Primitive Copy-rites of Ancient Peoples

Vonda recently said something about hectograph and asked if I remembered it.  I wrote back to her:


Oh do I remember hectograph.  We had one when I was 12 or so.  My brother Karl used it most; I think he put out literature on it when he was campaigning for office at Berkeley High. Karl had political ambitions. When he was nine he campaigned for City Manager of Berkeley. All he had to print up his literature on then was one of those letterpress sets where the letters are pink rubber, and you put them into little wooden slots with tweezers, and press it all on an inkpad, and then onto the paper, and it comes out rather pale and crooked, but PRINTED.  His campaign slogan was The Man Who Can Do It.  Good slogan, huh? He got three write-in votes. I was proud and impressed.

Anyhow, a hectograph is essentially a tray of very stiff jello and a kind of special ink that the message is written or typed in. The process is messy and slow, the ink has the gift of ubiquity, the jello has to be cleaned and recleaned and rerecleaned. The copies come out rather pallid and blurry, in a distinctive shade of purple.

It came in a neat little kit that all fit in a box not much bigger than the jello tray, which was probably 9×12. Easy to move, and to hide. Samizdat was often hectographed. There were jokes in Russia about all the people in Siberia with purple fingers. (My friend Jean worked in Saigon before the war, and there were jokes there, too, about people with purple fingers; but theirs were due to gentian violet which was a topical cure for a local sexually transmitted fungal itch.)


Talking about the hectograph reminded me of later efforts at home reproduction (of text). Some time in the seventies or eighties our friend Helen, who was working as a Kelly Girl (temp secretary) told us about home copiers, which were new, and knowing that I had a lot of copying, said we ought to get one, and told us which kind: a heat copier, I don’t remember the brand. It required a special sensitive paper. If you didn’t let it cook long enough, the copy was too anemic to read, and if you cooked it too long the paper turned a dark toasty brown, thus entirely concealing the text. But with a little care it worked, and it didn’t cost too much or take up much room, and I used it a lot, copying letters mostly, and music for my recorder.

What we didn’t know then was that the life of the copy was pretty short, I suppose because the paper remains somewhat light-sensitive. By now, the letters I filed are semi-legible. My lovely Scots and Welsh folksongs and the paper they’re on are gradually becoming exactly the same delicate brown color.

They look as if they’d been written in lemon juice, or milk, and let dry, and then held over a flame: Secret Writing. Did you do Secret Writing? It worked, but it wasn’t exactly easy to read, and the paper did tend to either toast slowly or burst into flame, thus destroying the Secret Message, possibly before you’d read it.  But at least that kept the Secret.



King Dog: A Movie for the Mind’s Eye

A little background: The character of King Ashthera, with his dog, and his gambling streak, is derived from King Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, the wonderful and interminable epic of India. When, towards the end of the story, Yudhisthira gets to Heaven, he is outraged to find some of his enemies are there, and some of his friends are not; and he decides not to enter Heaven at all unless they let his dog in with him.

I stole all that.

King Dog is available at the Book View Cafe eBookstore.







Primitive Copy-rites of Ancient Peoples — 4 Comments

  1. Hectograph prints were the school handouts of my childhood. I can still remember the distinct smell of the ink, sharp and velvety. And if they hadn’t dried sufficiently your fingers turned a purple that never washed off. I felt a little melancholy when my high school got an actual Xerox machine and the purple sheets went away. The hectograph made a distinct sound when it was printing, a rhythmic ka-thank-ka-thank that could be heard echoing down the halls from the school office. One more bit of vanishing aural history.

    And my Dad had one of those heat copiers. Those of his letters and files that were stored away held up pretty well, but when I was cleaning out his files I found reams of ecru correspondence.

  2. Actually, I am a proud owner of a samizdat copy of the Polish translation of “The Wizard of Earthsea”. Well, it was not hectographed, and even was not regular samizdat since it is just a poor photocopy of the official Wydawnictwo Literackie 1983 edition which appeared in print later than it should and only in small numbers because communist cenzors put the book’s translator, renowned Polish poet Stanis?aw Bara?czak on a black list. But still I came into its possession in the same way in which I acquired Orwell’s and Solzhenitsyn’s books. Do not call it piracy, it was an act of resistance to the oppresive regime! 😉

  3. Hectographs and I raise you Mimeographs! I just saw one in a thrift store the other week and was tempted to acquire it.

    Early SF fanzines and APAs were Mimeographed. As were all my tests in college!