There’s been a little to-ing-and-fro-ing at the SHARP* listserv about what name we might have had for a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand. Not everything has to have a name does it? Of course some fairly obscure items are so blessed: for years I’ve been wondering why our language feels a need for the word “merkin” for instance. A mimeograph stencil partly created by hand is, I fear, only to be spoken of as a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand.

A patent for a mimeograph machine was granted to A. B. Dick Company of Chicago around 1887 based upon Edison’s earlier patent for a simpler pen-driven duplicator. Once upon a time if you worked in an office you would have been familiar with the mimeograph machine, sometimes called a Roneo, or Gestetner. If the boss wanted to tell everyone something, a typist would type the news onto a mimeograph stencil, having raised the typewriter ribbon out of the way. This would remove the waxy stencil coating and expose the permeable fabric carrier layer beneath. The secretary would then run off a copy for everyone by putting the cut stencil through the mimeograph printer where ink, often strangely purple, would be squeezed through the letter outlines to create multiple copies. Diagrams could theoretically be added by hand using a stylus, and even a signature — though in my experience signatures were not appended — once he’d dictated it the boss no doubt washed his hands of the whole potentially messy thing. According to Britannica up to 5,000 copies could be run off from a single stencil, though the more copies you ran the more likely it was that the counters of lower-case a, b, d, e etc. would fill in as the stencil edges deteriorated.

A related duplication method was the spirit duplicator (e.g. Ditto). This didn’t involve a separate ink: the master consisted of a double sheet, the first of which was typed on which removed the waxy ink coating on the second sheet and transferred it to the back of the first sheet by the keystroke’s pressure. It’s a bit like putting a carbon paper into a typewriter back-to-front. The second sheet would then be taken off and the back of the first sheet, carrying the waxy reversed image, would be used to run off duplicate copies by placing clean sheets of paper against it and applying pressure. They usually produced a purple image, and had of course a fairly limited life.

I recently discovered half of a mimeograph memo about 1968 vacation days. (Maybe it’s a sprit master job, though I think their image tended to fade.) This little memo lives in my 3-volume War and Peace where for forty plus years it has been serving as a bookmark. JLL was Jimmy Laidler, and WS Bill Starling, Bentley House Office Manager and Warehouse Manager respectively. Looks like I was getting my birthday off that year!

See also Hectograph for a closely related process.


* Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing.