Letterpress Books – What Are They Good For?

With the introduction of the rotation tool we are now able to add the final 3362 images from the eight letterpress books in the Thomas T. Eckert papers. It quickly will become apparent that these volumes are considerably harder to read than the ones that were in the initial group of ledgers. So what’s their deal?


Before copiers it was a challenge to make multiple versions of a document in a short period of time. For ages the only option was to have someone write the document out by hand a second time, and that wouldn’t necessarily even be an exact duplicate due to missing words or altered spelling. Someone realized, though, that when a piece of tissue paper was placed on top of a letter while the ink was still wet, some of that ink would transfer onto the tissue paper. The letterpress books, bound volumes with hundreds of leaves of this delicate paper, were a way to assemble exact copies of documents, without having to spend time rewriting them.

In theory, they are a great idea.

In practice, the results can be a bit spotty.

mssEC_32_236 (2).jpg

Or very spotty as the case may be.

If a letter was left too long before being copied, there might not be enough ink to transfer and you end up with the ghostly messages above. If the ink was too wet, it would cause feathering (bleeding of the ink). Because the tissue paper is so thin, it tears very easily, and must be handled even more carefully than usual. Our photographer had to patiently insert a sheet of white paper behind each leaf in the letterpress books so that the copies could be seen clearly, and distinguished from the messages on subsequent leaves.

Because the operator wasn’t writing directly into the volume, the orientation of the messages varies greatly, which is why we refrained from loading them until we had the rotation tool. I can tell you from experience that trying to transcribe a message with your head turned to the side can be very tiresome, and we didn’t want to give our volunteers a literal pain in the neck!

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