After picking up an antique book press, I decided to do some digging to find out the age of this lovely iron piece, or perhaps even find a make and model since this particular press only stated ‘pat app’d for’. After some cursory Googling it was quickly revealed that, well, this wasn’t a book press - and what we commonly know as the 'book press' isn't that at all. They are letter copying presses.
But…What exactly is a letter copying press? Apparently, back in the 1800s these ‘book presses’ were used for making copies of letters into blank books. A copying book, which sounds to be a blank book filled with thin tissue paper, was used inside of these machines. Once a letter was freshly written, it was sandwiched inside the book. An oiled sheet sat atop a blank page, while the fresh letter sat under it, and another oiled sheet below the fresh letter. The tissue paper was dampened to encourage the ink to transfer onto the tissue paper when the book was being pressed. Of course, we know when printing, everything prints backwards. This was the reason the paper was made from tissue, so the ink could easily be seen from the other side! It might seem tedious today, but this was before the invention of carbon paper, so having such a device around saved more time than having to write everything out a second, third or fourth time.
As the decades passed, it became more important to have loose copies of documents rather than ones bound inside books. Newer copying presses used a roller and plate, with the fresh letter and blank sheet cranked through to create duplicates; makers claimed these machines could produce 100 copies in as little as two minutes. Suddenly, these bizarre book presses I had seen on eBay and other sites started to make more sense…They were combination presses, which was a traditional copying press, but also featured a roller and plate on top. This makes for an interesting looking contraption that can be used to make a bound book of copies, or individual loose-leaf duplicates.
Aside from these two, there even existed ‘hydrostatic copying presses’ that connected to the pipes of offices, with a small amount of water running through the machine to help apply and keep pressure so that ‘even a lady could press as good a copy as the strongest man’. Fascinating. I wonder what happened to all these old presses. Take a look at the ‘gear screw presses’ below the hydrostatic (see below, tap to enlarge). These were images pulled from a listing on eBay - I purchased these advertisements and will scan them at a high resolution to replace these low quality screenshots. What a great piece of history!
Wondering if your press is a true book press or a copying press? Typically you can tell the difference by the amount of ‘daylight’, or space, between the base of the press and the platen. True book presses have well over 8+ inches of daylight between the two, accommodating several books at one time. A copying press usually only has 4 or less inches of daylight, as only a single copying book was pressed inside at any given time. While I still haven't found the make and model of my 'book press', I'm excited to have learned its true use and history. Want more information? Here are a few sites I referenced: