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Univ. of Iowa Exhibit

Rich Dana, founder of Obsolete Press, MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, and co-instigator of the International Duplicators Guild meetings has put together an exhibition of some of the University of Iowa Library’s holdings along with items from his personal collection that feature hectograph, mimeograph, and spirit duplicating processes. With his kind permission, the majority of the exhibit is presented here. If you’re in the area in July, it’ll be open to in-person viewing.

(Text and photos copyright Rich Dana.)

French symbolist Alfred Jarry was the first to influence both the development of science fiction (SF) and the avant-garde. He wrote time-travel stories alongside his friend H.G. Wells and set the stage for Dada with the production of his revolutionary play, Ubu Roi.

The turn of the century marked a new obsession with technological development. The newly-built Eifel Tower stood as a monument to the modernist ideal, while Thomas Edison introduced the first mimeograph at the World’s Fair.

The Futurist art movement rejected the past in favor of techno-utopianism. Early SF fans like Myrtle Douglas (Morojo) embraced these radical ideas, as reflected in the design of her Esperanto fanzine Guteto (Droplet.) WWII and the rise of technocracy brought much of this idealism to an end.

The avant-garde primarily used duplicators like the hectograph and the mimeograph as a cheap alternative to “better” printing methods like lithography. The true innovators in the use of copiers were an unlikely cohort; science fiction(SF) fandom. Young fans were creating amateur magazines (“fanzines”) imitating the cheaply printed “pulp” magazines like “Amazing Stories” and “Weird Tales.”

The fanzines also featured cover art influenced by the graphic style of the avant-garde. For most fans, litho and letterpress printing were out of reach. For them, copiers like home made hecto gelatin pads were the only option. Hectograph and later “ditto” machines produced the distinctive purple copies using aniline dye inks.

Many fanzine publishers went on to notable careers, while many continued to produce zines for niche audiences.

Damon Knight sold his first sf story when he was a teen. He attended a WPA art program in Oregon and later moved to New York, where he became a successful writer and teacher.

Edythe Eyde aka Tigrina was a Los Angeles SF fanzine creator who went on to produce Vice Versa, America’s first Lesbian publication, under the name Lisa Ben.

James Blish, like Damon Knight was a member of the NYC fan group, The Futurians. In addition to writing SF, Blish wrote ad copy for the American Tobacco Institute. Ironically, he died of lung cancer at 54. 

The Russian avant-garde in particular embraced many of the same aesthetic and graphic techniques as the early science fiction fanzine publishers. The use of DIY techniques like hectography and “kitchen” lithography add a crude and spontaneous energy to the Cubo-Futurist imagery.

Russian poets and artists often teamed up to create extremely limited edition pamphlets filled with hand-lettered word-art, printed from hecto jellies using copy-pencils, or plate glass using litho crayons or tallow.

The influence of the avant-garde and their revolutionary use of typography can still be seen across the world of graphic design today.

Marcel Duchamp and other avant-garde artists caused a furor at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, and almost overnight the city became a hotbed experimental artwork. Duchamp and Man Ray would come to represent “New York Dada,” the American contingent of the anti-bourgeois and anti-war Dada movement which started in Zurich.

Dada publications featuring the work of Duchamp and Man Ray took advantage of innovations in cheap printing and duplicating technology and laid the groundwork for countless artist-produced publications to come.

The influence of Dada on graphic design and typography can be seen in SF fanzines of the 1930s, punk rock fanzines of the 1970s and many zines today. 

The cross-over between SF fandom, artist books and poetry took place after WWII. Many SF fans returned from the war and attended college, thanks to the G.I. Bill.

The university culture of Wichita, Kansas made it a key stop on the cross-country drives of beats like Allen Ginsberg, who titled a poem after a legend he picked up from the Wichita beatniks.

The legend of Vortex originated with local beatnik poet (and SF fan) Lee “Tellis” Streiff in the pages of his Martian Newsletter.
Unlike other Wichita beat poets and artists, Lee Streiff never escaped the Wichita Vortex, where he taught English and continued to participate in fandom.

The “Summer of Love” marked the end of the beat era and the rise of hippie culture. Fueled by mind-altering drugs and a mash-up of mysticism, psychedelia drew on the utopian dreams and pop-culture aesthetics of science fiction and the lush and biomorphic design style of Art Nouveau.

The “Human Be-in,” held in San Francisco in January of 1967 is considered to be the prelude to The Summer of Love, and the event poster by Stanley Mouse inspired countless designers to push typography past the limits of readability.

An impulse to exoticize eastern cultures can be traced back as far as classical antiquity. Such caricatures can be perceived as ranging from naive to racist, but the exoticism of the psychedelic era contributed to many young, white Americans recognizing cultures other than their own and embracing the cause of global human rights.

Transgressive ideas were embraced by sectors within both the avant-garde and science fiction fandom. Duchamp’s “Fountain” outraged many in the art world. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, da levy, Ed Sanders, Leroi Jones and Diane DiPrima all faced obscenity charges for their work. As far back as the 1940s, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society was criticized for it’s tolerance of openly homosexual members.

Perhaps no writer embodied the controversial more than William Burroughs. Considered both a beat and a science fiction author, Burroughs work and life transgressed every social norm. Loved by some, hated by many, Burroughs and his work influenced literary SF writers like Kathy Acker and William Gibson.

Hectography uses aniline dye transferred to paper via a pad made of gelatin. “Hecto” was the precursor to the spirit duplicator remembered for its purple text and alcohol smell. Hecto became obsolete after WWII, making the visionary artist Mae Strelkov one of a handful still using hectography in the 1970s.

Mae Strelkov, was born and raised in China, the child of English missionaries. As a teenager she met Vadim Strelkov, They married and were forced to flee to South America to escape the Japanese invasion in 1937.

Living in the mountains of Argentina, Mae became an amateur publisher. She boiled cow bones to produce the gelatin for her hecto pads. trading her zines by mail with other fans around the world.

Nowhere is the intersection of politics and art more obvious than in the realm of publishing. Cheap duplication technology gave voice to those who would otherwise have been silenced by the editors of governments and corporate media.

During WWII, in a conscientious objector work camp in Waldport, Oregon, William Everson published several chapbooks of poetry using the camp’s mimeograph machine. Everson’s “War Elegies” is considered the first publication of “The mimeograph Revolution.”

SF fans also expressed their opinions on the war. On the cover of “The Damn Thing” 20 year-old Bruce Yerke depicts himself and his friend, 22 year-old Ray Bradbury being marched off to a work camp.

Every social justice movement of the 20th century relied on cheap copying technology, coupled with bold (and often crude) graphics to spread their message.

Spirit duplicators, often called ditto machines, used a paper master sheet similar to carbon paper to print up to 40 purple or green copies before the master was depleted.

The mimeograph, or stencil duplicator, also used a paper master sheet, but allowed the user to make more copies in a wide range of colors.

The offset press, used to produce larger runs, is an offshoot of lithography and uses a flexible printing plate. This process is still used on a large scale for newspaper printing.

In the 1980s and 90s, the lines continued to blur between fanzines and fine art. Now using photocopiers instead of mimeo and ditto machines, Dada style collage could mix with the aesthetics of Graffiti and Agit-prop in what now cbecame known as just…zines.

As Alex Wrekk wrote in Stolen Sharpie Revolution: A DIY Zine Resource: a zine is:
“An independently produced publication containing anything you want; personal experiences and stories, political ideologies, music related writing, gardening tips, fiction, travel stories, comics, photography, or anything you like. Zines can be put together by one person or a group of people and they are usually photocopied, but can also be printed offset, letter press, or mimeographed.”


Want more? The University of Iowa Libraries website also contains this 2013 gem, “What the Hectograph?”, with a recipe to make your own hectograph gelatin plate.