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Document duplication with carbon paper
in the mid 20th century

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One of the tasks of secretaries and shorthand-typists used to be to produce copies of documents such as letters and papers for meetings. There were of course no photocopiers, but there were alternatives, although the copies that they produced were much inferior to what we are used to today.

Carbon paper between two sheets of paper, ready for making a copy

A 'sandwich' of carbon paper between two sheets of paper.

The most common way to make just a few copies of a document was with paper called 'carbon paper'. This had to be used at the time of typing. Unlike a photocopier, it did not copy a finished document.

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What carbon paper was

Carbon paper was thin paper coated on one side with what I assumed was carbon. I now understand that it could have been dried ink or other pigment bound with wax. It was always black, although in later years, other colours became available. Whatever, it was, the name 'carbon paper' stuck.

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How carbon paper was used

Making a carbon copy of writing

Making a carbon copy of writing. The pen had to be a ball-point one to get enough pressure through the carbon paper.

The typist had to prepare for the copies by putting the carbon paper, coating side down between the paper she would be typing onto and the paper which was to be the copy. Then the 'sandwich' of carbon paper and ordinary paper were rolled into the typewriter and typing was begun. The banging of the keys pressed onto the coating and caused an imprint to be transferred onto the paper under the carbon paper.

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How to make more than one copy

A double 'sandwich' of paper/carbon paper/paper/carbon paper/paper was used to produced two copies. Similarly a triple 'sandwich' could produce three copies and so on. The top sheet of typed paper was known as the 'top copy', the next sheet the 'first copy' and the next the 'second copy', etc.

The 'first copy' was usually completely legible, provided that the carbon paper was fairly new, but the quality certainly deteriorated as the number of copies increased. Naturally, though, when several copies were required, typists tried to work with as large a 'sandwich' as possible, so that they didn't have to repeat their typing. However, the last copy often left much to be desired and was often hardly legible.

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'Flimsy' paper or 'flimsies'

flimsy paper showing writing copied with carbon paper

Left to right: a flimsy copy, top copy and a sheet of carbon paper. The carbon paper shows as longer than the paper because it is for old foolscap paper. The paper would have been foolscap too in the mid 20th century, but A4 is all I have now for these illustrations. The carbon paper is actually slightly shorter than actual foolscap because it wasn't normal or easy to type or draw in the top and bottom margins.

In order to get as many copies as possible from a single typing, the paper had to be thin so that the banging of the keys was transmitted as forcefully as possible. So the copies were normally made on special thin paper, known as a 'flimsy'.

Sheet of 'flimsy' paper held to the light to show how nearly transparent it is becausse it is so thin

A sheet of 'flimsy' held to the light to show how thin it is.

As a child and a teenager, I used flimsies as tracing paper for drawings because it was so thin as to be almost transparent. It was cheaper than proper tracing paper which was thicker and treated in some way to make it less opaque.

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Spying on what someone else had written

The coating on unused carbon paper was shiny, but where it had left imprints on paper, it was matt. Viewed from the coating side, these imprints were mirror images of the typed letters. So it was perfectly possible to look at used carbon paper in a mirror and read what had been typed. Detectives in old films would have been in their element. After a number of uses, though, the letters were so jumbled together that it would have been a very difficult task to decipher them.

 Underside of a used sheet of carbon paper showing 'mirror' writing  Used carbon paper viewed in a mirror making the writing revert back to normal non-mirror writing

Left the underside of a used sheet of carbon paper. Right, the same used carbon paper viewed in a mirror, showing that it then becomes legible.

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Getting dirty with carbon paper

Pack of foolscap carbon papers in a protective wallet

A pack of foolscap carbon papers in a protective wallet.

Carbon paper coating was black and dirty and one had to be careful not to touch it against hands or clothes. For 100 or so sheets, it was bought in a thinnish box and for smaller numbers in a protective wallet. Even used sheets were kept in the box or wallet until needed again, in order to keep them crease free and prevent their dirt from spreading.

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Re-use of carbon paper

The black coating on carbon paper gradually wore off with re-use making the quality of its copies unacceptable. Then it had to be discarded and replaced with a new sheet.

By the time that I was old enough to attend meetings with circulated papers, photocopiers were in use. So I never saw carbon copies used in meetings. I can imagine, though, that copies were distributed according to who was deemed to be most important, with the chairman having the top copy, etc.

Today carbon paper is still available, but it is mainly used in craft work and for single copy receipts, often in what are known as 'duplicate books'. In the 1980s, I had to use a duplicate book with a ball point pen for handwriting students' reports.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.