Vintage Office Equipment & Techniques for Small Scale Publishing
A Closer Look at Reprography
Document duplication (reprography) has been an important task for centuries. Few could afford the time to reproduce documents by hand, or the cost to go to a professional printer every time they needed something in duplicate. Before the Xerox machine (which uses electrophotography/xerography) a variety of methods were used, and some of those could be valuable today.
Some vintage methods are a bit strange (looking at you, hectograph… a tub of gelatin?) and others are quite simple (the original polygraph was just two pens attached together), but there are gems in the mix.
This is a brief survey of some of the old technologies, and a short analysis of which deserves a reboot, and why. I did find a variety of other detailed surveys as I went through this process, so I selected just twenty methods to explore. There was a well-reviewed monograph published in 2008 by Ian Batterham, The Office Copying Revolution, which I have not yet been able to secure, but I believe it would complement this information wonderfully. Once I get it, I’ll be sure to update this post.
This resin-based technology was created by 3M in the 1960’s, and was only used for a little while. The resulting documents are no longer legible.
Not the beautiful Hamilton Automatic, but instead, the early electric typewriters, which were able to be programmed and type on their own, like the Flexowriter and Robotyper. Vacuum-based technology was primarily used, but there were other methods as well. Selectric Typewriter is a newer version (allllmost not vintage) that uses an old version of a hard drive to record content.
Standard typewriters were also useful in conjunction with carbon paper (see below) and for mimeography.
The term blueprint is still used today, but the original process (developed in the 1840s and involving light-sensitive chemicals) is not. While very accurate, the processes can only reproduce lines, not colours or shades.
The carbon (and non-carbon) copies are still known (and occasionally used) today.
Carbon is a common pigment, and it would be sandwiched between the page you write or type upon and the page beneath it. As you typed or wrote, the pressure would push that carbon to the sheet beneath it. You could continue the sandwiching (a club sandwich, if you will) and create up to three copies, but you needed to use thin paper to ensure it is copied accurately.
In the carbonless version, the action was the same, but the paper actually held little capsules of ink.
One of many gelatin-based printing methods. This is a slightly more complicated version of the Hectograph (below), and this process that utilizes light-sensitive gelatin and projection to accurately reproduce photographs.
Also known as Reflex Transfer and Photo-Mechanical Transfer [PMT])
The same technology as a polaroid camera, this technique used light-sensitive gelatin (and silver halide) to press the negative of an image against a surface and replicate it. It wasn’t widely used, but it was very similar to photocopying.
Descended from aniline printing. this printing uses flexible plates and quick-dry inks. It’s used today to print on a variety of packaging materials.
Smaller office-sized units were referred to as reflex copying machines. It is very similar to rotogravure, which is below. Here’s a great infographic explaining the differences!
An updated version of the letter copying press (below), this usually connected to plumbing to ensure a constant stream of water over the pages. It also required less strength than the original letter press.
A lithography-based form of mimeography! These weren’t thought to be as simple or efficient as the other mimeographic options, so they weren’t as popular.
The process (according to this manual) was almost identical, however. The master copy could be created with a typewriter, and the paper ran between rollers.
An early method of duplication, these pieces of equipment are often mistaken for book presses. This method uses thin paper, moisture, and a thick application of ink to transfer the text to the pages below. Strength was required to press the ink properly.
There were also roller copiers, which used a long roll of dampened paper and two rollers to rapidly press into to paper.
A common printing technique today, lithography was occasionally used in offices to reproduce images, documents, and more. More regularly it is used in professional print shops, and to reproduce large-format artworks and posters. It is a chemical process, utilizing the basic principles of oil and water.
Similar to the mimeograph, this machine utilizes a relief process. The user could have a curved type (similar to a letterpress, but much shorter) that could be assembled, and then hook onto the large circular drums of ink. “It is a multiple typewriter and an office printing press in one.”¹
¹National Post (Toronto). 2000. “This Day in Business History”, 2000.
A class of copying equipment that included the cyclograph, the roneograph, and more! These machines used ink and stencils to create reproductions. This technology was widely used in offices, churches, and schools, and was even utilized to create zines!
- Cyclograph (rotary duplication)
The Gestetner Cyclograph Duplicating Machine is the machine that inspired this post. It’s also possibly the most impressive of the inventions on this list. Invented by Gestetner (who also invented toenail clippers) in 1879, the cyclograph allowed the user to create up to 2000 copies from a single stencil. Stencils were wrapped around a cylinder drum, and ink was pushed through them to the paper. Stencils were made from waxy paper, and they could be written on by hand, by typewriter, or by using the cyclostyle/neo-cyclostyle! Later the Gestefax was able to automatically create master stencil sheets. The creation of the cyclostyle machine overlapped broadly with Thomas Edison’s version of the mimeograph, and the cyclograph is often referred to as a mimeograph. The common term duplicator is applied to the Gestetner, the roneograph, and the Spirit duplicator (which is not a mimeograph).
Devices that are created to assist with mimeography include the stygmograph (a device allowing you to hand-write on a variety of stencils for mimeography), a mimeoscope (a light table used to assist with the cyclostyle), and a trypograph (a device used to copy stencils for mimeography).
- Cyclograph (rotary duplication)
(also known as Photostat, Ozalid, A-Pe-Co, and Rectigraph, mostly based on particular branded machines)
These methods used negatives from photographs and various treatments (projection, chemical transfer, etc.) to reproduce versions at various sizes. These essentially do the same work as a modern photocopier, but with slightly more effort. There are methods that are titled separately within this category (ie: diazo printing). I am grouping them together because of the wide variety of methods.
Also known as a manifold writer or an autopen
A simple device that connects two pens together. When the user writes, they other pen copies the writing exactly (a pantograph is similar, but allows you to make one much smaller or larger)
Used today mostly for commercial purposes such as packaging and other printing onto flexible materials. It uses a rotary-style press with intaglio engravings (which are made directly onto one of the rollers) to impress ink onto the paper. There are organizations devoted to this practice in both Europe and North America. Similar to flexography. Here’s a great infographic explaining the differences!
Also known as ditto copying.
The machine looks very similar to a mimeograph, but uses slightly different technology. The spirit duplicator doesn’t use ink, and instead uses methyl alcohol (spirits) and aniline dye suspended in wax. The resulting text has a bright purple colour and floral smell.
The ditto duplicator was well-known and commonly used in churches, schools, and offices! It was in direct competition with the mimeograph. The copies produced by spirit duplication tend to fade with time.
Table-top letterpresses were used in progress occasionally, mostly for creating business cards and small format pages. The drawback to a letterpress is the need for additional equipment (type, furniture, etc.) but for many copies this is an excellent method!
In the most basic form it uses heat to print, but it can also be used to create a raised, almost embossed effect!
One product was the Thermofax, which had special paper but a simple heat-based machine. This printing style is so simple and affordable it is used today in many receipt machines.
There were many techniques and machines that didn’t make it onto this list. From the list, some methods are still used today, but of the ones that aren’t, the most intriguing are mimeographs and multigraphs.
They were so widely used that the machines are easy enough to locate today, and while the materials were specialized and are challenging to locate/reproduce, groups exist online that share resources and information. The machines are made of quality materials and are relatively simple to repair and maintain.
In “Revaluing Mimeographs as Historical Sources,” a 2014 paper by E. Haven Holly, she reviews the technical aspects of the mimeograph and includes images showing the differences between typewriter, lithography, and mimeograph. The mimeograph has cleaner edges in the print than either of the others! While the mimeograph is monochromatic, it would be feasible to use separate machines for different colours, much like modern Riso printers, which use very similar technology.
There isn’t much information available online about multigraphs; the challenge with reviving this would be the creation of the type, but if a person was to locate a working setup, it would be very versatile.
In conclusion, while many modern hobbyist printers are working on tabletop lithography or small letterpresses, which are quality machines, rotary duplication methods are more compact, portable, and are an ideal option for hobbyists!
American Multigraph Sales Company. The Multigraph Manual of Printing. Cleveland, O.: The American Multigraph Sales Co. 1913. catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011273826.
American Printing History Association. “History of Printing Timeline.” n.d. American Printing History Association (blog). Accessed April 10, 2022. printinghistory.org/timeline/.
Cushing, Lincoln. “Cranking It Out Old School Style: The Lost Legacy of Gestetner Art” October 2010. foundsf.org/index.php?title=Cranking_it_Out_Old_School_Style:_The_Lost_Legacy_of_Gestetner_Art.
Early Office Museum. “Copying Machines.” n.d. Accessed April 4, 2022. https://www.officemuseum.com/copy_machines.htm.
Gable, Gene. “Heavy Metal Madness: Making Copies from Carbon to Kinkos | CreativePro Network.” 2005. June 15, 2005. creativepro.com/heavy-metal-madness-making-copies-from-carbon-to-kinkos/.
Grangner, Frank. “Duplicating in the year B.C. – Before (xerographic) Copies.” June 24, 2009. web.archive.org/web/20090624015049/http://teched.vt.edu/gcc/HTML/PrintingsPast/BeforeCopies.html.
Hawley, E. Haven. 2014. “Revaluing Mimeographs as Historical Sources.” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 15 (1): 40–55. https://doi.org/10.5860/rbm.15.1.414.
Johnson, Melissa. “Sophie (age 5) doing a gelli print tutorial.” YouTube Video, June 30, 2014.
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Stusse, Bryan. “Adherography.” The University of Iowa Conservation & Collection Care News.June 30, 2009. blog.lib.uiowa.edu/conservation/2009/06/30/adherography/
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University of Illinois Library. “Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP) | Office Printing and Reprography.” n.d. Accessed April 7, 2022. psap.library.illinois.edu/collection-id-guide/officeprintcopy.