Before the “My Documents” folder on your computer, there were physical documents—memos, rent receipts, promissory notes, hotel registers, datebooks, grocery lists written on the back of envelopes. Remember life before you could read an e-book, score e-tickets, or e-file your taxes online?

book cover: Paper Knowledge

In her new book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, NYU’s Lisa Gitelman (a professor of English and of media, culture, and communication) charts a course from the letterpress to the PDF, considering the various shapes that our pamphlets and periodicals have taken over the past 150 years. Along the way she shows how the ability to make copies—ushered in through technologies from the mimeograph to the Xerox machine—changed our thinking about documents, and explores how computers have allowed us to create digital versions of old paper forms.

“Consider that paper is a figure both for all that is sturdy and stable (as in, ‘Let’s get that on paper!’),” Gitelman writes, “and for all that is insubstantial and ephemeral (including the paper tiger and the house of cards).”

Below, courtesy of Paper Knowledge, are just a few forgotten facts anecdotes from our papery past.  

Those expensive letterpress wedding invitations? They’re a holdover from waaaaay back.
Johannes Gutenberg and his associates famously developed letterpress printing—the process of arranging blocks of movable type into a press, inking, and then pressing paper against it—in the mid-fifteenth century, and it was pretty much the only way of printing until 1800. But nowadays, Gitelman writes, we’ve got so many speedy and efficient “planographic, photochemical, and electrostatic means of printing” that “printers” are more often machines than people, and almost nothing (except that custom-made monogrammed stationery you ordered on Etsy) is printed by letterpress. The downside? You don’t get the tactile satisfaction of touching the letters with your fingers, because modern printing methods don’t leave impressions on the paper.

Under the British stamp tax on American colonies in 1765, colonists were required to use only imported paper that was specially stamped—and they really didn’t like it.
When the stamped paper arrived in Boston in February 1766, Gitelman writes, it was found guilty at a mock trial, hanged from a “tree of liberty,” and then “burned to death.”

There were books, and then there were ____________ books.
“Job printing”—printing not of literature but of tickets, timetables, ledgers, posters, diplomas, and other fill-in-the-blank ephemera—was a booming business by the 19th century, Gitelman writes. Think checkbooks: Someone had to print all those “Pay to the order of _____________”s. And notebooks? Someone inked the rules onto the pages (there were special ruling machines designed for the purpose). A few of the items (“address-books,” “day-books,” “package receipts,” “reporters’ note-books”) listed in the “blank books” entry from the 1894 American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmarking are familiar to us today, while others (“fern and moss albums,” “flap memorandums,” “milk-books,” “two-third books”) are, as Gitelman puts it, now obscure.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1894 that Western Union wasn’t liable for garbled messages in telegrams.
That’s because they included fine print (saying they didn’t guarantee accuracy) on both the forms senders used to handwrite notes and those the telegraph offices used to rewrite the messages for delivery to their recipients. Gitelman compares these disclaimers to the end user license agreements to which we must opt in to use many kinds of software today.

James Agee requested that his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men be printed on newsprint.
The idea was to signify that the work (like a daily newspaper) was timely, and to make the book about Southern poverty accessible to more readers by keeping the cost down (newsprint was the cheapest of papers). His publisher declined.

Xerographic reproduction was effectively illegal in the Soviet Union.
But here in the U.S., the technology played a central role in Cold War era politics, Gitelman writes: In October 1969, Daniel Ellsberg began taking sections from a 47-volume work called “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy” home from his office and copying them. He created what would become known as the “Pentagon papers”—arguably the most famous Xeroxes in history. The document had been requested by Robert MacNamara in 1967 and penned over a year and a half by 36 anonymous authors working with Pentagon and State Department files. Before leaking the pages to the New York Times in 1971, Ellsberg and friends used scissors and cardboard to edit the words “TOP SECRET—Sensitive” from the margins of the copies.

Yep, office humor predates email.
In the 1960s and ’70s, folklorists Alan Dundes and Car Pagter collected examples of “Xerox-lore,” or (sometimes raunchy) humor that was reproduced and circulated on paper. They published Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire in 1975, releasing subsequent volumes every few years until 2000, when jokes about the strain of “living as modern bureaucratic subjects” had begun to move online.

Microfilm lives!
Today ProQuest offers a database of Early English Books Online, which contains digital facsimiles of English-language works printed between 1470 and 1700. The images have been scanned from microfilm, some of it dating back to an archiving project begun at the British Museum in 1935—and ProQuest is currently working with 125 libraries around the world to continue the process. In fact, there are few online research databases of centuries-old materials that aren’t built on scans of microforms, Gitelman writes.

The PDF was born in 1991.
The acronym stands for portable document format, a file type devised by Adobe Systems and later adopted as an open standard. The point of it is to make the visual elements of documents portable across platforms and devices—or, in other words, to make documents that look the same on screen as in print.

In 2009, the Modern Language Association declared that print was no longer the “default medium.”
Does that mean print is dead? Not quite. But the current MLA handbook advises researchers to label works cited as either “Print” or “Web.” 

—Eileen Reynolds