Ditto Paper

Ditto Machine

Kids now-a-days don’t even know what they’re missing with their fancy Xerox and digital copy machines, but students of a bygone era can recall the bluish-purple print and unforgettable aroma of a freshly printed page of ditto paper (Perhaps “Ditto” wasn’t the name your school used; some called it a “spirit duplicator”). Once part of the daily scholastic routine, technology would eventually lead to the extinction of these fondly remembered machines and the paper they produced.

The process never involved ink, and involved elusive ‘master copies’ that the teacher would keep filed away, far away from the reaching hands of students. The master would be typed on, drawn on, or written upon, and the second sheet was coated with a layer of wax that was impregnated with one of a variety of colors, usually a deep purple since the pigment was cheap, durable and had contrast with the paper. As the paper moved through the printer, the pungent-smelling clear solvent was spread across each sheet by an absorbent wick. When the paper came in contact with the waxed original, it would take just enough of the pigment away to print the image on the sheet as it passed under. Here’s a look at the cumbersome process:

The ritual of sniffing the paper after it was handed out was a practice carried out in classrooms from coast-to-coast, prompting a reference in the 80s movie classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Unfortunately, we later discovered that the ditto solvents and the aniline (the pigment that made the purple color) were highly toxic. Of course, kids today don’t have to worry about good ol’ ditto paper. After the quick efficiency of Xerox hit copy rooms and secretaries’ offices everywhere, the smelly ditto machines were shown the door. But the memories, especially of that intoxicating smell, linger in the hearts of millions of former students.

Did you grow up during the days of the ditto? Were you one of the lucky ones, recruited by your teacher to operate the machine? Share your memories of ditto paper in our comments section, as we fondly look back at one of the only good things about taking a test in school, the wonderful scent of the paper it was printed on.

6 Responses to “Ditto Paper”

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  1. Eddie says:

    I remember the sheets with blue ink, and the smell — and the scene in fast times — I recall teachers referring to ditto handouts as “run-offs” back in those days.

  2. leftylimbo says:

    I was never one of the lucky students to be recruited to run off dittos, however in 1980 (4th Grade) I did get a chance to see a ditto machine up close and personal during a visit to the principal’s office for another errand (which I was more than happy to run). If I remember right, theirs was hand-operated, but it was indeed constructed of that industrial steel as shown in the video above.

    Being called upon by the teacher to make dittos was indeed a highly desired privilege that only maybe only 1-2 of my classmates ever had. But luckily we all had the privilege of taking a whiff of those fresh dittos!

  3. We called them mimeographs where I grew up. Still remember that smell!

  4. Daryl Stephens says:

    Mimeographs were a different technology. Mimeographs involved cutting a stencil and actual ink would flow through the stencil onto the paper. Paper for mimeographs was a little bit different from that for spirit duplicators (which was more like standard office paper we use today). Mimeograph masters could make hundreds of copies, whereas a spirit master would make only about 150-180 copies tops. I was surprised to find out when I was a public school teacher in the 1980s that the solvent for the spirit duplicators was just plain old alcohol. By that time the machines were electric, and you set a dial to count down the number of copies you wanted to make, and the process used much less fluid, so that the copies were dry and absent that familiar smell by the time I got from the workroom to my classroom.

  5. Evana says:

    I and another student in grade six, circa 1976, were chosen to run dittos for the entire year! This was indeed the highest privilege in the class and we thought that they chose us on the basis of being the smartest. We were even trusted to run the tests! One afternoon, we were recruited to run the ditto machine in a tiny room for three straight hours, producing a mountain of paper for an event. We got so high, and laughed so hard, we eventually had to stand with our legs crossed to prevent peeing ourselves. I often wonder what it did to our bodies and our brains. Both I and the other student were later demoted from the blue group down to the green group and were completely upset and baffled, but maybe our test scores suffered from huffing the stuff while we ran the copies right before the tests. Ahh, those were the days…

  6. Lana says:

    I did an essay about duplication machines, and this helped a lot! I learned all about Ditto paper and as if someone was talking to me about the subject. So, thanks very much, Retroland. Helps me remember all the cartoons I used to watch before school…

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