Monthly Archives: August 2017

Before There Were Paper Jams: A Brief History of a Little-Known Office Machine

 

Above: one of two copy presses in the Hennepin History Museum collection.

The letter copying press was invented in 1780 by the Scotsman James Watt, also the inventor of the steam engine. Watt’s machine eliminated the need for laborious hand copying of documents and provided the user with completely accurate copies of the original. He patented two versions of the device. One used two opposing crank operated rollers like a washing machine wringer, and the other used a screw press mechanism.

The process worked as follows. First the letter (or document) to be copied had to be written with a special soluble ink and allowed to dry without blotting to ensure that it would have a thick ink deposit.

Copies could be made for up to about 24 hours but the best were made within the first few hours. Next a copiest would prepare a “sandwich” to place in the copy press. It consisted of a sheet of oiled paper followed by a water dampened sheet of thin tissue paper, then the original document with the inked side facing the tissue paper and finally another sheet of oiled paper. The “sandwich” was then placed in the copy press and pressure was applied usually by turning a screw or using a lever. After a short time the pressure was released and enough of the ink from the original would have wicked into the tissue paper to make a copy. Thin tissue paper was used so the document could be read through the paper. The oiled paper prevented the ink from transferring to any other documents if multiple copies were being pressed at the same time.

Copies were often pressed in large quantities where a lot of correspondence was generated like in offices. Bound books of tissue copying paper were frequently used with originals and oiled paper inserted in them as described above. Special brushes or dampening reservoirs were used when copying large quantities at once. Small portable copy presses were also developed for use when someone was traveling. In early America they were quickly adopted by notable people including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who designed his own portable version. Calvin Coolidge was the last president to have his official correspondence copied on copy presses.

Hennepin History Museum has two of the screw style copy presses. One is closed with a wheel and the other is closed by spinning a straight handle with large, heavy iron balls on the end. The iron balls were used to create centrifical force so that a copiest could open or close the press with one good twirl. This would speed up the process in offices where a lot of copying needed to be done. The straight handles remained popular in England but were mostly replaced by wheels in US machines by 1860.

Although many more sophisticated copying machines and techniques have since replaced Mr. Watt’s invention, it was in common use for over 150 years. It is interesting to note that they were still being manufactured in 1950 and were used in Britain until the late 1950s.

2017.0512.108The iron balls on the ends of the handle allow the press to be closed with one good twirl.

About the Author

Mike Larson has been a volunteer working on the inventory project at Hennepin History Museum since January 2017. He has so far cataloged over a hundred objects, primarily large artifacts including a soap box derby car, big-wheel bicycles, a switchboard desk, and—of course—two 19th century copy presses.

Resources

The Early Office Museum

The Briar Press

The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

An Inedible Arrangement: Samples from the History of a Local Landmark

This appetizing assortment of biscuits sits in a frame that was once a display “window” on the outside of the Burch Pharmacy at Hennepin and Franklin Avenues in Minneapolis. It contains 22 different products, all made by Huntley & Palmers, an English brand. Passerby could look up from the street outside and see what options were available, including those on display in the other product windows.

When the Burch Pharmacy closed in 2010, it was the last of the 215 independently owned drugstores listed in the 1948 Minneapolis Directory.  Interestingly, the building, which is now Burch Steakhouse, was designed by Edwin H. Hewitt, who also helped design the Christian Family Residence, now the site of everyone’s favorite history museum!

The pharmacy had been part of Minneapolis ever since it was founded in 1913, and there are many fascinating stories tied to it, such as the string of robberies, including one by “stylish burglars” who drove a car through the window and stole a stamp machine. George Burch, owner of the store, chased off another thief in a running shootout, with Burch firing some sort of machine gun as he pursued the “Bearded Bandit”.

George Burch sold the store in 1917 and ended up accidentally shooting himself through the heart in 1922, but the pharmacy continued on under Ben Cohen and Gene Johnson. Cohen opened the store’s second and more famous location in 1930.

Biscuits detail 2

Huntley & Palmers is less important in the history of Hennepin County, but it is full of incredible stories nonetheless. Captain Scott brought their biscuits along on his voyage to the South Pole. In 1904 the first Europeans to visit the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet were welcomed with Huntley & Palmers biscuits.

 

About the Author: Evan Walker is an intern at HHM. He enjoys walks on the beach and sharing stories about people and events from the past. Evan will be going into his sophomore year at Luther College in the fall, studying History. His main project is running the Facebook group for external research, so if you’re interested in seeing and researching some cool artifacts to help out the museum, talk to Heather Hoagland, the Collections Manager, about joining us to have fun researching and finding out all the secrets most people don’t know about Hennepin County. Contact Heather at heather.hoagland (at) hennepinhistory.org or 612-870-1329.

This item has recently been photographed and documented as part of a complete and comprehensive cataloging project. Eventually, all items will searchable online! Thank you to our volunteers for their hard work, and to our financial donors for supporting this project. To make a contribution to support local history, please click here.

Sources 

Vanishing Twin Cities: The End of Burch Pharmacy