05/16/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Today's Carbon Paper: It's Probably in Your Pocket or Bag Right Now

In my old paper files, pre-1983, I have some artifacts not
seen much since: genuine carbon copies. For those younger than 40, that little
abbreviation of cc, ever-present in email options, may only be a computer field
for copying someone. But for those of us who used typewriters, we remember
actual carbon copies: those often smudged and shadowy paper copies of our

In the mid-1980s, when the personal computer arrived on the
scene, it became as easy to print two copies as one. The once-ubiquitous carbon
paper--that tissue-thin, inky paper you'd insert between two sheets of
paper--began its slide into obscurity. 

Not that I care. I miss the old carbon paper about as much
as I miss leaded gas and powdered milk.

But today there's a new carbon paper--of sorts. It's called your

Sharing a letter
through a snapshot

Today most correspondence takes place virtually, through
email, electronic greeting cards, Facebook and its kin. But still there are
times when many of us want to connect on a more physical level, putting pen to
paper and paper in hands. Happily, digital technology can now help us gain more
from our heritage technologies of paper and ink, and savor them in new ways.

Lately I've gotten into the habit of taking a picture on my
iPhone of my handwritten notes before I seal them in an envelope. I arrange a
little still life, with the addressed envelope, the note itself, my pen, and
whatever else nearby catches my eye. I create a montage of the moment, a
snapshot of my letter just before it begins its physical journey to its

Later, if I hear from the recipient that he or she enjoyed
the card, I can call up my photo from my pocket and revisit with accuracy what
I wrote, and zoom in to see whether I signed off with "Yours" or "Your fan" or
"Love." At other times, the letter deserves to be shared with a mutual friend so
that three of us can enjoy a moment.

The digital carbon copies on my smartphone allow me this
rewarding ritual in my life and set in motion a positive feedback loop that has
resulted in my hand-writing more notes, and with more enthusiasm.

Here are some examples:


In a switch, I've also taken photos of cards I've received
to share with others. For example, we received a sweet little thank-you for a
donation that my father made in person to a small library in Florida. I sent
the photo to my father just moments after I opened the letter in my office. My
father enjoyed it moments later.

Here's the card:

A picture that's
worth its words

Last year, in response to my blog on the satisfaction of
forcing your mind to recall trivia rather than Googling, I received a most
unusual gift.

I had used the example of not being able to remember the
name of a particular actor. In a show of remarkable generosity, one of the
readers of that blog, the autograph dealer Ron Weeks, sent me a photograph of
the actor, Alec Guinness, along with his signature--both beautifully matted in
blue and ready for framing. I decided to send Ron our book on Thoreau in return. 

Before I sent Ron the book and my note, I took this photo on
my phone:

In this one photo are both gifts and both letters--far beyond
the carbon-paper capabilities of yore.

Creating an artful photo is layering art upon art, and can
become a rewarding ritual in itself.

Have I inspired you to make your own photo carbon copies?
And if you're old enough, what do you remember about using carbon paper?