Have you ever completed a writing assignment on your computer and printed a copy of it to hand in to your teacher? What happens if your dog eats that copy of your homework? No problem, right? You just print another copy!
Now imagine you were a student years and years ago before computers and printers were commonplace. What did students do back in those days? If you can imagine this…they actually wrote their papers by hand! And students with hungry dogs? Well…they could be in some real trouble!
Today, we take it for granted that modern technology allows us to print unlimited copies of documents from our computers. If we don't have a computer or printer nearby, no problem! All we need to do is take a document to a photocopier and make as many copies as we need. Long ago, that was not the case.
In the 1800s, businesses relied upon copy clerks and scribes to make handwritten copies of important documents. Of course, it took a lot of time to make copies by hand. It wasn't long before inventors were working on ideas for how to make copying documents easier.
Over time and with many improvements and refinements along the way, a copying solution was eventually developed: carbon paper. Carbon paper consisted of a sheet of paper that was coated on one side with a layer of carbon black (soot) bound with wax.
When placed between an original and a second piece of paper to be copied onto, carbon paper would transfer marks made by the pressure applied by a typewriter or pen. For example, when you would write your name on the original, your pen would make an impression on the carbon paper, pushing the carbon black onto the second piece of paper.
This simple process made a clean, legible copy of the original. The wax on the carbon paper helped to prevent smearing. The copy made by the carbon paper quickly became known as a “carbon copy," a phrase that's still used today.
Carbon paper saw many improvements over its lifetime. Carbon black was eventually replaced with dry inks and pigmented coatings. Likewise, wax was eventually replaced with polymers that could be applied with solvents to plastic films instead of paper. Despite these improvements, the products were always known as carbon papers.
Carbon papers became very popular. Not only were they a big hit with businesses, which used them to make copies of legal documents, but they were also used by a wide variety of individuals to make copies of manuscripts, letters, and other forms. Carbon papers also became an important part of credit card transaction receipts.
With the development of photocopiers and computer printers, carbon paper isn't nearly as popular today as it was many years ago. It does remain popular for a few specialty uses, however. Although it's only made by a couple of small companies in the United States, carbon paper remains a popular tool for making copies in point-of-sale transactions, tracking slips for mail delivery services, and duplicate checks and money orders.