Spirit Duplication

Spirit duplication was a low-fidelity reproduction technology invented in 1923 and popularized in the United States by the Ditto Corporation. In a pre-xerographic era, the “Ditto machine” was one of several humble processes pressed into service by folks in need of short-run duplication.


fanzine art by Ron Foss for a comic book zine called The Masquerader

Many early comic and sci-fi fanzines, poetry chapbooks, and activist pamphlets were printed using spirit duplicators (or similar low-tech equipment like the mimeograph or Gestetner stencil duplicator). Schools and churches also relied on these workhorse office machines. This graphic work by Dan Zettwoch describes how evolving technologies transformed the church newsletters produced by his (fictional) uncle Darryl:

Dan ZettwochDan Zettwoch

Once Xerox introduced electrophotography into the market, the older machines generally went to waste. Of course, hobbyists and artists maintain an enthusiasm for the spirit duplicator’s intoxicating aesthetic (and toxic odors). The old machines routinely turned up in state surplus stores and it’s still possible to buy ditto fluid. This 1995 print by Lindsay Dunbar demonstrates that the medium has its unique charms, and may be just as worthy of preservation as any other obsolete printing process:

Lindsay Dunbar

Lindsay Dunbar, untitled

Not all low-end duplication machines are the same; you can read about “The Difference between Mimeograph, Hectograph, and Spirit Duplication” from a seemingly-reliable source at the Dead Media Project, or learn more at the Early Office Museum. But the finer points of these technologies have faded from memory, and “spirit duplication” makes a lovely catch-all term. Indeed the phrase is quite moving, although the word “spirit” refers simply to the alcohol-based solvents used in the process.

The metaphorical potency of spirit duplication was perhaps most clearly expressed in a 2010 essay in Cabinet. Yara Flores described a crisis of faith resulting in a Catholic school’s replacement of spirit duplicators with photocopy machines:

I did not like the new copies. There was the disconcerting matter of the powdery toner. One of my first sheets, incompletely fused, vanished at the touch of my finger. Not encouraging, from a catechistical perspective.

But even worse was the dryness. Sheets fresh from the ditto machine came doused with their intoxicating vehicle. They were limp and delicate and heady. One breathed deeply, and felt a lightness of the spirit. Like the page, one was softened to receive the purple words.

By contrast, these strange new handouts were made of static ash, of a nervous kind of soot. They felt brittle, dusty, lifeless. Without the penetrating aroma of naphtha, the dialogic doctrines felt strangely inert. Absent the lurid aniline purple—redolent of both Tyrian splendor and cruel wounds—the blackletter teachings took on a dour formality.

As I wrote in response to this essay at the time, “Even the cheapest and dirtiest modes of mechanical reproduction have their own inherent signs and markers, and with them their own inherent power to persuade.”

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