Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: The Letter Book of Ralph Blasdale, Winnipeg Real Estate Broker
by Wayne Chan
Prior to the late 18th century, correspondence usually had to be copied by hand when a reproduction of a letter was required. However, in 1780, engineer James Watt devised a new duplicating method, termed letter-press copying  or damp-press copying,  using tissue paper pages and a special ink. The original letter was written with a slow-drying ink, referred to as copying ink, and placed under a sheet of very thin unsized tissue paper dampened with water. The two sheets would then be pressed together in a copying press, creating an impression of the original letter on the verso side of the tissue paper sheet, as a reverse image. The thin tissue paper allowed the writing to show through and be read correctly on the other side of the sheet.
By the mid-19th century, the tissue paper sheets were usually bound together into hardcover books for office use.  These were known as letter books, letter-press books, or copying books and usually had 250 to 1000 pages.  Letter books were in common use through to the mid-20th century,  although the method was becoming somewhat outmoded by the mid-1910s in comparison to newer copying methods, such as carbon paper. 
John Grebby provides a detailed description of letter-press copying in his 1915 book, A First Course in Commercial Correspondence and Office Routine. He outlines the process for preparing the letter book for copying and then the actual copying procedure:
The letter-book copying method had some obvious drawbacks. Copies had to be made soon after the original letters were written and only a few copies could be made at a time. As Grebby points out, it was often difficult to make clear copies of letters if the tissue paper was not dampened to the correct degree. In addition, only the outgoing side of the correspondence was recorded in a letter book—incoming correspondence had to be filed separately.
Ralph Blasdale’s Letter Book
An example of an early 20th-century letter book was acquired recently by the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections from Peter Wachniak of Peter’s Auction Sales in Winnipeg. The book originally belonged to Ralph Blasdale, a Winnipeg real estate broker who was active in the early 1900s.
A 1908 article in the Manitoba Free Press referred to Blasdale as a “well known real estate agent,” who dealt “largely in Red [R]iver, Elm Creek, Brandon and Rosenfeldt lands, as well as a large business in city properties.”  The correspondence in Blasdale’s letter book shows that he also brokered properties in other provinces and overseas, with a particular interest in rubber and tobacco plantations in Cuba. The Manitoba Free Press archives for this time period show frequent advertisements placed by Blasdale’s office, selling properties and advertising real estate prospects.
Blasdale had offices in the Merchants Bank Building at 377 Main Street and resided at Fort Garry Court (Main and Broadway) in 1910.  He was married to Katherine Blasdale (née Brown) and had one son named Brian. He and his wife later separated, with Katherine and their son moving to Ontario by the mid-to-late 1920s.  Ralph Blasdale died in Winnipeg in 1939, at the age of 83. 
Blasdale’s letter book  is 11.5” tall by 9.25” wide and 1.75” thick. It has a half-leather binding with cloth covers and marbled endpapers. The bookcloth on the front cover is mostly torn away, but the cloth on the back cover remains intact. Centred near the bottom of the front cover is a faint gold-embossed logo that states, “Grand & Toy Stationers, Toronto.”
The pages of the book are numbered only on the right-facing pages, and the fore-edges of the initial pages are tabbed with the letters “A” to “Z”. Each tabbed page has a wide space on the left side for recording the names of correspondents, and nine columns on the right side to mark page numbers. These tabbed pages act as an index to the correspondence in the book and were a common feature of letter books.  The tabbed index pages are separated by pink blotter pages, which prevented the writing on the index pages from being transferred to adjacent pages (since the index entries were most likely written with the same copying ink that was used to make copies). These blotter pages were another common feature of letter books.  Most of the copied letters in the volume were written by hand, but a few were typewritten. The correspondence in the book covers the period from March 1910 to February 1911.
Much of the correspondence in the letter book was to clients and business associates, discussing real estate transactions and opportunities. For example, a letter, dated 6 May 1910, was to a William Hayward, a business associate of Blasdale’s in Vancouver, BC. Blasdale informed him that a “double house” (i.e., a duplex) at 636/638 Furby St. in Winnipeg was on the market. He explained that half of the five-bedroom house was currently rented for $40 per month and that the other half of the residence was occupied by the owner, who was asking $9,000 for the house. Blasdale stated that the owner was interested in improved property in Vancouver and asked if Hayward had anything suitable for him.
A rather remarkable letter, dated 7 June 1910, was addressed to José Miguel Gomez, the president of the Republic of Cuba at the time. In the typewritten letter, Blasdale proposed the establishment of a Cuban consulate in Winnipeg. Although there was already a Cuban consulate in Eastern Canada, Blasdale stated that there was good reason to establish a second consulate, due to the size of Western Canada. He argued that Winnipeg, as an increasingly important manufacturing and commercial city, would be an ideal location for it. Blasdale proposed himself for the consulship and provided the names of several prominent government officials as references: Rodmond Roblin (Premier of Manitoba), Hugh John Macdonald (former Premier and son of John A. Macdonald), Robert Rogers (Minister of Public Works), and Colin Campbell (Attorney General of Manitoba). There is no record in the letter book of any further correspondence with the Cuban government on the topic. Nevertheless, the letter shows that Blasdale was on familiar terms with many influential people in Winnipeg and reflects the prevailing sentiment of the time that the city was an up-and-coming place that would soon rival the larger metropolises in Canada. 
The last letter in the book, dated 23 February 1911, was a request for copies of maps from the Department of the Interior. It is unclear why the letter book was no longer used after this date, since over half of the pages in the book were still blank.
Ralph Blasdale’s letter book provides us with an exemplar of an obsolete office technology that was once prevalent. That it has now largely faded from public memory is unfortunate, as the letter-press copying process was in widespread use for over 150 years, until it was finally displaced by contemporary photocopying technologies; indeed, it is second only to hand copying in terms of its longevity of use.  Blasdale’s letter book also provides an invaluable glimpse of the local real estate market during an era that has often been characterized as Winnipeg’s “boom period.”
I would like to thank Shelley Sweeney, Head of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, for her suggestion to write this article. I also thank Mark Vajcner (University of Regina Archives & Special Collections) for reviewing the manuscript, Andrea Martin (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections) for scanning several pages from the letter book, and Jamie Holland for scanning the photo of Ralph Blasdale’s family. Finally, a very special thank you to Brian J. Blasdale of Picton, Ontario, for taking the time to speak to me about his grandfather and recounting some of his family’s stories.
1. Mary Cahill and Agnes Ruggeri, Office Practice, New York: Macmillan, 1917.
2. Michael Cook, “Towards a History of Recording Technologies: The Damp-press Copying Process.” Journal of the Society of Archivists 32, no. 1 (2011): 35-49.
3. Ibid., p. 41; Sonja Titus, Regina Schneller, Gerhard Banik, Enke Huhsmann, Ulrike Hähner, “The Copying Press Process: History and Technology, Part I,” Restaurator, 27 (2006): 90-102, page 91.
4. John K. Grebby, A First Course in Commercial Correspondence and Office Routine. London: Macdonald and Evans, 1915, page 82; Barbara Rhodes and William W. Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780-1938, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1999, page 69.
5. Cook, page 36; Titus, page 91.
6. Grebby, page 82.
8. “Unique Exhibit,” Manitoba Free Press, 28 July 1908, page 10.
9. Henderson’s Winnipeg City Directory for 1910, Winnipeg: Henderson Directories, 1910, page 481.
10. Brian J. Blasdale, personal communication, 14 April 2015.
11. “Obituary - Ralph Blasdale,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 20 December 1939, page 5.
12. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, R. Blasdale fonds, coll. A14-13, Box 1/1.
13. Rhodes and Streeter, page 65.
14. Ibid., page 66.
15. Jim Blanchard, Winnipeg 1912, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005; Allan Levine, “The Panama Canal and the Decline of Winnipeg.” Winnipeg Free Press, 22 August 2014, p. A13.
16. Rhodes and Streeter, page 5.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 14 April 2020