Letterpress Copybooks: An Archives Explainer

By Sarah Norris

The State Archives’ collections contain thousands of letterpress copybooks. Recently, our digitization team has been scanning copybooks kept by Texas governors and providing access to them in the Texas Digital Archive. The goal of this article is to briefly explore their history, condition problems, and what can be done for them today.

Letterpress book, outgoing correspondence, March 8 – December 26, 1860.  2014/109-5-84, Texas Governor Sam Houston records. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

As office recordkeeping practices expanded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, methods were sought to create multiple copies of documents at one time. One of the earliest strategies, invented in 1780, was the letterpress copying method. Not to be confused with letterpress printing, letterpress copying used a piece of equipment called a copy press. Copy presses can still be found in antique shops and are frequently mistaken today for small book presses. Letterpress copying was very common throughout the 19th century. Its use began to decline around 1900 as office workers turned increasingly to typewriters and carbon copy sheets.

To make a copy using a copy press, an individual first wrote on a sheet of paper with a special, water-soluble ink. The paper was placed in the press and covered with a dampened sheet of thin, translucent paper. Then, the press was tightened, creating a partial transfer of the ink from the bottom sheet onto the top sheet. The copied text is then read from the opposite side of the translucent sheet (it appears backwards on the side with the actual impression).

Letterpress copybook cover. Jacob de Cordova letter book. 2012/174, Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Because the process was so popular, stationers and office supply manufacturers sold pre-bound books filled with translucent copy sheets. The copies were made in the copy press straight into the books. These are what we know today as letterpress copybooks.

Special inks and papers were used to facilitate this process. The inks were often iron gall ink mixed with a humectant like sugar or glycerin to keep the ink wet for a longer time. Dyes were frequently added to make the copied ink more readable.The copying paper was made translucent by using very short paper fibers and occasionally by adding a waxy or oily coating. This reduced the tiny air pockets that naturally make paper appear opaque.

The materials and methods that enabled letterpress copying created a variety of aging difficulties. Iron gall ink is already well known for its ability to “burn” through paper and cause inked areas to drop out completely. Added dyes are unstable and can fade over time, sometimes even without significant light exposure. Humectants like sugar and glycerin can cause the ink to become sticky in moist environments, even years later. Translucent papers made from short paper fibers are inherently fragile and extremely sensitive to moisture. Any water exposure can cause the paper to expand irregularly and dramatically. Waxy or oily coatings may have made the papers highly acidic. These papers are very prone to break, especially in areas where iron gall ink and water exposure have already damaged them.  And to further complicate matters, inks and papers were often made from proprietary formulations of ingredients; their details varied among manufacturers and even among batches.

Letterpress book, outgoing correspondence, June 1868 to November 1868 (Gov. Elisha Pease) 014/076-7-1, Texas Governor Elisha Marshall Pease records of his third term. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Today, many letterpress copies are so fragile that their content can be lost by simply turning a page. Such damage seems to cry out for major conservation treatment. Unfortunately, logistical issues complicate this approach. Letterpress sheets are bound into books of many hundreds of pages. These books cannot be practically disbound, creating access issues for treatments that involve washing. Further, the sheer number of sheets per volume, and volumes per collection, make treatment prospects daunting. The level of treatment required to address these materials’ severe degradation issues simply does not scale up in any manageable way. 

Letterpress book, outgoing correspondence, March 8 – December 26, 1860.  2014/109-5-84, Texas Governor Sam Houston records. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

So what can be done for these books? Three broad options are available:

  1. Prioritize: Given the large number of copybooks and often their poor condition, prioritization is key. Focusing on critical topics, people, or years helps to target our most significant resources with finite preservation time.
  2. Treat as possible: The most achievable conservation treatment is basic mending, likely with heat-set or solvent-set tissue to avoid unnecessary water exposure.  Conservators have explored a variety of chelating treatments (which help stabilize iron gall ink,) but the inherent difficulty of washing bound sheets makes these treatments impractical at scale. If desired, targeted deacidification can be pursued with a spray such as Bookkeeper.
  3. Digitize: Because there is no satisfactory, scalable conservation treatment, the ultimate solution for letterpress copybooks is digitization. Because of the translucency of the sheets, white paper must be placed beneath each sheet during digitization to improve legibility. Careful handling is essential, and mending may first be necessary to stabilize damaged sheets. Given the time-intensive nature of this work, again, prioritization is key.

Further Reading

Antoine, Beth, Marion Mecklenburg, Robert Speakman, and Mel Wachowiak. 2011. “The Conservation of Letterpress Copying Books: A Study of the Baird Collections.” The Book and Paper Group Annual 30: 9-27.  https://cool.culturalheritage.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v30/bp30-02.pdf

Cleveland, Rachel-Ray. 2000 “Selected 18th,19th and 20th Century Iron Gall Ink Formulations Developed in England, France, Germany, and the United States, for use with the Copy Press Process.” Postprints of The Iron Gall Ink Meeting, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England: University of Northumbria, 23-30.

Rhodes, Barbara and William Wells Streeter. 1999. Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press & Herald Bindery.

Titus, Sonja, et al. 2006. “The Copy Press Process: History and Technology, Part 1.” Restaurator 27 (2): 90-102.

Titus, Sonja, et. al. 2009 “Stabilising Local Areas of Loss in Iron Gall Copy Documents from the Savigny Estate.” Restaurator 30 (1-2): 16-50.

Ubbink, K. and R. Partridge. 2003.  Preserving Letterpress Copying Books. Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property 28: 38-45.

One thought on “Letterpress Copybooks: An Archives Explainer

  1. Very informative. Often in my 40+ years working in various archival institutions I used the digitization approach which also increases access to the content. Of course it depends on historical value of the record. Thanks for posting this piece.

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