Carbon dating

I HAVE JUST DISCOVERED an unopened pack  of ten sheets of 13 x 8 inch carbon paper. Carbon paper is something younger readers might never have heard of or used. For those unused to this product, I will explain. More mature readers must bear with me, please.


Carbon paper is a thin sheet of paper, one side of which is loosely coated with particles of ink. The other side of the paper is plain. If carbon paper is placed on plain paper (eg typing or writing paper) so that its inked face is in contact with  the plain paper, and then pressure (e.g. with a stylus or typewriter letter) is applied to a point on its un-inked side, the ink beneath the pressure point is transferred to the plain paper beneath the carbon paper, making a copy of the shape of the object (e.g. letter or shape) creating the pressure. 

Carbon paper was commonly used when typing on a typewriter. The letters that sharply hit  the paper to create a letter, number, or symbol, can be transmitted to a second or third piece of paper by carbon paper. The second and third pieces of typing paper are placed below the top sheet, but  each is separated from the  sheet above by layers of carbon paper with their inked surfaces facing down on them.  Thus, several copies of the same document can be created simultaneously.

This was a useful method of creating up to four reasonably distinct copies of a typed document in the era that preceded photocopiers, laser and inkjet printers, and word processors. For larger numbers of copies, one needed access to something like the now obsolete Gestetner machines. And, the copies they produced were not always easily legible.

The sealed pack of carbon paper that was lurking amongst unsorted stationery in our home  bears the name of the supplier, WH Smith  & Son. The company still exists. It has retail outlets in the UK  and abroad. I have seen branches of the company in the departure lounges of airports in the Gulf States.

The price of our pack is given as “3/-” (three shillings) or “15p”. The UK adopted decimalisation of its currency in 1971. Prior to this change, £1 was 20 shillings, each of which was 12 pennies. Thus £1 was 240 pennies (abbreviated as ‘d’, from the Latin word ‘denarius’).  After the decimalisation,  £1 was divided into 100p (‘pence’).

Given that our unused pack of carbon paper bears a price in both the old and the new currencies, I imagine that it was bought around the time that the British abandoned its old currency, when the new penny, 1p, became worth 2.4d (old pennies).

In 1982, I qualified as a dentist and began tackling the dental problems of the general public. After not having used carbon paper for several years, I found myself using a form of it daily. It came in short narrow rectangular strips of thin paper, sometimes with only one surface loosely coated with ink, but more often both sides. It was/and still is known as ‘articulating paper’. It is used to check how the teeth in the mandible (lower jaw) meet their opposite numbers in the maxilla. Determining this is very important for diagnostic purposes and for checking that crowns, bridges, dentures are in occlusal harmony with the rest of a patient’s dentition. If, for example, a crown (‘cap’) is high on the bite when it is being fitted, articulating paper can be used to detect which part of the cap has excess material that is preventing the patient’s teeth from meeting comfortably.

When I  came across my vintage pack of unused carbon paper, I thought that it was a reminder of times past, but it is not. A quick search on Google revealed that carbon paper is still widely available from stationery suppliers. Rymans now sells ten sheets of A4 carbon paper, not for 15p, but for £5.99. Carbon paper still has many uses apart from typing. For example, sheets of this paper are often used in pads of bills or invoices to make copies of the bills etc handed to customers.

I will not throw away our 3/- pack of carbon paper. It is a souvenir of a historic moment in British monetary evolution and a painful reminder of how much the purchasing power of £1 has diminished in almost 50 years