Ditto: once high-tech, now a cultural artifact

March 1, 2014

xerox, ditto
Can you guess what these students are doing?

If you’re in the Baby Boomer generation, you know.

They’re inhaling the aroma of a fresh ditto handout.

Nothing smelled as good or was as evocative of school days as that odor.  It’s been decades since I’ve smelled it, but it remains in my memory bank of smells.

Don’t know what I’m talking about?

Way before Xerox made photocopies ubiquitous and before we could actually print from something called a computer, duplications were achieved by means of something called a “Ditto machine.”  It used “ditto fluid” and sniffing the dittoed tests our teachers gave us was a guilty pleasure. We all did it. Today, sniffing or huffing has horrible connotations, but this was a more innocent time and no one got high or addicted from sniffing their exam papers.  We just liked the smell. Not to say that they wouldn’t get high if they opened a container and really huffed it in, but back then, we didn’t think that way. It wouldn’t occur to us.

And “Ditto” was the name of the best-known U.S. manufacturer. It became a generic term for the duplication machine, which could make only a few hundred copies per original.
They were called Banda machines in the U.K., Roneo in France and Australia. Their generic term was “spirit duplicator” and the “spirit” — an alcohol concoction– was what smelled so good.   I know the illustration in the ad makes the machine look a bit like today’s printers, but really, they were pretty klugey by modern standards and of course, far more manual.

The machine was invented in 1923 and was still in use in the 60s. It was so ubiquitous there’s a scene of kids sniffing their test papers  in Fast Times at Ridgemont HIgh.

Ditto05And no, “ditto” as a slang word for “the same” or “me, too” didn’t come from this. It’s an old Roman reference and even in English it goes back to at least 1625. So maybe that’s where the corporation got its name. Back when companies had names with actual meaningful origins.

The problem with ditto copies is that they fade in time, presenting archivists who want to save those fourth grade quizzes with real problems.
Mimeo-2-ladiesAnother small quantity duplicator in the Boomer school days was the mimeograph, which used stencils.  Apparently, Thomas Edison had a patent for part of this technology. The big mimeo company back in the day was A.B. Dick.  Before “dick” became an insult.

Mimeo-InkMimeos have a longer life than dittos, apparently. But still, they could only make a relatively small number of copies.

Kids today — and many adults — have never heard of ditto or mimeograph, which makes me wonder what current technologies will no longer be part of life in 80 years?  For sure, the computer mouse. Maybe the keyboard.

What do you think? and is there anything you remember from childhood that’s now long gone?

23 comments on “Ditto: once high-tech, now a cultural artifact
  1. Jacqueline says:

    I was JUST thinking about these! My dad was a teacher and I LOVED making copies for him. Must explain something! I have a blog post coming up about this… great minds Carol… Great minds! – Jacqueline

  2. Jenn says:

    Gracious, I had forgotten all about ditto copies! Now that brings back memories…the nuns, morning prayers, passing tests back and taking a deep whiff of that lovely smell. Our dittos were printed on the backside of used calendar paper donated by a local printing company. It was cut to letter size and we would always turn it to the preprinted side to see what was printed there.

    I also remember going o the local Dr Pepper bottling plant and getting to pick our own flat of small bottles of soda – my favorite was always Green River.

  3. I have never smelled this…at least not in my memory. I never smelled a test in my life!

  4. When I was in college, I worked at one of the academic offices and did all the copying for the professors and TA’s. I always loved doing large ditto projects.

    On a side note, I knew some of the Dick family (one of the sons adopted the comedian Andy Dick). An interesting crew, to say the least. They were bought out by Xeorx in the early 1980’s.

    • admin says:

      So did you get brain damage from smelling all that fluid? (grin) OMG had no idea about Andy Dick or that Xerox bought out AB Dick. Early 80s was later than I would’ve thought.

  5. Carol Graham says:

    Funny, I certainly am old enough but I don’t remember the ditto smell. What years would it have been? Maybe I’m TOO old! There are a lot of things we no longer have and yet I certainly miss a lot of them. Newer isn’t always better, right?

  6. Thanks for the memories Carol. I haven’t thought about this in years.

  7. Mell Schoening says:

    I’ll bet no one in your readership remembers a gel tray for making copies!

  8. pia says:

    Wow. I totally forgot about ditto machines. Am so used to saying “ditto” for agreeing, or “two”. Wow that’s truly how words come into the language. Thanks!

  9. I loved that smell. I will never forget it. And I guess since smell memory is the deepest, the smell of ditto ink might be my very last thought on my death bed. Now that’s cheery. Thanks for the memories.

    • admin says:

      Chloe, Chloe, Chloe, you are DECADES from your death bed and I Hope to God you smell your adorable grandson’s delicious baby smell when that day comes!

  10. Boomer Tuber says:

    I can smell it now!

  11. Robert Smith says:

    I remember going to the principals office to get disciplined with corporal punishment A.K.A. Paddle to the but spanking

    The thing I used to do, there was a can of ditto fluid and there was a pointed nozzle i stuck up my nose and pushed the can like an accordian to huff the fumes.

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