: Very interested to see the original Bowyers promotion and the second, which I had not seen before. There is no creativity when you have to place them in precise positions, and as you say the quality is very poor.
TOM: Having taken a couple of these apart to see what makes them tick, it's clear that rather than printing on film in the Letraset manner, these are printed directly onto the adhesive; obviously, adhesive does not form a good basis for printing, & the smudging you get with these reflects that. I imagine that Alan Lythgoe, having been technical director at Letraset, was fully cognisant of Letraset's method & was keen to avoid patent infringement. And he would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those pesky kids… er… I mean, the very aspects he tried to avoid were the ones which provided Letraset's high-quality results.
Build up the exciting action-packed drama of the D-Day landings on the GIANT FULL-COLOUR BATTLEGROUND now at your local shop for only 10p.
TRANS-ACTION PRODUCTS - NEW MALDEN KT3 4DY
Produced in England by Alan Lythgoe Developments Ltd.
Copyright 1975 Pat. App. For
It seems Alan Lythgoe became Letraset's technical director in November 1964 — the third in five years. He had been a member of the board since Letraset's public issue, & he was there throughout the Busy Bees, the Panoramas, the Instant Pictures & the Action Transfers. His particular project was one involving transfers for ceramics, metal & plastics, to be applied during manufacturing rather than at the end of the process. Apparently this led to problems with machinery & engineering which couldn't be solved. Alan Lythgoe was in charge of the move to the new factory at Ashford, but by Autumn 1968 it was clear there were problems with the technical department, leading (according to John Chudley) to a gap between success in the laboratory & consistent production. Mention is made of his being the only person at the time to fully understand the delicate combination of chemicals required for successful transfers. Chudley brought in a 'new man' to help with the technical aspect, but this caused friction & Alan Lythgoe felt slighted. "During 1969 technical weakness let us down", says Chudley, & although as usual he doesn't say exactly when, he says that by "1969 and 1970" Alan Lythgoe had resigned. Alan Lythgoe Developments was formed in 1971. John Chudley himself was replaced as managing director in October 1970, by Bill Fieldhouse.
I've no idea what actually happened with Alan Lythgoe Developments, of course, but I can easily imagine a plausible scenario. I get the impression his resignation would not have been entirely amicable, & given his experience with the technical side of transfers, it wouldn't have been surprising for him to have tried to apply this, but avoiding as far as he could the legal difficulties of infringing Letraset's patent. No doubt he felt that litho printing would actually give him an advantage over Letraset (who were still using gravure at the time), & he may have made a point of that with his potential clients! But by omitting the carrier film, he hobbled his own invention, & the best printer in the World couldn't have made his ink smudges look good.
JOHN HUNT: Well, some interesting info here. What you say could well be correct.
BEN ARCHER: The artwork on the Trans-Action 'D-Day Landing' packets is my father's work [Peter Archer — Ed.]; haven't seen it for decades. Some of the sporting events may be his as well but it's hard to tell from these reproductions. Sounds like Lythgoe poached him for one last job…
I should point out that the sheets shown in these scans have been considerably enhanced; they don't look quite this good in the flesh. They have been sharpened here, & the colours saturated.
We haven't seen similar transfers to these Alan Lythgoe products since Letraset bought Sodecor. Alan Lythgoe's production source had been cut off; Letraset would hardly be encouraging their own rivals.
I will add a page on Letraset's Bowyers Sport in Action Transfers later.
Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives
© Tom Vinelott 2016