The John Bull Printing Outfit – originally produced by the Charter Stamp Company, a printing firm established in the City of London in 1922 – was among Britain’s oldest and most popular toys.
The John Bull trademark was formally registered in February 1927 along with the artwork which would be used in packaging design for the next five decades. The original watercolour of John Bull and his dog survives in the National Archives at Kew.
The Charter Stamp Company moved several times in their early years of trading, eventually settling at 57 Southwark Street, London SE1, where the sets were also produced.
The company proclaimed the John Bull Printing Outfit to be 100% “Made in the British Isles” which was true: Boxes were made on-site, the rubber letters were moulded and vulcanised at the factory and even the non-toxic water-based ink was brewed up in large buckets.
The Charter Stamp Company became Carson-Baker Limited in July 1946, and the “Charter” trademark became “Carbak”.
Toy manufacturer Cowan DeGroot was the largest distributor of John Bull Outfits and when John Baker retired in the 1960s, Carson-Baker was acquired by their main customer. The “Codeg” trademark replaced “Carbak” on the packaging and advertising material.
Cowan DeGroot sold the John Bull trademark to Dekkertoys of Peterborough in the late 1980s, but the famous printing sets are no longer available.
Early John Bull sets consisted of just upper-case characters, around 12 point in size. By the early 1930s a slab-serif typeface with upper and lower-case characters had been introduced, along with more expensive sets with illustration printing blocks showing clowns, a Native American Chief and farm or zoo animals.
The toy was looked upon as the perfect stocking filler by generations of parents and grandparents: Cheap and simple to use, the printing outfit provided hours of typographically creative fun for little fingers.
Endless versions of the rubber-stamping sets were issued from the company works in South Norwood. Sets were numbered from “1” to “250” with the smallest set only marginally larger than a box of kitchen matches while the largest set dwarfed a standard Monopoly game box.
The product range expanded and by the early 1960s included a small rotary hand press (Model No. 5) which could accommodate several lines of rubber type in a grooved drum.
Second-hand sets occasionally appear on eBay. The most commonly seen survivors are sets No. 4, 8, 18 and 12.