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Letraset, Stat Cameras, and Rubylith ... Oh My!


When you've been in the agency business for a few years (all right, decades, we mean decades), you may marvel at some of the things that were business as usual back in the day ... and are nowhere to be found in the here and the now. Surely the same can be said for many industries, but it does seem like those of us on Madison Avenue (figuratively speaking) had our own unique tools of the trade that have been replaced by newer, often digital, options.

For example: the stat camera. According to Wikipedia, a stat camera was a large-format vertical or horizontal stationary camera used to shoot film for camera-ready artwork, and sometimes called a copy camera. This was a large bellows-type camera which consists of the copy-board, bellows and lens, and filmboard. When they say "large," they mean LARGE. One of the Bs remembers how she resented that the stat camera closet was bigger than her office. Another B remembers working with a stat camera that was from the 1940s (and no, we weren't alive when it was manufactured ... sheesh). It had a shower curtain you pulled around yourself and the equipment when you wanted to use it.

And how about Letraset? Rub-on (or "dry transfer") letters in a variety of typefaces that you bought by the sheet at places like Charette's. (R.I.P. Charette's.) Some departments had their own linotype machines, but most of us sent manuscript copy out to be typeset, which would come back as galleys to be proofed, probably marked up, and sent back to be redone. When it was all set, we would then use an X-ACTO knife to cut the lines of type and adhere them to a mechanical board with Spray Mount or hot wax. If your agency cared about the state of your lungs, some of this was done under a ventilation hood. (If they didn't care, you made do with some makeshift solution, like a cardboard carton with the top and front sliced off.)

Art directors and designers sat at adjustable drawing tables, with nary a PC or monitor in sight. There were always plenty of colored markers and pencils, and sketch pads. Plus, more sophisticated tools like French Curves, Rubylith, Rapidographs, and non-repro blue pencils.

Many supplies that copywriters used are virtually obsolete as well. Like electric typewriters and Wite-Out; even dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?), and the essential Strunk and White are now online. We used to review video tapes of auditions or commercials on a video player. And we used to store documents on floppy disks. We rarely even see a CD anymore.

Then, there are all the general office supplies that have left the building. Remember those little carousels with pink message slips that used to be on someone's desk? Gone. Rotary phones — for that matter, phones with cords? Gone. Fax machines? Gone. Cigarettes and ashtrays? Gone — and, btw, good riddance.

It's not just equipment and supplies. People have disappeared too.

Like typesetters, retouchers, and bicycle messengers. Midtown Manhattan in the late 1980s? Wall-to-wall (curb-to-curb?) bicycle messengers. They were fast; they were mean. You stayed out of their way.

Software, the web, and the creative cloud have definitely made things more streamlined and efficient for agency creatives. But, you have to wonder if we've lost a little in technical translation. When we used to show loose sketches to sell a concept, we focused on the idea first. Then, we'd have time to fill in all the blanks: select the best fonts, hire an illustrator, choose (or even shoot!) photography. Today, our presentations look like finished products (thank you, Adobe Suite). It may speed up the project, but it sometimes short changes the process.

That said, nostalgia is all well and good (and it's fun to take a stroll down memory lane now and then). But, none of us ever want to see a stat camera again.

Have we missed any of your favorite antique art supplies? Let us know ...


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