South Carolina's Flagship University

A Nineteenth Century Law Library:
The Colcock-Hutson Collection


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Perhaps nothing about the practice of law has changed more since the days of the Colcocks and Hutsons than the office technology employed. John Colcock would have been fairly comfortable in the law office of his great-great-grandson, in the 1920s, but would hardly recognize the law office of today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, legal documents were handwritten. Quill pens were used until the mid-1800s. In the 1860s, ink pens with steel nibs replaced quill pens.

An Advertisement for Pens
An Advertisement for Pens

The first practical typewriters were introduced in the 1870s, but did not become commonplace until the early 1900s.

An Early Typewriter
An Early Typewriter

Copies of documents had to be made solely by hand until the introduction of the letter press copier in 1780. (1) In the 19th century, copies could be made either by using a copy press or by using letter books which copied without a mechanical press.

Patent diagram for James Watts copying press, 1780
Patent diagram for James Watts copying press, 1780

The Colcock & Hutson law firm used a “Penn Letter Book,” manufactured at the Penn Manufacturing Works in Philadelphia. The extant letter copy book that we are aware of contains 200 letters on onionskin paper written between 1870 and 1872.

An Advertisement for Penn Letter Books
An Advertisement for Penn Letter Books

Letter Press Copier owned by the Coleman Karesh Law Library
Letter Press Copier owned by the Coleman Karesh Law Library

The copying process was cumbersome and tricky. The following are the steps necessary to make a copy of a document with the letter press machine.

  1. Place a piece of oiled, moisture-resistant paper underneath the leaf of thin copying paper in the copying book, to prevent moisture from transferring to surrounding leaves.
  2. Dampen the sheet of copying paper with a dampening cloth or a brush dipped in water. “Moisture evenly distributed, and neither scant nor excessive, is the secret of success.” Too little water and the copy of the letter would be too faint to read; too much water and the copy would be blurred and illegible.
  3. Remove excess moisture from the copying paper with a sheet of blotting paper, so that the copying paper is evenly saturated and damp, but not wet enough to be shiny.
  4. Place the letter to be copied so the writing side is in contact with the dampened leaf of copying paper.
  5. Place another sheet of oiled paper or blotting paper behind the original letter, to prevent moisture from transferring to surrounding leaves.
  6. Close the book, place it in the copying press, and make the impression.
  7. Open the press, remove the original letter, and return the (closed) copying book to the press with the two sheets of oiled paper still surrounding the copy. This allows the page to dry flat and prevents moisture from transferring to other leaves of the copying book. (2)

Richard Woodward Hutson in the U.S. Clerk's Office, 1904
Richard Woodward Hutson in the U.S. Clerk's Office, 1904.
Note the revolving bookcase at the left, and the letter press copier in the background.

Lighting in the 18th century was provided by candles or oil lamps. Gas lights for lighting homes and city streets developed during the 19th century. Electricity was introduced in South Carolina in 1882, but most of rural South Carolina was still without electricity in the 1940s.

Communication was slow by modern standards. Letters were the main method of communication. Telephones first appeared in Charleston in 1879, in Columbia in 1880, and in other cities by 1905. (3)

  1. Karen S. Beck, A Working Lawyer's Life: The Letter Book of John Henry Senter, 99 Law. Lib. J. 471, 488 (2007)
  2. Adapted from Beck, supra note 1, quoting Barbara Rhodes & William Wells Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying, 1780 to 1938: A Book in Two Parts 84 (1999).
  3. South Carolina State Museum.