Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Carbon Copy

By Alanna Radle Rodriguez

Do you remember that black and bluish-purple paper that you put under something and on top of another piece of paper to make a copy? Maybe using it in a typewriter? What’s a typewriter you ask? Another blog for another day. Much like many things in this world, I began to wonder when did the carbon copy paper come about? So I started to dig.

Black carbon paper I found in my grandmother's desk

Surprise! There seems to be quite a few holes in the history of carbon paper, or at least according to Wikipedia. But there are three things that everyone seems to agree with. Carbon paper was developed by two different men in two different countries about the same time period, in the early 1800’s. As far I can tell, they didn’t know each other. Here’s where I got tickled. The original carbon paper was not invented for the copying of important documents or checks or use in the typewriter. Both men invented their carbon paper as an aid for blind. Possibly a way for the blind to be able to write without having to see to know when their pen was needing ink again? 

Carbon paper of years gone by
In 1806, Englishman Ralph Wedgewood patented a composition aid for the blind, the “Stylographic Writer”, a contraption where metal wires acted as the lines on a paper and the carbon paper was the ink. His carbon paper was a simple piece of paper soaked in printer’s ink and then dried. But that was a mess, so it was placed in between two more sheets of paper to protect the writer’s hand while the ink transferred to the bottom sheet which was of good letter writing stock. When the blind community didn’t go wild for his new invention, he turned it into something to copy documents for private use. It took a while for that to even catch on. Although it seemed a hot item for writers, his carbon paper wasn’t used by many businesses yet, who preferred their letters be written in ink. This is all taking place in England. Meanwhile, back on the ranch—I mean, Italy.

Carbon paper of today

Pellegrino Turri of Italy, in 1806, had a deep passion to come up with an aid for the blind himself. Well, passion for one specific blind countess. The Countess Carolina Fantoni had become blind during the most active time of her life. Turri had fallen in love with her and promised to invent a machine that would allow her to correspond with her friends…including him without having to tell her personal feelings to a third party writing her letters for her. It must have been a success with the Countess. Turri was her only source of supply of carbon paper and she treasured his machine. Even though the machine doesn’t exist anymore, several of her letters have survived. “I will never forget that it is a precious gift by you”, she wrote.

In Concord, Massachusetts, an American was making carbon paper similar to Wedgewood’s by 1823. Cyrus P. Dakin was exclusively selling it to the Associated Press. In 1871, Lebbeus H. Rogers was doing a promotional stunt for the biscuit and grocery firm he was just made a partner of in Cincinnati. During an interview with the Associated Press, Rogers saw Dakin’s carbon paper saw the potential of office documents being efficiently copied easily. He immediately founded the firm of L.H. Rogers & Co. in New York. In 1870, the firm reached its first major sale to the United States War Department for $1,500. Roger’s vision wasn’t fully reached until a specific typewriter was developed for commercial use in 1872.

Held in front of a light source you can read what was originally copied

Carbon paper at first proved great at producing copies by hand with a metal stylus, the typewriter produced excellent originals and copies. The team of typewriter and carbon paper became a must in an office. L.H. Rogers & Co replaced the original handmade mixture of carbon black pigment and oil which served as a solvent with the first carbon-coating machine and introduced the one-sided carbon paper. But he wasn’t done yet. Rogers was the first one to produce the ribbons for the typewriters.

Carbon paper I use on my wood working to transfer patterns
Of course photocopiers was the biggest cause of decline of sales of carbon paper, but it is still widely used today. Not only physically, but in emails! Ever wonder what that cc on the email address bar is? Would you believe if I said cc is short for Carbon Copy? It is! You can find different brands from a variety of prices at various stores. Artists and crafters use them. Even woodcarvers use it quite a bit to transfer their patterns. I know I do.

Born and raised in the Edmond, OK area, Alanna Radle Rodriguez is the great, great, granddaughter of one of the first pioneers to help settle the area around what is now Seminole, Oklahoma. The fourth generation in a line of women in her family to be born in Indian Territory/Oklahoma, she has lived in her beloved state all her life. With her knowledge of surrounding area history, her heart relishes in volunteering at the Oklahoma Territorial Schoolhouse in Edmond. She lives with her husband and parents in the Edmond area, currently working on a historical romance set in pre-statehood Waterloo, Oklahoma.


  1. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We lived in Holdenville, husband pastored, I was the OSU County 4-H and home economist educator!

    1. I bet you used it a lot! Last time I tried to find some, all I could find was "graphite" paper now. But that was before I had internet capabilities. Now I have no troubles. :-D

  3. I'm an antique! I've actually used carbon paper in a typewriter, but I had no clue how it came into existence. Thanks for filling in the gaps.

    1. I must be an "antique" in a younger body, because I've used carbon paper in a typewriter too! And a rotary phone (my first phone) and my first tv was a black and white knob-channel-off/on-volume tiny little thing. There still is a lot of gaps it feels like, but it sure does explain some. Thanks for coming by!