Editorial notebook

July 27, 2002

A BALTIMORE college student who was heading off for a month's study in Cuba was mystified when a brochure arrived telling her to bring, among other necessities, some carbon paper. She might just as well have been told to sharpen her nibs. After her parents explained to her what carbon paper is, they set out to find some, heavy of heart at the prospect of what surely would be a frustrating and fruitless mission.

But no! It was easy. You may not have given carbon paper much thought since the early years of the first Reagan administration, but that doesn't mean it's not still out there. A mighty industry that thrived alongside steam locomotives, day baseball and manual typewriters exists to this day - very modestly and very quietly, but still very much in business.

How modestly? Nu-kote, America's premier manufacturer of carbon paper, has 60 percent of the market, with sales of about $1 million a year.

"It's our oldest product, but it's kind of staggering to us that people are out there buying carbon paper," says Ian Elliott, a company spokesman. "We don't really know who they are."

It may not be worth Nu-kote's time to find out, but Joe Haig, of Clifton Heights, Pa., has given some thought to it. Mr. Haig runs a business called the Typewriter Warehouse, and as a matter of fact favors carbon paper himself when typing out his invoices. He's gotten so good at it he almost never puts it in backward. So who else uses it?

"There's still that customer that wants that one typewriter in the office," Mr. Haig says. "They'll go right to it. They don't have to set nothing up. Or their girl can sit down and just take that dictation."

For sure, though, it's not what it used to be. Carbon paper's big breakthrough came in 1868, according to a journal called Technical Communication, when a balloonist named Lebbeus H. Rogers was interviewed after a flight by a reporter who then pulled out a sheet of thin paper coated on one side with paraffin wax and carbon black. Mr. Rogers was so astonished he gave up ballooning on the spot, and devoted the rest of his life to the promotion of the stuff.

Over the years the recipe changed - during World War II, for instance, the paraffin wax was replaced with sperm whale oil - but carbon paper became ubiquitous, and for good reason. Yet it imposed a certain discipline. You couldn't make 47 copies of every report and have them distributed to the whole department. You could make, at most, five copies. And if you were getting one of those copies you knew where you ranked, because they went from smudgy to smudgier to smudgiest. Somehow America's business still got accomplished. If you worked in an office and you didn't need something, you didn't get it. Sounds like a recipe for efficiency, doesn't it?

A survey five years ago found that the industry, not surprisingly, had contracted severely in the previous decade - but Nu-kote, which now imports its carbon paper from Mexico, has seen its market remain steady since then. The Library of Congress uses carbon paper in its call slips. The INS uses it. So does the Texas prison system, or at least it did as recently as 1998, when a death-row inmate in Huntsville dyed his long underwear with carbon paper and escaped into the night.

And in Cuba? Dissidents treasure it, in a country where copying machines are few and strictly controlled by the state, because it enables them to reproduce underground literature. Drag queens in Havana snip false eyelashes out of it. The American college student, in the end, never had to use it - but she gave it away, to people who were glad to get it.

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