Letters to the Editor

Before Photocopiers, Before Carbons: Letterpress Copies

October 01, 2012

To the Editor:

"Historians Ask the Public to Help Organize the Past" (The Chronicle, September 3) defines a "letterbook copy" by saying that "people used to copy their letters into bound books of blank pages." You're partway there, but you have missed the essential elegance of what many historians refer to as "letterpress copies."

Writers did not simply copy their letters into blank books. The books in fact comprised sheets of very thin translucent paper. The letter to be copied was placed under the thin paper, a damp blotter was placed on top of the paper, and the original letter, translucent sheet, and blotter were then pressed together, resulting in a certain amount of ink transfer to the underside of the translucent page. The resulting copy was then read through the translucent page.

I have worked with many of these in the National Archives, where Civil War documents were often copied in this manner after they were written and signed. Most of these letterpress copies are as clear as if they were written yesterday. An ingenious system, I think, in the days before copy machines.

James T. Currie

The writer is a retired professor of national-security studies at the National Defense University.