Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How I Revived an Obscure Piece of Communication History and Discovered the Secret Life of Carbon Paper

     Since 1991 I've been a volunteer at Columbia State Historic Park, in Tuolumne County, California. The Park has had an active Gold Rush Living History progam since the early 1980's. I've always been an advocate for honesty in interpretation and have tried to follow that philosophy whenever I've portrayed a historic figure, be it a miner or a merchant. In a previous post, I had mentioned the "Columbia Diggins' 1852" Living History Event as an annual affair in the Park. While researching all of the possiblities for portrayals at the Diggins', it suddenly dawned on me that I had  missed one of the key players in a historical trading center like 1852 Columbia.

Yours Truly as a Forwarding Agent
Columbia Diggins' 2008
Collodion Image by Will Dunniway
      How did the merchants procure their goods ? What about the business of business, in those wild and risky times?  The answer may seem obvious today, but maybe it was different then. One shouldn't assume anything about the past until you've done your homework. What I discovered  in "A Gold Rush Merchant's Manual" by Mary Helmich and Pauline Spear was the important role of the Forwarding Agent. Think of them as the Sales Reps of their time. These guys would front for the large,wholesale traders in the major cities and by working a circuit, would travel to the outlying and sometimes isolated towns in the mining districts. As a merchant, you depended on your Forwarding Agent. He could arrange the purchase, shipping and warehousing of your goods and even sell you insurance in case of the loss of said goods. Not a bad idea when you consider how often fires swept away entire towns. I decided I needed to accurately portray this key figure in our recreated town of  Gold Rush Columbia.

      Living History is a tricky business. I personally feel the past will always remain as such and any notion of bringing it "all" back is pure nonsense. What we hopefully can do is kick that door open once in a while and invite the public to gain a "little" insight into the past through our scholarship and sensitivity. That's my philosophy and I'm sticking with it.  Since I don't do first person, I rely heavily on an accurate costume and authentic, replica props to teach with. With all that said the question remained, what did a Forwarding Agent need, to do his job in the field ?  One mysterious object that kept popping up as I did my research was something called a Manifold Writer. This little object turned out to be a great piece of communication history that had virtually fallen through the cracks. Most people have never heard of it.

Edward Kavanaugh's Manifold Writer
Georgetown University
     The Manifold Writer was a copy book used to make multiple versions of letters or notes or anything written. How was this accomplished ? Well, it was done with carbon paper, first called carbonic paper. The way it worked was so cool that I was determined to locate an original Manifold Writer, and replicate it. You've got to love the internet, when it works. I lucked out and discovered that Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., had an original Manifold Writer in their library archives. It was owned and used by Edward Kavanaugh around 1832. Mr. Kavanaugh had been a State Legislator from Maine, a U.S. Representative, the Governor of Maine and finally a diplomat to Portugal. Whew...that's a life ! No wonder they kept his copy book full of his letters. I contacted the University and was thrilled to learn that they would photograph all of the parts of the Manifold Writer for me, for a small fee. The fact that it was a complete, intact example  gave me the opportunity to produce an accurate replica. So how about a little history and insight into how this thing actually worked ?

Original Ad for Wedgwood's Manifold Writer
courtesy of
     It all started in 1806, when Ralph Wedgwood patented the Stylographic Manifold Writer. It's intent was to help the blind to communicate. Ralph's idea was to make it possible for someone, sighted or not, to write a letter without the usual quill pen and ink. This was accomplished with the use of cabonic paper that was saturated with wax and pigment. What you had was a bound book of tissue paper pages. You would insert a sheet of this new carbon paper that was coated on both sides, under the tissue page. Under the carbon paper, you inserted a plain piece of letter paper and under that a thin plate of metal for a backing. With a special stylus that had a smooth, blunted end, you proceeded to write your letter on the top tissue paper page. By pressing down with the stylus, the pigment on the top of the carbon paper would transfer the writing to the back of the top tissue (readable through the tissue) and transfer the writing from the back of the carbon paper, to the blank letter paper. I know it might take a moment to understand this but it was revolutionary in its day. It was possible to make several copies, at the same time, by repeating the combination of carbon paper and blank letter paper, in multiples. You also ended up with a copy in the bound book of tissue paper. In all the examples of original Manifold Writers that I surveyed, these bound letter copies were usually all that remained. One more thing that the Kavanaugh example had that made it so special was a separate cardboard shield that kept your hand from making an imprint. It also had guide strings to help you write in nice straight lines. Way cool !

My replica, showing copy book, carbon paper in
protective paper folder, metal backing plate,
cardboard shield with guide strings and sylus.
photo Lindy Miller 2011
      In order to make a credible replica, I had to do a crash course on bookbinding. Both  ehow.com and instructables.com  were good places to start. I found some very thin calfhide, period looking marbled papers and thick chipboard for the covers. The hardest thing was locating a close substitute for the original tissue paper leaves. The best I could find was tracing paper bound in a pad, for artists. Luck would have it, carbon paper can still be purchased, but it's really getting hard to find in this digital age. Two sheets of it, carefully glued back-to-back, recreated the original double sided version. Sewing the signatures of tracing paper together, with waxed linen, took some time. The paper was easily torn after I punched the holes for the thread, so I had to be very careful. I turned the walnut handle for the stylus on my lathe and crafted a metal tip to match the original. The photos from Georgetown were high resoulution and I easily copied the label from Kavanaugh's original. The label is in three languages, a reminder of the popularity of such things in the 19th century.

Our original 1855 Manifold Writer
photo Lindy Miller 2011
     Another little tidbit that I discovered about the Manifold Writer was its place in our history. Did you know Ulysses S. Grant wrote the terms of surrender at Appomattox on one so Lee could have a copy, or that Mark Twain used one to copy his thoughts for us to discover later?  The use of the Manifold Writer almost spanned the entire 19th century. Carbon paper finally came into its own when the typewriter was perfected in the 1870's. Heck, I used the stuff in the early 1960's, in typing class, but all that remains of it today, is a saying in our common language. People sometimes still call it a "Carbon Copy" or CC when they refer to anything duplicating an original. One final note, my wife and I were lucky enough to later find and purchase an original 1855 Manifold Writer which I've pictured here.

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