Blotting out the past

Back during the political campaigns, a man running for some local sinecure brought me a plastic shopping bag, which could also be used for a litter bag in the automobile. That's what it said on one side of the bag, and on the other side it gave a pitch for the candidate, who was described as fearless, etc. This made me think of something, and I wish some foundation would give me a substantial grant so I could do an in-depth study of the effect of the ball point pen on the American heritage. There was a time candidates didn't bring plastic bags, and the campaign gift was never more than a blotter bearing a halftone of the hopeful and a small blurb about his sterling qualities. The blotter ceased when the ball point proliferated.

I might ask the Paper Industry Information Office if any mill makes blotting paper today, but I'm sure the young lady receptionist would ask me what blotting paper is. It came in two kinds -- one was absorbent on both sides, and the other had a coated back to be printed on. Print shops kept a supply of the coated kind ready for political years. It came a big sheets by the ream and was cut as wanted. a political blotter was usually post-card size -- 3 1/4 in. by 5 1/2 in. (Are you aware that the Postal Service lately changed that long-established size to 3 1/2 in. by 5 1/2 in.?) Post card was just right for a newspaper cut known as h&s (head and shoulders), and the accompanying message. "Honest -- Able -- Fearless," it would say, and there was a cherubic picture of old Hank Fetchit down the road who foreclosed on widows and was generally doubted when all he said was Good Morning.

The kind of blotting paper that was absorbent on both sides was mostly for the off years, when free political blotters were scarce. Little bundles of it, tied with a band, could be had in the stores for a few cents, and there would be six or eight colors in a bundle. Scholars didn't need blotters for the first few school years, but when real pens and real ink appeared for the penmanship lessons, an intellectual triumph over the lead pencil, everybody had to bring a blotter. Now the school desks had inkwells, and Teacher selected the two most reliable pupils to fill them before each Palmer Method. After the writing period, the same two would pass along again and empty the wells back into the big bottle, which went in the closet until the next time. Ink day was a big day.

A good writer, then, wrote in descending strength. Suppose the letter started: "Dear Friend, I take pen in hand to answer yours of Whitsuntide . . . ." That is about what one would write before one reached for the blotter to gather up the surplus ink and avoid a smooch. So the "Dear Friend" would soak into the paper that much more than would the "Whitsuntide," and as the sentence progressed and was blotted it would be heavy on the front end and light on the other, so as you read along you could see just when the writer had blotted throughout.

Any study of the blotter as Americana would require some old-time post office blotters. These were green, and about 2 ft. by 3 ft., so they covered the writing desk each post office had. There was an inkwell there, too, and the postmaster filled it every morning from a bottle supplied. When the Waterman fountain pen was invented, people affecting this item knew what to do. The fountain pen had a rubber sack that sucked up ink, and when they came to the post office each morning for their mail -- the lawyer, the banker, the storekeepers, the insurance agent -- they'd fill their fountain pens on Uncle Sam. And, as anybody wrote at the post office desk, he would turn his writing over now and then and blot it. So that nearly all the correspondence conducted there was on record, in reverse, and while one waited for the mail to be put up he could puzzle over the blotter.

The ball point pen doomed the blotter and the inkwell, and probably took some homage from penmanship. There was a picture in the newspapers recently of the President signing a bill with a goose-quill pen. Probably the whippersnapper reporters of these times aren't doing their homework, because nothing was said about a blotter. Maybe he has a ball point goose-quill?

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