The copperplate safe

Bartholomew's copperplate safe consisted of 177 pigeon-holes, made out of zinc, in which the plates were kept.

The pigeon-holes varied in size, with small plates arranged at the top and the biggest plates, such as for the half-inch maps, kept at the bottom. Although plates for specific atlases were stored together, the arrangement was based largely on the size of the plate.

Plates stored and re-used

Bartholomew's engraved copperplates can be thought of as the equivalent to a digital database today.

If a customer requested a map of Africa at a certain scale, it was likely that Bartholomew had just the right plate in the safe. This meant they could save the customer the time and expense of having to pay for a new engraving, driving down costs and speeding up production time.

Indeed, this was something Bartholomew themselves promoted through their advertising material:

'[Bartholomew] would inform Publishers that Maps for Guides or Books of Travel etc., can be supplied from a very extensive series of engraved plates of all countries, thereby saving the cost of engraving or special preparation. Publishers need only send particulars of requirements and proofs of plates will be submitted.'

Easy retrieval

Because the plates were such a valuable commodity, the design of the safe had been carefully considered by the manufacturer.

Each pigeon-hole was individually numbered, allowing Bartholomew to keep an accurate record of where each plate was. Each plate was kept inside a paper envelope, with a printed copy of the plate on the outside. This helped Bartholomew to easily find the exact plate they were looking for.

Benefits of zinc lining

Lastly, each pigeon-hole was made out of zinc. In this context, the zinc is referred to as a 'sacrificial' material.

Zinc is more sensitive to environmental conditions, such as heat or humidity, than copper. The zinc not only acted as an early warning system to Bartholomew, but it would also have delayed the effects of these problems acting on the copper.

Plates housed at the National Library

When the firm vacated its Duncan Street premises in 1995, approximately 4.000 engraved copperplates from Bartholomew's collection — including their original storage — went to the National Library of Scotland. They are available for research, and a full transcription of Bartholomew's own listing is available through the copperplate inventory on the Bartholomew Archive website.

The engraved copperplates in the National Library's collection reflect a wide variety of Bartholomew's projects. The majority of the plates are of maps, but there are also hand-lettering samples and a large number of engravings for book illustrations. There are also a few steel and zinc printing plates, showing the different technologies that Bartholomew experimented with.


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