Dick Smith demonstrates a mimeograph. (Photo by Chaz Boston Baden.)

Dick Smith demonstrates a mimeograph. (Photo by Chaz Boston Baden.)

Publishing a fan mag in the 1930s was a low-skill, but not a no-skill job.

At the lowest level — that would be the carbon-copy magazine — it required no more competence than the ability to type a page of copy. The more sheets you could slip into your typewriter of copy paper, each with a sheet of carbon paper appended, the more copies you could make of your fan mag. The practical limit was seven or eight, and that only with the thinnest of copy paper and the cleanest of typewriter keys. (By “keys” I mean the part that hits the typewriter ribbon, not the keyboard keys that you press on with your fingertips.)

Dissidents in the Soviet Union in those years published their own sort of fan mags, only they weren’t criticizing sf magazines, they were criticizing their government, and if they got caught at it they faced, at least, jail, and possibly much worse. The examples of it I’ve seen were carbon-copied, because that’s all they had, and very nearly illegible. But they were passed around until they were worn out, or until the owners were caught.

There wasn’t much satisfaction in publishing a carbon-copy magazine. After you made a copy for yourself and a couple for your best friends there weren’t any left to send to Forrest J Ackerman and Don Wollheim and Jack Darrow and the other Big Name Fans you hoped would reciprocate by sending you theirs, so fans and fan groups with any funds at all would rise to the next level, the hectograph.

About the only people to use the hectograph other than fans were the chefs in small, often Italian, restaurants who wanted to announce the dishes they had on offer each day. The hectograph itself was a page-sized tray filled with jelly — usually purple — and not actually a very big step out of the poverty level because you couldn’t make much more than a couple dozen legible copies of each page.

The technology required you to type the copy you wanted to print on a sheet of specially treated paper (called by hectographers a “stencil,” though it properly wasn’t). To prepare for the printing operation, you first washed off the slab of jelly all the ink that was left on it from its last job, then allowed it to dry. Then you carefully spread the stencil over the surface of the jelly, pressing it gently to be sure of contact.

Then you removed the stencil and laid a sheet of paper where it was. Next, you hung that sheet to a cord you have stretched across the room to dry. Then you did the same with your next sheet of paper, continuing until the latest copy was getting too blurry to read. Then you washed the surface of the ink slab to remove every trace of the copy and typed a new copy, continuing until you ran out of copy paper or thought you had enough. You can usually identify a hectograph user by the fact that his fingers are almost always purple.

Then, when the jelly was good and dry, you washed off the old printing and start all over with a new page. You printed all the odd-numbered pages of your fan mag that way, hanging them all up to dry. Then you took them down and did the same thing on the other side for the even-numbered pages, and hung them up again.

When they were good and dry, they were ready to bind — which we will talk about after we describe a few more methods of printing, since the binding is pretty much the same for all of them. Such as the dominant form, used probably by more fans than all the others combined, the mimeograph.

A mimeograph was a patented and manufactured device. It was what the Army used all through the war to “cut” orders. (They always referred to the process as “cutting,” when it really was printing, maybe because typing on a mimeograph stencil was also called “cutting”). Many businesses used it for many purposes, and Russia’s samizdatters would have used it in preference to anything else if they could have. (What stopped them was that every mimeograph in the USSR had a built-in page counter, and if someone printed extra pages somebody got a trip to the labor camps.)

The machine consisted of a large drum, with a handle attached. Turn the handle, the drum goes around. How large a drum? Why, about large enough to wrap a mimeograph stencil around. How big was a mimeograph stencil? About the size of a sheet of legal-size paper (8½ by 14 inches) plus a little extra for attaching it to the drum. A mimeo stencil, usually blue in color, was made of a soft, flexible waxy substance, attached to a back like the thin, flexible stock of the cover of a slick magazine. To use it you carefully fed the stencil into your typewriter, took the ribbon out so the bare keys cut the shape of the keys into the waxy substance.

If you wanted to be arty you drew large letters or pictures on the stencil with a “stylus” — like a pencil, but with no lead at the end, just a sort of metal ball. If you made a mistake you repaired it with a dab of “corflu” — that’s correction fluid — let it dry and did it over

Then, quite carefully, you wrapped the stencil around the drum, fastening it to stay in position. You turned the drum to a position where the interior is exposed to you, and brushed mimeograph ink onto the inside of the drum. From there it would seep through the fabric of the drum itself, then through the places on the stencil where your typewriter or stylus had cut passages through the wax. Then you put some blank pages in the paper bale and turn the handle some more. Et voila, out of the rollers under the cylinder pages began to emerge, each one printed with what you put on the stencil.

Well, you weren’t quite home yet. If you hadn’t inked the inside of the drum adequately not enough ink was seeping through the stencil and so you were getting poor reproduction. If you inked it too much your pages would smear or offset — that is, each sheet that mad it through the process would be over-inked, and therefore made copies of itself on the backs of the sheets that waft onto the top of it. But you got the pages of your fan mag, and all you had to do next was bind them together.

There were two other common forms of reproduction — letterpress, otherwise known as the kind of printing that Johannes Gutenberg invented in 1450 and caused all the trouble — overthrowing of kings, religious wars and its current pernicious manifestation as direct-mail advertising. And offset, which starts with what we don’t want happening when we mimeograph, and now has pretty well put most of those metal-type printing presses out of business.

Don Wollheim’s personal fan mag — called The Phantagraph — was printed with metal type on what I think was Johnny Michel’s little three-by-five press, but hardly any others were. And I took the originals of my own tiny fanzine, Mind of Man, to the professionals; it only required both sides of one 8½ × 11 sheet of paper to be offset-printed, so I could afford it. Now offset printing is everywhere.

You now know all you need to know about the skills essential to publishing a fanzine but one. We didn’t yet discuss the binding.

If your work has only a few pages there’s no real problem. One fan can lay them out on a table, pick them up in the proper order, tap them to make sure they’re neatly aligned and staple them with a regular paper stapler. If you have a lot of pages, and you want to produce a lot of copies — say 15 or 20 pages and 75 to 100 copies or more — then I recommend you adopt the good old fannish collating party.

What you want is a table big enough to hold stacks of all the pages, and slave labor enough for at least one person for every two pages. When everyone is present, the slaves march around the table, picking up each sheet in the proper order. When they’ve got the whole issue, they tap the sheets for neatness, present them to the binder for binding, and then they’re free, free, free.

We used this system when we published The International Observer, the 30-page edition of the official organ of the ISA — a fan club, despite its name of International Scientific Association — which was a little more complicated because we finished it off with a wraparound slick paper cover with color art supplied by Johnny Michel’s silk-screening. Charlie Brown used it for every issue of Locus, until they got too big and too numerous to be done by amateur labor. And you could do it, too.


  1. Robert Nowall says:

    I guess the school I attended was the last hurrah of the mimeograph machine…early 1970s, where we’d run off school test papers or homework. Blue ink, usually, those. A couple of times we also put together a mini-school-magazine, mostly poetry and artwork…there was a special kinda “scanner,” I guess, that copied / cut our pre-typed-and-pasted-up stuff onto a stencil and we ran off the magazine with that. The height of technology then, I guess…

  2. Sue McCormick says:

    I remember collating parties. After St. Louis Con, we St. Louis fans used to gather at the house of Norvel and Leigh Couch. We would run the mimeograph, layout the pages, and put together the magazine. We would also play records (Tom Lehrer, the Beatles, … I don’t remember all of them), drink soft drinks (everyone would bring something), and eat on the snacks (everyone would bring something).

    Attendees ran from fans who were parents through the average teenager to the younger children of those parents. We all had a great time. The fanzine wasn’t very special, because this was the official club magazine and the publishing fans of the area saved their best work for their own zines.

    But news of the club activities did get out, and we had lots of fun doing it.

  3. David B. Williams says:

    I don’t think you fully explained hectograph technology. So that today’s innocent readers will understand the process, let me add that the “master” was like an ordinary sheet of slick paper with a purple dye coating on the back. Thus, when you typed your copy on the master, the impact of the keys created a copy of your text in the purple dye material on a second sheet. You then pressed this sheet onto the gellatin tray. The gellatin absorbed the dye, creating a reversed image of your text on the surface of the gellatin. Now, when you smoothed a sheet of blank paper onto the gellatin bed, some of that embedded dye would be picked up by the paper and you could then peel off a copy of your original text. Since the dye began to diffuse into the gellatin as soon as it was embedded, you only had a few minutes in which to pull off a few good copies. With each subsequent copy the letters became more and more diffuse, until the impressions became illegible.

    The hectograph was sensitive to temperature. On hot days, the gellatin became soft, and when you pulled off a sheet of paper with your text imprinted, you might also pull off a layer of gellatin, ruining the whole procedure.

    One advantage of the hectograph (many experienced users swore that it was the ONLY advantage) was the fact that the dye was also provided in pencil form and in several colors, so that color artwork could be reproduced.

    Of course, handling all those masters coated with purple dye meant that the dye spread to the fingertips and from there to the nose, chin, and various other body parts of the hectographer, like poison oak. It was a proud, lonely, and purple splotched thing to be a fan.

  4. Michael Black says:

    I’ve kept your autobiography handy all these years because of the bits about fanzines. I read it when it came out in paperback, I wanted a printing press as a result.

    But around that time, I also read about two guys in San Francisco in 1967 using a Gestetner machine for broadsides and promoting events during the Summer of Love. (Their legendary machine apparently wsa never fully paid for, Gestetner came around and were amazed what they were doing with it, all kinds of tricks apparently, and stopped trying to collect the rest of the payments, so impressed by the work.) Actor Peter Coyote, who was there back then, wrote in his autobiography of those times that it was a “prototypical world wide web”.

    That too was influential, when i finally got on the internet that was my model, at a time when “local” was just becoming feasible as density levels increased.

    But when I met your granddaughters at a friend’s birthday party some years back, Emily of current zine fame and Julia (her picture was in the paper a few months ago in an article about the bookstore where she works), I suddenly realized another angle. Chester Anderson was one of those people with the Gestetner machine, and I’d always interpreted that work as blossoming out of nowhere. But he had been in Science Fiction circles, even wrote “The Butterfly Kid” so those broadsides had to have some basis in science fiction fanzines.

    You’re just “zining” in electronic form now rather than paper, it’s not really that different from when you were young.


  5. Michael Rawdon says:

    I grew up in the 1970s, and carbon paper was still widely used. Heck, it was still well-known enough in 1993 that it was the punchline of a Dilbert cartoon. Public schools (at least in my area) also used mimeographs.

    By the time I started doing fanzines (well, APAzines) in the late 80s, mimeo was just about dead, having been replaced by computer printers and/or photocopying (in my case, both). My graduate school was still using mimeo in the early 90s for teaching assistants teaching introductory classes (I think because they were cheap), so I’ve had the pleasure of using mimeo machines personally. I might be the last generation to do so.

    I’d heard of hectograph machines, but I’ve never actually seen one in action. My impression is that they were essentially obsoleted by increasingly-cheaper mimeo by the 1970s.

    Cheap photocopying obsoleted collation parties too, of course, since photocopiers will do that work for you. I don’t recall ever attending (or hearing of) one in my time in fandom.

  6. Dwight Decker says:

    It’s cause for gloomy reflection on the passage of time that Fred even has to describe how a mimeograph worked and how fanzines were made. Not so very long ago, every fan knew all this as a matter of course. But I have lived long enough to see spirit duplication (or “ditto”) referred to as “purple mimeograph.” Still, I think for most fans, the printing was the regrettable necessity to get the zine out. You may have had to learn about page lay-out and production methods along the way, but that wasn’t the primary goal. I once corresponded, though, with a fellow who did it the other way around. That was Bill Danner (b. 1906) whose interest seemed to be in the printing hobby itself. He had a 19th Century letterpress in his basement and set his own type for his publications. I got the the idea he had more or less drifted into SF fandom and found it a congenial place — he was in FAPA for nearly half a century — but he really had little or no interest in science fiction itself. He enjoyed printing small publications for its own sake and SF fandom gave him an outlet. The Wikipedia entry for “Hectorgraph” reproduces a 19th Century ad for a printing kit using the process, along with the jaunty slogan, “Every Man His Own Printer.” Bill lived up to that spirit, as did a lot of fans even when it wasn’t their real purpose.

  7. Stefan Jones says:

    The I-Con convention had a couple of university-surplused mimeograph machines circa 1985 – 90, which we used to turn out schedules and posters. It was very retro stuff, but we really appreciated them. No waiting for the expensive print shop to deliver our stuff! The machines were smelly, messy, and fascinating. I liked the sound and the spinning shiny drum.

    There was also a machine which created stencils via a photocopying process. That is, we didn\\\’t type on the stencil, we fed the computer-printed pages into this machine, and it would somehow transfer the image onto a stencil.

    We hand-folded and stapled the schedule booklets.

    You can get print templates for your word processor that let your laser printer spit out collation-ready booklet pages. That seems like an anachronism with the Web, but still handy now and then!

  8. steve davidson says:

    A great piece of nostalgia, Fred.

    I’m afraid however that you might need to back up a bit with the explanations of ancient technology; I’m not sure many of your readers know what a ‘typewriter’ is.

  9. Owl says:

    In addition to fans and chefs, one other group of writers used the hectograph: teachers. In the early 1980s I made the mistake of complaining about the ditto machines that my school used. When he was done laughing, my grandfather went into excruciating detail about the joys of making copies using a gel set. Fascinating stuff, but not a skill set that I wanted to acquire.

  10. Jay Borcherding says:

    Good heavens, some of these processes sound arduous. I’m a relative pup at 44, but I do have personal memory of typing ribbons and carbon paper. I never used a mimeograph, but I remember distinctive purple documents at school, or at church (I had to attend as a kid) that I presume were mimeographed. I had never heard of the hectograph prior to this article.

    Still, I’m not gloating about my comparative youth. There are people old enough to vote who never experienced the clattering racket of a dot matrix printer, or are unaware that people once used “xerox” as a verb meaning “photocopy.”

  11. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    I’ve never actually done hecto, but I used (and owned) a “spirit duplicator” (the well-known brand name was Ditto, from A. B. Dick), and those were frequently used for printing APA contributions; the print run was about right, 50 easily, 150 with a good machine and a good operator. The tech was similar to hecto, in fact ditto masters were used by people playing with hecto for nostalgic reasons in the 1970s.

    The later mimeos I used were self-inking, so I never had to do the ink brush thing. I’m just as glad.

    We last printed and collated our own convention program book back around Minicon 36 in 2001, I think. At that time Minn-StF owned a neat Ricoh copy-printer that was basically an electro-stenciler and a mimeo in a box, set up to mostly act like a long-run photocopier (NESFA had a Gestetner-in-a-box earlier).

  12. Lee Gold says:

    You’ve left out Ditto aka spirit duplicator (which used the same carbon master as the hektograph but a very different sort of repro method, able to print 75-100 copies).

    And of course there were several sorts of mimeographs. I used liquid ink mimeos once or twice (where you poured ink into a tank and had it ooze out) but mostly semi-paste mimeos where you inserted a cylinder of ink which gradually fed ink. In either case (I think) the ink went onto a silk screen or ink pad and then, of course, oozed through the areas of the stencil where the pressure of the typewriter keys had displaced the wax.

    As for collating, I spent years collating fanzines while sitting on my couch, with the piles of paper on my coffee table, while I watched television.

    –Lee Gold

  13. John C. Boland says:

    There were some great fanzines in the ’60s. Tom Reamy published Trumpet, via offset, I guess, with photos and well-reproduced art. (He also wrote a pretty good novel, Blind Voices, before dying young.) Tom Dupree, down in Jackson, Mississippi, cranked out a number of zines to meet the requirements of various amateur press associations. (I think he became a book editor.) Ed Meskys (probably misspelled) and Felice Rolfe (also probably wrong) did Niekas (do I have to say I’ve misspelled that?), a fat, fat, mimeographed doorstopper with endless talk of things I’d never heard of like Gnostics and the Niebelung. Bob and Juanita Coulson did Yandro, which may have had the biggest distribution; I was delighted when they used one or two covers I’d drawn. (And both published novels.) Many others, all over the country, all of us trading zines by mail before cheap phone service and the internet. Some of these young publishers seemed far more sophisticated than I was. I enjoyed fandom in those days. Even hit a World Con in Cleveland where I met Sam Delany, watched Asimov and Ellison spar, and got Fred Pohl to sign a book. Great memories.

  14. Robert Nowall says:

    Collating parties aren’t dead yet…I’ve participated in several in recent years, where we put ballots for our local union elections together.

  15. H. E. Parmer says:

    Mimeograph machines were nearly ubiquitous in schools and churches, back when I was growing up in the mid-century. I can still hear the rhythmic clacking of the thing, almost smell the ink …

    I’d never heard of the hectograph, though. Now that\’s dedication!

    As others have noted, though, it’s rather sad to realize references to these technologies will soon be one with the joke about the constipated engineer and his sliderule.

  16. Seth McEvoy says:

    I published a few fanzines using the hectograph process some time in the early 1970s. I had been rummaging through an ancient office supplies store in search of paper, and found a hecto set. It worked. Just barely. And produced great stains all over the place. I knew that hecto was something from the ancient fan world before my time, so I wanted to do it just to say I had done it.

    Ditto was a much more reliable process and I could print enough copies for a reasonable mailing. You could pick up ditto machines quite cheaply. And churn out fanzines for little cost.

    But mimeograph was the Cadillac of fanzines in that era and finding one was a prize. Mimeo was especially cool when you printed fanzines on soft pastel color paper, with brand names such as twill tone, dupli tone, mimeo tone, and fiber tone. They were beautiful but as fragile as pulp magazines, with high acid content. They’ve probably all disintegrated by now. And the ditto and hecto inks tended to fade.

    I still can’t believe I published more than 200 fanzines, but I did. Whew! To quote Wrai Ballard: “Your article took me back. Too bad it couldn’t leave me there.” Thanks for the trip, Fred.