Working Solutions for Letterpress Copying Books

Some of you, especially the conservators in the audience, may be aware of the perils of letterpress copying books.  These books are the products of a 19th- and early 20th-century office duplication technology.  In this process, an original manuscript was created with special ink, laid next to a blank, dampened, translucent copy page, and pressed together in a copy press.  The result was a mirror-image copy, which was read through the opposite side of the translucent paper.  For more on this process, see recent work presented by Beth Antoine at the American Institute for Conservation 2011 annual meeting, or Barbara Rhodes’ 1999 publication Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780 – 1938.

copy press

Many copy presses, like this one, have been repurposed as small book presses in binderies and conservation labs.

The inks and papers required by letterpress technology produced documents that have many physical problems today.  The fragile papers wrinkle and tear easily, and often incur severe damage from ink corrosion.  To further complicate matters, these materials can be seriously damaged by water, rendering many water-based conservation treatments off limits.

For a copying book in the lab this month, I improvised a treatment method that worked satisfactorily well.  I needed to mend several copying book leaves that were severely wrinkled and torn due to ink degradation and research use.  I skipped traditional humidification and achieved moderately successful results flattening with weight alone.  But the problem of holding the translucent tissue flat for mending still seemed to require more hands than I have.  To address this problem, I used the suction table. 

mending on suction table

Mending with heat-set tissue on the suction table.

By drawing gentle suction under the item, I was able to arrange it flat and then have both hands free to apply heat-set tissue mends with a tacking iron.  This method allowed for quick application of mends and hinges for re-securing the pages in their binding.

Question: Is this the most beautiful, perfect, and complete conservation treatment ever devised?

Answer: Definitely not!  The mends are visible on the translucent paper.  This is a stabilization treatment only; other steps would be required to arrest degradation processes inherent in the copybook materials.  Due to the paper’s warping over time, some compromises between legibility and flatness are required during mending.  And the treatment requires leaves to be loose from their binding.  (Several of the leaves in this treatment were already loose; the remaining ones were removed and re-hinged after treatment.  This was quicker and likely less damaging than working in situ.) 

But consider the following: archives often have thousands of these letterpress copying books in their collections, all in similar states of need.  Conservators must develop efficient solutions that make sense within the scope of the problem.  This copying book may not be a thing of beauty, but it is stabilized for use, and that makes all the difference for the next researcher.


copying book

Copying book after treatment, open to a mended page signed by Texas Governor Pendleton Murrah (1863-65.)



2 thoughts on “Working Solutions for Letterpress Copying Books

  1. Clever use of suction to assist your mending! I love hearing about ways to make pieces of lab equipment into creative multitaskers. I’m still waiting for someone to come up with another use for that notorious one-trick pony, The Crimper.

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