Saturday, April 11, 2009

O Solé Mimeo

One of the highlights I experienced at the 2009 New York Antiquarian Book Fair was  finally meeting Jed Birmingham, who I've been corresponding with over the last few years in connection with our mutual interest in William S. Burroughs, and his Burroughs-devoted website, Reality Studio.

Jed and his editorial partner, Kyle Schlesinger, have just published Number 2 of Mimeo Mimeo, their magazine devoted to artists books, fine press printing, and the mimeo revolution. For those who missed the mainstream media's scandalously absent coverage of this particular insurrection, Mimeo Mimeo documents how poets and writers, upon the technology's introduction, empowered themselves with the means to print and publish their own and others' work through use of mimeographed journals, and how current poets and writers are revisiting the mimeograph as an expressive medium, whether for the particular charms that mimeographing can bring to their work or in rebellion against the computerized print process, or both.

Issue 2 has a fascinating article by James Maynard about poet Robert Duncan and the mimeographed magazines he published between 1938 and 1941, Epitaph, Ritual, and Experimental Review, as well as an insightful essay about TISH, the mimeographed literary newsletter published 1961-1969 by students at the University of British Columbia. The Duncan mimeographed literary magazines, respected then and to the present day, have become quite desirable and collectable. Peter Howard of Serendipity Books, is offering a copy of Ritual#1 (April, 1940) for $600. Waiting for Godot Books is offering a copy of Experimental Review #3 (September, 1941) with pieces by Anais Nin, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell for $75. All the pieces within Mimeo Mimeo 1 & 2 highlight Jed and Kyle's understanding that the Mimeo Revolution is an attitude -- a material and immaterial perspective on the politics of print, an issue particularly acute in the digital age.



In 1876, before the light bulb lit up in his head, before he pioneered the first practical phonograph, before he invented a functional motion picture process and a zillion other practical devices, Thomas Edison invented the mimeograph, elegant in its simplicity: Cut a stencil, push ink through the holes onto paper, and repeat.

200px-1889_Edison_Mimeograph.jpg Chicagoan A. B. Dick improved the process using waxed paper. The A.B. Dick Co. released the Model 0 Flatbed Duplicator in 1887. Later refinements replaced the original flatbed press with a rotating cylinder and an automatic feed from the ink reservoir. Deluxe models included an electric motor. Cheaper models, using a hand crank, were also available.

By now, many readers of a certain age no doubt have a sweet, intoxicating aroma wafting within their sense memory that harkens back to school days and fresh off the mimeo machine test papers and handouts. School Daze: putting the test right up close to one's nostrils, taking two or three deep inhalations, feeling lightheaded, then getting down to business - inserting "Maybe" for True or False questions, and filling in blanks with answers not found amongst the multiple choice options. Like ex-junkies recalling their first shot, many people who attended school during the 1930s through mid-1960s vividly and fondly remember those mimeographed papers with purple ink whose odor lifted us a millimeter or two off the floor.

The problem, however, as I've just recently discovered to my horror (being completely wrong for over forty-five years is humbling if not humiliating)), is that those papers were not copied on mimeograph machines, which do not duplicate with purple ink or produce a distinctive smell.

Conjuring The Spirit Duplicator

Not a contrivance for charlatans to divest the bereaved and gullible of their savings, nor a Victorian occult device for creating dopplegangers on-demand, it was the spirit duplicator or "ditto machine" or"Banda machine" and not the mimeograph that was responsible for providing duplications in schools and libraries nationwide until Xerox technology completely supplanted  older, low tech duplicating processes. The hectograph, another duplication system, followed the mimeograph, and then, in 1923, the spirit duplicator was invented. The best-known manufacturer in the United States of spirit duplicators was the Ditto Corporation of Illinois, hence the "ditto machine," a most appropriate name for a copying device. "Mimeograph" became a generic term used for all the early low-tech duplicating machines, hence the confusion.

1965 advertisement for the Ditto Corp. spirit duplicator

The Dead Media Project provides an excellent primer on the subject:

"The spirit duplicator master consisted of a smooth paper master sheet and a 'carbon' paper sheet (coated with a waxy compound similar to that used in the hectograph) acting 'backwards' so that a wax compound (we'll call it the 'ink') was transferred to the back side of the master sheet itself. The master could be typed or written on, and when finished the 'carbon paper' was discarded. The master was wrapped around a drum in the spirit duplicator machine. As the drum turned, the master was coated with a thin layer of highly volatile duplicating fluid via a wick soaked in the fluid. The fluid acted to slightly dissolve or soften the 'ink.' As paper (preferably very smooth or coated) pressed against the drum and master copy, some of the 'ink' was transferred to make the final copy. A spirit duplicator master was capable of making up to about 500 copies before the print became too faint to recognize."

Wikipedia has a worthwhile, well-researched and solid entry on the spirit duplicator that provides insight into the "ink" used:

"The usual wax 'ink' color was aniline purple, a cheap, durable pigment that provided good contrast, but ditto masters were also manufactured in red, green, blue, black, and the hard-to-find orange, yellow, and brown. All except black reproduced in pastel shades: pink, mint, sky blue, etc. Ditto had the useful ability to print multiple colors in a single pass, which made it popular with cartoonists. Multi-colored designs could be made by swapping out the waxed second sheets; for instance, shading in only the red portion of an illustration while the top sheet was positioned over a red-waxed second sheet. This was possible because the pungent-smelling duplicating fluid (typically a 50/50 mix of isopropanol and methanol) was not ink, but a clear solvent."

It pains me to report that inhalations of solvent alcohol and methanol have no psychotropic effect whatsoever. The "high" we remember was the placebo effect at work, the suggestion of intoxication all that was necessary for it to be experienced.

Along with the free market as the safest, best social and economic problem-solver known to man, another myth blown to smithereens.


Mimeo Mimeo is not available in an online edition, nor by subscription. Copies can be ordered through Cuneiform Press or Small Press Distribution.

Copies ($10 each) may also be bought directly from:

Kyle Schlesinger
214 North Henry Street #3
Brooklyn, NY 11222


One of Robert Duncan's friends and co-editor of Ritual was the painter Virginia Admiral. Admiral would marry New York abstract expressionist painter, Robert De Niro, Sr.; their son is the actor, Robert De Niro. Robert De Niro Sr. played a small role in the clandestine underground for erotic literature during the late 1930s-early 1940s as part of a group of literary luminaries who wrote erotica on commission to support themselves as they were coming up or during lean times. I'll be telling that story in an upcoming post. Keep watching the skies...

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

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