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The Collation

Photostats, or, The more things change, the more they stay the same

Five weeks, and seventeen back-and-forth notes and letters. That’s what it took for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s first director, William Slade, to overcome the architects’ doubts that the library really did need a costly No. 4 Photostat machine and that it really was worth the “troublesome and expensive job” of making it fit into a two-room suite designed for a smaller, cheaper, No. 2 Photostat machine. 1 Why was it so important for the Folger to have a high-capacity Photostat machine?

Simply put, photostats revolutionized the study of rare books in the 1910s and 1920s. 2 For the first time, libraries could quickly make reasonably affordable reproductions of their holdings available for consultation off site. Research that had once been cost-prohibitive because it required in-person travel or photography suddenly became possible.

  1. Letters and notes dated between March 19, 1931 and April 23, 1931 in the “Cret, Paul Philippe” correspondence file for 1931. The “troublesome and expensive” warning comes in a letter from J.E. Hutchison to Paul Philippe Cret dated March 31, 1931.
  2. Like “Xerox” and “Kleenex”, the Photostat brand became so closely associated with the product that the trademarked name became genericized in American English. In British English, the trade name “Rotograph” became the generic term for the same thing.
  3. The earliest example I know is a reproduction of the 1617 edition of the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth that was produced in 1857. According to the handwritten note by J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps on the endleaves of the four copies at the Folger, “The negatives are destroyed and only ten perfect copies are preserved.” They are now almost illegibly pale.
  4. The suite has since been further subdivided, and is now a shared semi-open office area adjacent to the elevator.
  5. James Waldo Fawcett, “Folger Library Called Gem of Architecture,” The Washington Post, April 23, 1932, page 1 of supplement.
  6. Note that this practice was short-lived. More often, photostats of missing or damaged pages in the Folger collection are housed in separate envelopes shelved next to the volume, where the photographic paper will not be in contact with the original paper in the book.
  7. Letter dated July 5, 1921, as cited by Frederick Ives Carpenter, “The Photographic Reproduction of Rare Books,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 41.
  8. Letter cited in George Watson Cole, “The Photostat in Bibliographical and Research Work: A Symposium,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 14.
  9. From the minutes of the annual meeting on June 22, 1921, as published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 50
  10. “Discussion of Photographic Reproduction” at the December 21, 1921, meeting of  the Bibliographical Society of America as summarized in the minutes published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 52.
  11. Chester March Cate, “The Photostat and the Huntington Library, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 19.


I had no idea that Photostats were from the 1910s.
Very interesting read.

Criação — August 1, 2015

Fascinating topic! I’m wondering about a minor detail: when did the Folger get rid of its photostat machine?

John Lavagnino — August 2, 2015

I’ve been trying to find out, too. The best I’ve been able to determine so far is that it was definitely gone by 1974: that’s when the current longest-serving staff member started here, and she knows it was already gone then.

Erin Blake — August 3, 2015


Do you know whether the old Photostat machines could simultaneously make enlargements or reductions of the original they were copying?

And, if so, can you tell me anything about how the machines were configured to do that with some degree of precision?

All best, thanks for indulging my questions.

Randy Biddle — March 19, 2018

Yes, Photostat machines could make enlargements or reductions by having the operator move the camera closer to or farther away from the original. By matching up numbers on a chart, the operator could be sure the resulting image would be of a specific enlargement or reduction percentage, and in focus.

There’s an explanation of how to do this on pages 11 through 13 of The Photostat and its operation (Rochester, N.Y.: Photostat Corp., [1936?]). Here’s a link to that section in a scanned copy from the University of Michigan: The chart with standard enlargements and reductions is on page 13.

Erin Blake — March 19, 2018

My Aunt Frances Mary Reinwand ran the Photostat Department at Penn State University starting back in the 1930s to her retirement–probably in the 1960s. From the time I was only four I was taught to assist in the drying process, making sure the negatives moved along through a series of trays and onto the drying area properly. The drying area consisted of a long belt that ran in a sort of U-shape around the back of the second room. My aunt was quite the martinet and no one, no matter how important in the university hierarchy, dared give advice or, heaven forbid!, argue with her. The Penn State Photostat Dept. was located in the bottom level of Pattee Library and for some reason I always entered it through a window, dropping down onto my aunt’s desk. I was to become an adult before I went through the front door of Pattee. Thanks so much for the interesting article. I’ve been curious for years about Aunt Francey’s work. Her machine, though, wasn’t quite like the one pictured and for some reason I remember the camera and projector area, these in the front room, being enclosed in a large, glass square. It being so long ago that I may be incorrect. But, again, thanks for the article.

Kay Cyr — June 16, 2020

I was a photostat operator at the Nixon Blue Print Company in Corpus Christi Texas when i was in middle school. This was maybe 1941-42. We had gas fired drum document dryers. You placed the object to be dried on the canvas belt and it went around the drum and came out dried. The first copy was a negative. If you wanted a positive copy you had to put the negative on the table and photograph it to get the positive copy. The table was moved up or down for enlargements and reductions. The developer was in the machine, your took it our and put into a fixer. At this time you could clean the photo with a chemical bath before drying. Hard to remember details as this was 80 years ago for me. RD

Robert Dickensheets — February 27, 2022