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The Pantograph; A Portable Copying Machine

Before cameras and digital editing helped us share and enlarge our photos, tools such as the pantograph helped people to duplicate and adjust a drawing or map they wanted to share and document. Consisting of multiple landing points where a writing utensil could attach, a pantograph would mimic the motion created by the user, effectively duplicating shape while enlarging or reducing scale.   Although Madison had no desire to be a surveyor, his role of landowner and farmer required basic knowledge of drawing tools for property maps, land boundaries, and architectural sketches. A pantograph would have helped create these records.

View of the desk in the Old Library, featuring the pantograph on display, (MF2019.3.9af). Photo by Johnny Hugel. Image Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

The above pantograph and its case are part of the interpretation in the room referred to as the “Old Library” at Montpelier. Research suggests that this part of the house was where Madison’s personal library and study was located. With an expansive and meditative view of the front lawn and the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Old Library is one of the most inspirational rooms in the house. Here, it’s thought that Madison read and studied Republics and anthropology, passionately gaining the knowledge that would prepare him to aid in building the foundation of our young country. Madison’s research and writing would lead to what would become the United States Constitution- the world’s longest surviving charter of government.

A reprinted copy of the U.S. Constitution as published in “The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser,” the first public printing of the ratified Constitution, (MF2013.29.1). Image Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

In 1785, Madison’s close friend, Thomas Jefferson, wrote to him asking if he had obtained a copying press. Like a pantograph, a copying press was a tool that duplicated the maker’s work. While a pantograph would be used for surveying and sketches, a copying press transfered writing from an original letter to a second, thin sheet of paper. The copy would print a mirrored text, but the translucent sheet allowed the content to be read on the reverse.[1]

 “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.”[2] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Sept. 1, 1785

When Madison confessed that he had yet to acquire a copying machine for economic reasons,[3] Jefferson designed and sent him one from France. Despite this gracious gift, Madison never favored the tool as Jefferson did. From the Journal of a Southern Tour, Jared Sparks notes that Madison, “…often wrote in haste, and seldom kept copies; he has lately been collecting his original letters, and taking copies of the most important. He never used a press for copying in the most busy periods of his life.”[4]

The pantograph on display in the Old Library is not the one owned by Madison, but it was made in the early 1800s. Consisting primarily of brass, this pantograph includes a stone base and ivory stylus. The case gives clues that the original owner used this tool frequently.

View of the pantograph folded into the case. Image courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Looking into the case, there are several sections of interest. A series of small, round indentions, with one deeper hole are located on the wider side of the lid, adjacent to a very round hole, possibly part of the case design. When the pantograph sits inside the case, it is evident that a metal point, which attaches the brass bars to the stone base, causes the series of indentions. Was the rounded hole included for the base point, but the tool didn’t fit this case correctly? Perhaps the case was purchased separately from this pantograph, and not custom fit for this specific tool. Moving towards the opposite end of the lid, remnants of cork is attached to the section that would close on one of the brass hinges. Another modification that may suggest that the case did not perfectly fit the tool.

Series of upclose photos of case lid. Images courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Part of the work done by Curatorial and Collections is outfitting the house with appropriate displays for interpretation. Through much research and collaboration, a room is furnished as accurately as possible. This attention to detail provides visitors an as authentic educational opportunity as possible to experience life in the Madison’s home. This constant dedication to education through interpretation means that displays in the house can change as new research surfaces. An example of this is the display of the pantograph in the Old Library. Previously, the tool was opened on the desk, as if Madison was working, enlarging or reducing a drawing, perhaps of a land survey. Now, taking into account the greater narrative of the space and our knowledge of the room use, it is more fitting to demonstrating Madison at work researching and writing. The desktop is now visually interpreted with an array of writing implements and paper strewn about, as if Madison has brielfy stepped away from his work.

Photo by Mike Morency, Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation. 

To learn more about how a room is furnished and how we care for objects, visit the Curatorial & Collections Digital Doorway page, here. 

Works Cited

[1] “A History of the World – Object : Copying Press Invented by James Watt.” BBC, The British Museum BBC A History of the World , 2014,

[2] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 1, 1785, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 10599.

[3] James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, March 18, 1786, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 10652.

[4] Jared Sparks, Journal of a Southern Tour, 1826-1828, Jared Sparks Collection, MS Sparks 141e, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, New England, United States, MRD-S 40371.