Ditto Paper

Kids today don’t even know what they’re missing with their fancy copy machines and computers. Students of a bygone era can recall the bluish-purple print and unforgettable aroma of a freshly printed page of ditto paper. Once part of the daily scholastic routine, technology would eventually lead to the extinction of these fondly remembered machines and the paper they produced.

There was no ink used in the ditto process, which involved elusive ‘master copies’ that the teacher would keep filed away, far away from the reaching hands of students. The master was either typed on, drawn on, or written upon, and a second sheet was coated with a layer of wax that was impregnated with one of a variety of colors, usually a deep purple since that particular pigment was the cheapest, durable and had contrast with the paper.

As the paper was hand-cranked through the bulky printer, a 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 just a bit, well… toxic. It wasn’t long before the ditto went the way of the Dodo.

Affordable and convenient Xerox machines starting replacing ditto machines in offices, and the schools soon followed suit. In today’s computer age, teachers have replaced paper handouts with digital files, making the old ditto machines look all the more archaic. What computers can’t erase, however, is that intoxicating scent of a warm stack of dittos in the morning, ready to do their part in the learning process.

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.

10 Responses to “Dittos”

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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…

  7. Robin says:

    The ditto machine survived in my high school into the 1990s. My French teacher refused to use the Xerox machine, so all of my quizzes were printed on the ditto. In addition to the smell, I remember that the pages always felt slightly damp and cold. Sometimes they were so fresh from the machine, they were difficult to write on with a pencil.

  8. tamara says:

    i remember in first grade having class work made by these

  9. jm says:

    I got to run dittos periodically at my school. It lived in it’s own little room and we all loved the purple ink and smell. It was considered a big deal to be picked to run dittos, Because my mom was a teacher, I got to MAKE the master ditto sometimes for classes at her school. Woe if you made a mistake on the Master Ditto!!!!

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