Copying Press. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc

Artist/Maker: James Watt & Company

Created: early 19th century

Origin/Purchase: London

Materials: mahogany, brass

Dimensions: 12.7 × 35 × 29.2 (5 × 13 3/4 × 11 1/2 in.)

Owner: private collection

Historical Notes: Jefferson's design for a portable copying press was first executed by a London workman, for £5-10, in 1786. When it arrived in Paris, Jefferson immediately set about having it duplicated for his friends by François Philippe Charpentier, a mécanicien working in the Louvre.[1] Jefferson was not the first to make the copying press portable, but he had apparently not seen the portable presses being made by a London cabinetmaker when he conceived his own design.[2]

Neither the English press nor any of Charpentier's presses are known to survive, but several of Jefferson's designs and specifications for portable presses have been preserved in his papers. This machine, similar to the one Jefferson designed, was made by James Watt & Company. James Watt, Jr., developed the portable version of the large table model in 1794 and Watt portable presses were sold for many years.

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 367


Primary Source References

1783 August 15. (Jefferson to Robert Morris). "Being desirous of getting from England as soon as possible one of those copying Machines invented there not long since, and of which I dare say you have seen Specimens of it's Execution in Doctr. Franklin’s Letters, I take the Liberty of asking the favor of you to write thither for one for me, with half a dozen Reams of Paper proper for it. If you can think of this in the first Letter you write and will be so good as to order it out by the first Opportunity the Obligation will be increased. It may be brought to Philadelphia as I shall be there in November to continue some Time."[3]

1783 December 5. (Jefferson to Samuel House). "Mr. Hou. enq. pri. copg. mach."[4]

1784 April 13. (Herries & Company to William T. Franklin). "Acknowledgement of order forwarded by B Franklin on April 3 from Robert Morris for a 'Copying Machine with Paper &c. for Mr. Jefferson' to be sent to Virginia."[5]

1784 July 3. (Jefferson to Robert Morris). "[H]e may take copying machine if [he] wants it, if not and any loss occurs let it be disposed of on my account."[6]

1784 August 16. "Put into hands of W. T. Franklin to buy copying press & books in London 16½ English guineas."[7]

1784 December 9. "Pd. W. T. Franklin balce. for copying press &c. 88f2." [8]

1784 December 15. (Jefferson to Jean Holker). "To know if copying press forwarded to him for me from London W. T. Franklin is stopped anywhere."[9]

1785 May 20. (Jefferson to Jean Holker). "Receipt ... of the copying press."[10]

1785 June 3. (Jefferson to Barré). This letter appears to be the first extant letter Jefferson kept as a press copy.[11]

1785 September 1. (Jefferson to James Madison). "Have you a copying press? If you have not, you should get one. Mine (exclusive of paper which costs a guinea a ream) has cost me about 14. guineas. I would give ten times that sum that I had had it from the date of the stamp act."[12]

1785 October 2. (Jefferson to Reverend James Madison). "It is impossible but you must have heard long ago of the machine for copying letters at a single stroke, as we had received them in America before I left it."[13]

1786 March 18. (James Madison to Jefferson). "I have no copying press, but must postpone that conveniency to other wants which will absorb my little resources. I am fully apprized of the value of this machine and mean to get one when I can better afford it, and may have more use for it. I am led to think it would be a very ≈ìconomical acquisition to all our public offices which are obliged to furnish copies of papers belonging to them."[14]

1786 May 21. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "I take this oppertunity by Mr. Smith a young Gentleman of South Carolina to forward your travelling press. I think it will answer very well, the only objection to it, is, that the spring may prove too slight. It is neat and will please you, before you know the price, but when I tell you that I gave him (the man who made it) £5.10., you must think him an unconsionable Dog."[15]

1786 May 21. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "I shall send it by the first Gentleman who will not be much incommoded by it. Perhaps Mr. Trumbull or Dr. Bancroft will have the pleasure of presenting it. This delay will enable me to have a board made to fit it, in which tho’ no great ingenuity is required, still, it may save you trouble, and on the receipt of it, you may have the satisfaction of making an immediate experiment."[16]

1786 May 23. (John Paradise to Jefferson). "Mr. Cavallo has delivered according to your directions the printing press to Colonel Smith who discharged the expence attending it, which, to my great surprise I find, amounts to five Guineas. The Colonel, however, was so well pleased with it that he ordered one to be made for himself."[17]

1786 June 16. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "In addition to this I must give you another peice of trouble: that is to desire Mr. Woodmason, on my part, to send me a copying press (such as the one he sent me before) with spare springs, damping books, damping boxes complete, three ream of copying paper and a stock of ink powder proportioned to that."[18]

1786 July 5. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "When I sent the press I gave the Gentleman who carried it a Letter for you of the 21st. of May which you do not acknowledge the receipt of, or at least but one of that date. It contained the ammount of what I gave for the press, which was 5 Guineas and 5/ for the Box = £5.10. The press shall be sent agreable to your request."[19]

1786 July 9. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "I have received by Dr. Bancroft the portable copying press. It is perfectly well made. Be so good as to present my compliments and thanks to Mr. Cavallo for his attention to it. To yourself I suppose you would rather I should present the money. This I will do the moment you will inform me of the sum. In your letter of May 21. you mention that you had paid the maker £5–10. But a former letter gave me reason to believe you had to pay something to another person for a board or the box or something else."[20]

1786 July 18. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "Agreable to your request I have been to Woodmason’s as I informed you in my last. He was to have sent the press to Mr. Garvey at Rouen, and in addition to the mode of obtaining payment suggested by you I have told him if it would be more convenient I would pay his Bill immediately after you had acknowledged the receipt of the press."[21]

1786 August 10. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "I could wish the copying press from Woodmason to come at the same time, because I can have them covered by the same Passport."[22]

1786 August 24. (Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette). "I shall be able to have a small copying press completed for you here in about three weeks."[23]

1786 August 30. (Marquis de Lafayette to Jefferson). "Be so kind as to keep for me what you Have Been pleased to gather. I would also like to Have a large press, Besides the Small one."[24]

1786 September 18. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "The printing press was shiped before the receipt of yours, therefore it was not in my power to detain it for the harpsicord."[25]

1786 September 22. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "In your Letter of the ninth of August you request me to send three ream of copying paper and a proportionable supply of ink-powder. Do you mean, in addition to the 3 ream sent with the Press? I observe by Woodmason’s account the paper sent is folio paper. Is this such as you wish?"[26]

1786 September 23. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "Being desired by a friend to procure him a copying press I take the liberty of putting the inclosed under cover to you and of requesting you to pay for it and have it sent as therein desired"[27]

1786 October 1. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "The first printing press has been forwarded some time. Mr. Woodmason is disposed to consider himself free’d from every obligation respecting the safe conveyance of his machine to Paris. He looks upon himself acquitted on presenting the Bill of lading, and receipt of the Captain. Upon this principle, the one is forwarded and payed for."[28]

1786 October 22. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "... the first copying press are arrived at Rouen. ... You desire to know whether the 2d. order for copying paper and ink was meant to be additional to the former? It was, but I had now rather not receive the paper because I have found a better kind here. The ink I shall be glad of."[29]

1786 December 11. (Jefferson to R & A Garvey). "I have now the satisfaction to return you the Acquit a caution No. 113 you were so kind as to enter into for me. The copying press being a prohibited article, has occasioned a considerable delay in obtaining it from the Douane. It was not till yesterday I was able to withdraw your acquit a caution."[30]

1786 December 20. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "I must acknolege the receipt of ... one of the copying presses."[31]

1786 December 26. (Jefferson to William Carmichael). "When I was in England I formed a portable copying press on [the] principles of the large one they make there for copying letters. I had a model made there and it has answered perfectly. A workman here has made several from that model. The itinerant temper of your court will, I think, render one of these useful to you. You must therefore do me the favor to accept of one."[32]

1787 January 15. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "I think it is long since you were so kind as to give me notice that the second copying press was sent off. But I have never heard a tittle of it. I will be obliged to you if you will be so good as to let me know how, by whom, and to what place it was directed, that I may give orders to search for it, before my departure to the waters of Aix."[33]

1787 January 19. (Jefferson to R & A Garvey). "I expect a box or two containing another copying press from London very shortly. Indeed I suspect it is already lodged either at Rouen or Havre. I shall thank you for your care of it."[34]

1787 January 29. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "The second copying press shall be strictly enquired after. Its direction must have been to Mr. Garvey at Rouen, but I will be more particular when I can get a sight of Mr. Woodmason."[35]

1787 January 30. (Jefferson to James Madison). "Having a great desire to have a portable copying machine, and being satisfied from some experiments that the principle of the large machine might be applied in a small one, I planned one when in England and had it made. It answers perfectly. I have since set a workman to making them here, and they are in such demand that he has his hands full. Being assured that you will be pleased to have one, when you shall have tried it’s convenience, I send you one by Colo. Franks. The machine costs 96 livres, the appendages 24. livres, and I send you paper and ink for 12 livres, in all 132 livres. There is a printed paper of directions: but you must expect to make many essays before you succeed perfectly. A soft brush, like a shaving brush, is more convenient than the sponge. You can get as much ink and paper as you please from London. The paper costs a guinea a ream."[36]

1787 March 25. (William Carmichael to Jefferson). "I lately received the portable copying press which you did me the honor to send me. You will see that I make use of the Ink which accompanied it. I dare not express to you how sensible I am of this mark of your notice of me."[37]

1787 April 23. (James Madison to Jefferson). "Along with them [articles delivered by Colonel David S. Franks] were received the copying machine and other articles."[38]

1787 June 29. (R & A Garvey to Jefferson). Summary: "... They have also received from 'a Mr. Js. Woodman [Woodmason] of London' a bill of lading for 'a Patent copying Machine,' shipped on board the Adventure, Captain Damon, and will advise [Jefferson] when the three items are sent off."[39]

1787 September 3. (Jefferson to R & A Garvey). "I have this day received from the Douane the box with the copying press you were so kind as to forward to me from Mr. Woodmason of London."[40]

1787 November 13. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "Can you send me Woodmason’s bills for the two copying presses for the M. de la fayette, and the M. de Chastellux? The latter makes one article in a considerable account, of old standing, and which I cannot present for want of this article."[41]

1787 December 11. "Recd.  for a copying press from England 320‚Ç∂–17."[42]

1787 December 17. (Jefferson to M de Corny). "It is time to give you an account of your copying machine, which, after repeated trial, I find very inadequate to it's offices. ... I have shewn it to a very excellent mechanic who has made several for persons here by my order. ... The machine would then be perfect and worth nine or ten guineas."[43]

1788 January 22. (Jefferson to Joseph-Leonard Poirey). Jefferson's invoice for articles purchased for Lafayette includes £15-11 sterling for "presse à copier."[44]

1788 February 2. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, with Enclosure: "Colo. W. S. Smith in account with Th: J."). "By pd. for small copying press for me ... £‚Äá5.10."[45]

1790 April 6. (Jefferson to William Short, with Enclosure: Jefferson’s Instructions for Procuring Household Goods). "Get Charpentier immediately to make me a copying press according to the drawing sent. He is so dilatory that he will need to be frequently enquired of as to it’s progress, in order that it may be ready. ... The great copying press I had from London, with the books and other utensils belonging to it, and the table of plain wood made for it belong to the U.S. and must remain for the use of the office."[46]

1790 July 16. (William Short to Jefferson). "I recieved yesterday also the model which you inclosed me for the copying press. It will be impossible to have it made so as to go with your furniture. I shall put immediately into the hands of Charpentier and hurry him as much as possible. When finished, it shall be forwarded in the most expeditious manner."[47]

1790 July 17. Grevin packing list included a copying press, crate 42.[48]

1790 August 22. (William Short to Jefferson). "Charpentier has recieved your sketch of the copying press. He understood it perfectly and promised it should be finished by the end of the month."[49]


  1. ^ Jefferson to W.S. Smith, July 9, 1786, in PTJ, 10:116 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to William Carmichael, December 26, 1786, in PTJ, 10:634 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787, in PTJ, 11:97 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  2. ^ Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984), 22-23.
  3. ^ PTJ, 15:608. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ The abbreviation probably means "enquiring the price of a copying machine." PTJ, 6:373. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ See PTJ, 6:373n. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ PTJ, 7:362. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ The press arrived too late for him to use it in France, so it was left in Paris for governmental use. MB, 1:558, 1:558n74. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ MB, 1:570. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ PTJ, 7:575. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ PTJ, 9:159. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ PTJ, 8:177n. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ PTJ, 8:462. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ PTJ, 8:576. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ PTJ, 9:333. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ PTJ, 9:555. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  16. ^ PTJ, 9:557. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  17. ^ PTJ, 9:570. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  18. ^ PTJ, 9:655. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  19. ^ PTJ, 10:92. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  20. ^ PTJ, 10:116. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  21. ^ PTJ, 10:152. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  22. ^ PTJ, 10:211. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  23. ^ PTJ, 10:294. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  24. ^ PTJ, 10:312. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  25. ^ PTJ, 10:393. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  26. ^ PTJ, 10:398-99. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  27. ^ PTJ, 10:400. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  28. ^ PTJ, 10:417. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  29. ^ PTJ, 10:508. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  30. ^ PTJ, 10:588. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  31. ^ PTJ, 10:620. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  32. ^ PTJ, 10:634. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  33. ^ PTJ, 11:46. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  34. ^ PTJ, 11:55-56. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  35. ^ PTJ, 11:91. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  36. ^ PTJ, 11:97. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  37. ^ PTJ, 11:237. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  38. ^ PTJ, 11:307. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  39. ^ PTJ, 11:607. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  40. ^ PTJ, 12:95. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  41. ^ PTJ, 12:356. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  42. ^ MB, 1:688. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  43. ^ PTJ, 12:529. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  44. ^ PTJ, 12:529. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  45. ^ PTJ, 12:559. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  46. ^ PTJ, 16:323. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  47. ^ PTJ, 17:212. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  48. ^ Grevin packing list, July 17, 1790, William Short Papers, Library of Congress. See also Short to Jefferson, November 7, 1790, in PTJ, 18:36n. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
  49. ^ PTJ, 17:412. Transcription available at Founders Online.