Copying before the photocopier

If you’ve ever used late 18th century or 19th century business records, you may well have come across ‘wet copy’ letter books.  These distinctive volumes are made up of letters on very flimsy, thin paper, with rather blurred writing which appears in reverse – although because the paper is so thin, you can read the writing from the other side.

Wet copy letter books are definitely not one of my favourite kinds of record.  Because the paper is so thin, you get hundreds of  fragile blurry letters in each volume; I’m always impressed by the researchers who have the patience to go through them.

Despite their drawbacks, you have to admire the ingenuity of the invention, which was patented in 1780 by James Watt.  There’s an excellent article by Dr Brian H. Davies about the invention of wet copies on the Ceredigion Archives blog, which explains how they were produced.  There are also pictures of wet copy letters, so if you’ve never seen one before, do take a look – and be glad you don’t have to use them!

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One thought on “Copying before the photocopier

  1. I was interested to see this blog and learn more about “wet copy letters”. I am a professional researcher and had not come across these until very recently after over 30 years of researching in the Derbyshire Archives.

    I was asked to find and transcribe specific letters which were too faint to scan. I was amazed to be confronted with two volumes of thin tissue-like paper which looked very fragile. Some sheets looked completely blank at first, then I could just make out a few feint ink smudges. Luckily one or two letters had been written on normal paper so I had an idea of a typical format used by the author.This helped when the letters I sought turned out to have more blurred and smudged words than usual!

    However, even with the use of ultra-violet light and a magnifying glass I could only make out a few letters in most words and ink smudges to indicate where other words had been written. Only very occasionally would a whole phrase be legible.
    I like a challenge , but this was a particularly unusual and difficult one for me. My client appreciated my efforts!

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