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Decalcomania was invented in England about 1750 and imported into the United States at least as early as 1865. Its invention has been attributed to Simon François Ravenet, an engraver from France who later moved to England and perfected the process, which he called "décalquer" (derived from French papier de calque, "tracing paper"). The first known use of the French term décalcomanie, in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Eleanor's Victory (1863), was followed by the English decalcomania in an 1865 trade show catalog (The Tenth Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association); it was popularized during the ceramic transfer craze of the mid-1870s. By around 1875 decalcomania designs printed in colored glazes were being applied to porcelain, an extension of transfer printing, which had been developed in England since the late 18th century. The decalcomania was applied over an already glazed surface and re-fired. The process began to be mechanized from the turn of the 20th century.
The surrealist Oscar Domínguez referred to his work as "decalcomania with no preconceived object". He took up the technique in 1936, using gouache spread thinly on a sheet of paper or other surface (glass has been used), which is then pressed onto another surface such as a canvas. Dominguez used black gouache, though colours later made their appearance.
French surrealist Yves Tanguy used the technique in his 1936 works Paysage I and Paysage II, which were included in the Guggenheim Museum's exhibition "Surrealism: Two Private Eyes" (4 June – 12 September 1999, New York).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, King Features Syndicate marketed a set of decalcomanias bearing full-color pictures of characters from its comic strips, including Flash Gordon, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Dagwood Bumstead. Intended for young children who might have difficulty pronouncing or reading the word "decalcomanias", these transfers were marketed as "Cockamamies", a deliberate mispronunciation. The term "cockamamy" or "cockamamie" has entered the English language with various slang meanings, usually denoting something that is wacky, strange or unusual. However, the expression "cockamamie" is attested by 1946 and reportedly as early as the 1920s.
The production of decalcomanias has not been confined to art. At Yale University fingerpaint decalcomanias have been analysed for their tendency, when the process is repeated several times on the same paper, to generate fractals.
- "Decalcomania", Harper's Bazaar, 4 April 1868.