Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
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Monday, 13 August 2007

Lot 283 – A Victorian book press

I love looking round auction showrooms, there's a list of things to look out for tucked in the back of my mind. So I was very excited to spot 'Lot 283 – A Victorian book press' at Willingham Auctions last Friday. It screamed "BID FOR ME!!!!!!".

So I returned to the auction rooms on Saturday and waited for Lot 283. The range of items for sale is huge: garden furniture, wind-up gramophones, furniture, paintings, medals, jewels, teddy bears, top hats . . . At some other auctions the auctioneers are very serious and the saleroom can be hushed and solemn; not here - there are always a few jokes, giggles about spelling errors in the catalogue, amusement when someone buys something unusual "a top hat sir? - that will go nicely with the spear!". I have to pretend not to be paticularly interested in a specific item, just generally interested and casually alert (the card with my bidding number is tucked into my bag).

We get to 'Lot 239 - Three Victorian shaped copper jelly moulds', I fancy those too especially after hearing a fantastic radio programme a few days ago about the art of making posh jellies. Maybe I'll bid. "There's been a lot of interest in these . . . a couple of close commission bidders . . . we start at £150" Oh heck! better save my money for Lot 283 - my card stayed in my bag. The auction whizzes along - almost a hundred lots per hour, and I soon hear "Sold 'BANG!!' . . . your number . . . thank you . . . Lot 283 . . . " the adrenalin kicks in. I musn't look interested, stay calm, let others start then come in third or fourth, make sure I can catch the auctioneer's eye just before everyone thinks it's about to be sold. There's someone round the corner by the door bidding against me, I can't see them, the bidding ping-pongs back and forth between us "It's the lady's bid . . . any more . . . £95 any body . . . still with the lady . . . SOLD 'BANG!!' sold for £90 . . . your number . . . thank you . . . Lot 284 A collection of lace making tools . . ." Got it!! It's mine! Hurray!!

So the 'Victorian book press' is now sitting in my studio. It will take a sheet of paper just bigger than A4, perfect for using as a mini block printing press, or pressing folded cards and booklets. I was curious to find out a bit more about my new gadget - there isn't a makers mark visible (probaly painted over when it was restored by a previous owner - the leaf decoration isn't original). In fact it should be called a 'Copy Press' and was the must-have piece of office equipment in the 19th century, an early forerunner of the photocopier it's an antique copying machine. When office correspondence was hand written in pen and ink a copy was taken by laying a sheet of very thin slightly damp paper over the original document and pressing it in the Copy Press. An image of the document was transferred to the damp paper and could be read through the reverse side. Of course with the introduction of the typewriter and carbon paper the Copy Press became obsolete, and they gathered dust in office cupboards before being taken to the local junk shop. It's now my latest piece of studio equipment - in these days when a new gadget is out of date in a month it's very pleasing to use a machine that's been around for 150 years.


  1. What a gorgeous press Celia. I am so pleased that you got it in the end.

    It's really interesting to hear about the process of copying - very clever indeed.

  2. What a lovely thing ... I have a friend who has a secondhand bookshop who has one of these, and I am just going to see her, so I can tell her that it's not a book press, as she's always thought, but a copy press ... what a clever piece of kit, and how wonderful that it's going to get a second lease of life.


  3. Hi CS
    In my mind that press was mine - I wasn't going to drop out of the bidding!

    Joanna - I thought it was a book press too and did some research to find exactly how/why/when these were used.

    If you're interested there's more here:

    I like the idea of my copy press being in a Victorian office being operated by the junior clerk.

  4. Oh its lovely! I'm so glad it went to someone who would appreciate it, and really wanted it.

    I am the same, I love the old things, the workmanship, the history, and currently have four old sewing machines...just because!!

    My kitchen is full old old and ancient gadgets too, and I love every one!

    well done!


  5. I am jealous jealous jealous- you were lucky I am in Australia lol. I shall look forward to seeing what you will do with it.

  6. Way to go! You lucked out on this. I love it ... even if you never used it, it would be wonderful just to look at it. Of course, you will use it and it will be fun seeing the results.

  7. Leanne - Victorian machines were certainly made to last! My sewing machine was my Gran's, she used it to make most of her clothes including Harris Tweed coats! I've used it to make many dresses (including my wedding dress) and all the curtains in our house. I wouldn't swap it for the world!

    Dijanne - keep looking and one will come your way. I remember bidding for a similar press in the very same auction house when I was at high school, the bidding went way past my budget so I dropped out. This one was meant for me!

    Kate - the press had a test run last night - looking good!

  8. It's wonderful Celia. Congratulations - a real find!

  9. Nice nice nice! I have one of those, it is useful for so many things, but it is a plain old thing compared to this beauty!

  10. Thanks lucy and cs

    There are loads of times I need piles of dictionaries and encyclopedias to press things flat - this is going to be very useful!

  11. Very nice item! It brought back memories of being an apprentice in the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1960.e used a copy book for making copies of safe keeping receipts, and certain correspondence. The knack was in ensuring that the tissue page was just wet enough and not too wet. If it was too wet the document would run and I would have to go back to the boss and confess that he was going to have to write another one all over again. If the page was too dry the copy was illegible. The ink was a special type .. rather thick and gummy, and there were waterproof fibre sheets to put between the pages of the copy book to prevent the other pages from getting wet.

  12. Thank you for visiting my blog and sharing your memories...

    most people would call it a book press and I was fascinated to find out how these were actually used.

    There seems to have been a knack to getting the copy paper just right, now a completely redundant skill!


  13. Yes, my dad brought back one of these. Not nearly as clean and tidy but it works a treat. Love it entirely.

  14. I saw this post a long while ago about your Victorian Copy Press, which I so like. I saw one over a year ago in Ithaca, NY. It is not as sweet as yours, but has serpent iron work and I just bought it, so look forward to using it. If you have time I would love to see a post on you using yours.


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