A Copy Press in Use? Or a Prop?

A still from Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole”

Many — most? — bookbinders use a letterpress copy press for quick and light pressing needs, often called a “nip”. These presses were originally used in offices, for duplicating letters and other memoranda. Intriguingly, there are alternative uses for them.

They often have little daylight, which is the distance between the platens when fully open, and the thread pitch allows them to speedily move up and down. Because of this, they don’t generate a ton of pressure. Rhodes and Streeter have written a wonderfully comprehensive book about them.(1)

But apart from some advertising (and possibly some photos?), we don’t really know a lot about how these were used and installed in an office. They are often quite ornate, since they were presumably on display.

This is why the still from Wilder’s movie (which is a great and relevant movie to our current time, btw) interests me.  It makes a lot of sense to mount it on top of a safe, since they are both extremely heavy and there is a lot of torque when twisting the wheel. And the height of the tightening wheel looks to be a very comfortable chest height.  But is it a reflection of actual placement or just a prop?


1. Barbara Rhodes and William Wells Streeter. Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780 – 1938 (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press and Northampton, Massachusetts: Heraldry Bindery, 1999)

Ron Lieberman sent an image of a gorgeous press stand he has.


One of the book presses at THE FAMILY ALBUM

4 Replies to “A Copy Press in Use? Or a Prop?”

  1. Jeff: They were often mounted on a special table (copy press stand) usually made out of oak or walnut, and with attractive wrought iron legs. The stand was heavy enough to allow substantial pressure on the screw without movement.

    They were used mainly for copying letters on to special absorbant papers. Volumes of these copies are sometimes found.

    They were almost as ubiquitous in 19th century offices as modern copy machines.

    Since so many of us have these presses, I strongly recommend reading:

    BEFORE PHOTOCOPYING : The Art & History of Mechanical Copying, 1780-1938
    Authors: Rhodes, Barbara; Streeter, William W.
    Publication: New Castle, Del. : Oak Knoll Press ; Northampton, Mass. : Heraldry Bindery, 1999


  2. The book that both you and I mentioned has pics… esp. pp. 260-261; 264; 273; 302; etc. though my nice stand is not pictured.

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