Wednesday, May 17, 2006

the vanishing legal pad

In the early 1990's I was lucky enough to be called to a small light manufacturing building in Lower Manhattan. I was there to look at some old equipment, perhaps to acquire it for an organization I worked for at the time, a not-for-profit which kept older printing equipment (mostly letterpress printing presses) available for artists and fine printers. The business we visited made one thing only: lined paper for pads. White or yellow pads, with thin parallel green lines and a vertical red stipe down the left hand margin. There was a time when these pads were used everywhere, and in effect, made the world go 'round.

The machines used to make these pads were incredible. Large and loom-like, their frames gently supported roller-fed paper, loosely with nothing underneath. At the top of the machine was an ink reservoir, with numerous thin strings extending out the bottom. Green ink ran unprotected down these strings to little pen nibs, similar to those of a fountain pen. The nibs were held by long thin arms (of either wood or copper - I don't recall) which held these ink delivery devices in a tight row, but which allowed them to bob up and down freely on the undulating paper being drawn through below. As the paper was pulled through the machine, the little pens drew perfect parallel lines with ink replenished from above. The perfection of the lines seemed an impossibility given the gentle but constant up and down motion of the paper. The owner of the business explained that if the paper was pulled across a flat surface, every speck of dust that might land or imperfection on the paper itself would cause the lines to loose their straight path, and we'd end up with something that looked like an EKG.

The business was closing for all the usual reasons: high rents, difficulty receiving and making deliveries in the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan, and loss of customers. In fact he had only one customer remaining: the New York City Police Department. They still used his pads for the police notebooks, carried on the beat by every officer. He had been supplying them for many decades, but they too could be expected to switch to modern pads.

The lined paper makers weren't for us, and so we passed, hoping that a museum or collector might step in and save them from the dumpster. I briefly considered taking one home myself, to assemble in my apartment, and operate my "artisinal note pad" business. [As crazy as this idea was, I recently met a woman who had an operational two-story motorized dry cleaning rack in her apartment in NYC].

An interesting article on the yellow legal pad's place in history, and of its impending demise, can be found in the current Legal Affairs magazine.


5 comments:

Penny said...

I loved those writing pads. Still do. Thanks for the wonderful description of the machines.

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