Before the age of the ballpoint pen, Americans wrote their documents with fountain pens dipped in ink. They were the most popular form of writing until ballpoint pens hit the market after World War II, shoving fountain pens off the desktop by 1960.
Desk jockeys in the first half of the 20th century faced perennial problems: pens dripped, and ink smeared. Offices and homes needed a way to keep freshly written words from smearing. Enter the ink blotter.
Ink blotters were small cards of soft, absorbent paper. They were universally common in every home and office in America. Once Charles Murch patented a way to adhere printable paper to blotting paper in 1885, publishers rushed to create desktop advertisements for everything from cough drops to colleges. Blotters became by far the most widely used advertising novelty of the early 1900s.
Congressional candidates took note, too, and distributed free blotters that kept their names in front of voters. Printed information gave a candidate’s information on one side, while the absorbent paper on the reverse ensured that the card would linger on a desk for weeks as a reminder of the candidate. Blotters from the House Collection illustrate different ways candidates employed the ubiquitous little cards.
Some candidates distributed blotters with a calendar to encourage users to keep their campaign pieces in daily use, and to remind them when to vote. Abe Ribicoff gave Connecticut voters good reason to keep this blotter close at hand. He printed a three-month calendar on one side of his 1948 campaign giveaway, with absorbent blotting paper on the other side. After his first successful run for Congress, Ribicoff remained in politics through 1980, outlasting the use of fountain pens and the campaign blotter fad.
Compared to commercial advertisers, who loved ink blotters with big pictures and simple slogans, congressional aspirants sometimes used blotters as tiny resumes. They provided lists of what made them the best choice at the ballot box: experience, endorsements, legislation, and stands on important issues. Edna Kelly, for example, ran for re-election in 1956 and listed a dozen accomplishments, from local Red Cross work to international affairs legislation, in a space the size of an index card. Other Members of Congress outlined their agendas, touted particular programs that helped constituents, and listed which counties made up the congressional district.
An item that stayed on a constituent’s desk for weeks led some candidates to become wordier than usual. Congressional blotters cram more words into a limited space than almost any other campaign giveaway. South Carolinian Joseph Bryson went on at length about his re-election campaign on a 1942 ink blotter. He apologized for visiting his South Carolina district infrequently, chalking his absence up to the responsibilities of wartime. He was indeed busy, having found a legislative niche during World War II that allowed him to further his unwavering opposition to alcohol. He worked to ban its sale to military servicemen, considering it a scourge “which serves to destroy national strength and unity.” Other candidates urged voters to attend primary elections, get out the vote, or even listen to radio shows.
“America’s Woman of Destiny” provided specific instructions on how to vote for her in 1944. Clare Boothe Luce was locked in a tough re-election fight, and this card showed any voter, whether Republican, Democrat, or Socialist, which lever to pull in the voting booth. The card may have originated within Luce’s campaign, but was stamped with the legend “Independent Voters for Luce” to widen its appeal. Other congressional candidates used blotters to provide less complicated directions. Ribicoff’s blotter, for example, tucked “pull the second lever” below the three-month calendar.
Sources: Diane DeBlois, “Advertising Blotter for a National Pencil,” Ephemera Society, February 13, 2013; Charles S. Much, Manufacture of Blotting Paper. US Patent 333,146, granted December 29, 1885; Maurice Rickards, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera (New York: Routledge Press, 2000); Graphic Arts, Princeton University, “Advertise with Blotter Paper,” https://www.princeton.edu/~graphicarts/2010/06/advertise_with_blotter_paper.html (March 6, 2018).Follow @USHouseHistory