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Copying Press

Georgia Kerby - Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum


Thinking back to before the digital world of computers, handwritten letters played a very important role in everyday life. Typewriters assisted communication massively in the Nineteenth Century but took many decades to supersede the convenience of a quick handwritten note. In offices, especially of large businesses, it was essential to make copies of documents such as outgoing letters, but more difficult to do so then today.

Before the 1700s, scribes or clerks provided this menial and time consuming service, by handwriting copies. I’m sure a clerk standing for hours copying out menial business letters would be thankful for the invention of the copying press, a machine with which they could manually create copied documents in, ideally, a twist or stamp of the hand.

While copying presses were invented earlier, the technology really started to develop between the 1780s and 1850s. Early copying presses were like early printing presses with a screw top to tighten and lower an upper metal plate down onto a base plate. An example in the Reed Collection at Whangarei Museum shows a slightly later design, a small portable copying press. Over the turn of the Twentieth Century, copying presses and typewriters became the most common office tools, like our computers and printers.

To make these presses operational, ink, pens and copy books were required. The copy books contained sheets of tissue paper, oiled paper and blotting paper. Depending on the time since the letter was written and the type of ink which was used for writing (special pencils were also used), an arrangement of oiled paper, original letter, tissue paper then oiled paper was made within the book. The copy book with these contents was then put into the copy press, pressed for a time to help the ink transfer and the tissue papers would now be copies of the original letter. Add to this complexity was that the tissue paper had to be damp to assist ink transfer. Various inventions were made over time to achieve this, from simple brushes to felt baths to inbuilt water rollers.

Now all of this equipment could be quite sizable and not at all suitable for making copies of important documents at home or on the road. Our example, the Anchor Copying Press, clearly fits this need, being small and portable made simply of two sheets of wood with a single metal arm. The slim design of this c. 1890 copy press allowed it to be tucked away when not needed. Once the copy book was prepared on the road or in the home office it could be slotted into the press and the iron arm brought down to create pressure like a sandwich press.

The original patent for this particular copy press is an 1888 English patent No. 7569 by William Hastie of Glasgow, Scotland. His patent also appears in the 1891 United States Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents. However, the embossed brass plaque on the surface of the press advertises “John Walker & Co. of London, Hastie’s Patent”. It appears that this British firm secured the rights to locally make their “Anchor Copying Press” based on Hastie’s design. John Walker & Co. Ltd. were stationers at Farringdon House, Warwick Lane, London. In 1922 they were listed as showing diaries, account books, albums, ladies' handbags and fancy leather goods at the British Industries Fair. They also published many atlases and printed several postcards series.

This circa 1890 copy press is a far cry from the scanning and printing technology we have today, but it represents the start of our journey to mechanise the seemingly simple task of copying information.