The Digital Age has claimed many casualties. The card catalog, for example, is fading from memory as computerized databases replace enormous wooden cabinets in our libraries. Cursive handwriting has all but disappeared from elementary school curricula as laptops become cheap and ubiquitous, also replacing typewriters in high school Business Machines classes, which I'm almost certain no longer exist, as well. Is this bad? No, not really. Card catalogs are—let's face it—a bit of a pain, and their contents aren't easily shared across networks. Practicing penmanship is boring, an ascetic, repetitive ritual often resulting in the literal pain of hand cramps. The left-handed among us (like me) don't miss it at all. And anyone who has typed well past the bottom margin of a term paper (again, like me) appreciates the automated aspects of modern writing contrivances.
But humans live in at least three dimensions, and as more of our experience is flattened onto screens, we make fetishes of the bygone ways and objects. Typewriters, especially the old ones, make powerful totems. These loud, heavy, mechanical beasts evoke a certain romanticism, whether it's a reporter on deadline, press card tucked jauntily in hatband, stabbing at keys with stiff index fingers, or a blocked author filling a corner waste can with crumpled sheets yanked from the carriage of an indifferent Underwood.
Anthony Casillo's Typewriters (with photographs by Bruce Curtis and an introduction from Tom Hanks) captures the beauty and strangeness of these contraptions from a not-so-distant era, collecting images, specs, and descriptions for 80 machines ranging from 1874's "Sholes & Glidden Type Writer" to the mod designs of the 1960s. In this excerpt from the introduction, Casillo describes the origins of his obsession, followed by some of the more iconic, and sometimes strange, examples. Presented, of course, in Courier.
Excerpt from the introduction to Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing
by Anthony Casillo
In the late 1970s, I stumbled upon an old, long abandoned, Oliver typewriter stored away in the back room of a typewriter repair shop where I worked in New York City. The Oliver was unlike anything I had ever seen before: an odd-shaped, green-colored monster with three rows of keys and typebars—U-shaped metal rods with type attached to them—positioned high above its carriage. It was old and deserving of greater appreciation than it was receiving there. It begged me to rescue it from that dark room—and potentially the trash heap. So, I packed the 30-lb (13.6-kg) orphan up and carried it home on the NYC subway during my standing-room-only rush-hour commute.
Once home, I began to explore this beauty a little further. The Oliver opened a door to a new world for me, one that ignited my curiosity about the early history of the typewriter. Before this point, I had never given a thought to the early days of the typewriter industry. Back then, interest in old typewriters was almost nonexistent and most machines were disposed of at the end of their useful lives.
Shortly after the Oliver discovery, I was leafing through the classified section of a monthly typewriter trade magazine when another vintage machine caught my eye: a Blickensderfer typewriter from the 1890s was being offered for sale. The lickensderfer was a small manual typewriter that used a type element similar to the modern IBM Selectric typewriters that were popular in the 1970s. It was so much like the modern Selectric that I was repairing for a living back then, yet the seventy-five years that separated them made me curious about its history. There was so little information available on old typewriters at that time, so I acted on instinct, and I took a road trip across two states to purchase and pick up my prize. After all, I thought to myself, when would I ever see another one? On my return trip, a voice inside kept telling me that not only had I just acquired something special, but also, on that day, I had now become a collector.
I went on a buying spree for the next few decades, searching for and acquiring as many interesting typewriters as I could track down. From flea markets, to auction houses, to estate sales, I crisscrossed the country in search of elusive machines. I believed anything could be anywhere and searched almost everywhere. In forty years of collecting, my only regrets are for the ones I didn’t buy, the ones that got away.
When I first became interested in vintage typewriters, collecting them was not a popular hobby. Finding another typewriter collector was almost as difficult as finding the actual machines. But over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in mechanical typewriters—a renaissance of sorts. An object that had been deemed useless after the emergence of computers and relegated to the junk pile is now being celebrated. This revival seems to be both a combination of nostalgia and a desire to escape from modern technology. Unlike a computer, with all its word processing strengths and amenities, the typewriter offers a straightforward approach to the task of typing. A typewritten document isn’t merely typed, it’s created. Each key depressed immediately becomes a permanent imprint on paper. Mistakes are not easily removed, generating a greater need for concentration and requiring an undistracted, direct connection with the hardware responsible for producing a document. Driven by the force of the creator’s own fingers, and coupled with the unique characteristics of the machine being used, every document produced has its own personality and charm.
Some remained faithful to their typewriters during a period of technological change that began in the 1980s with the introduction of the personal computer. They were the holdouts who refused to part with their trusted friend as technology marched forward, always keeping a place on their desks for tasks that a typewriter could perform more efficiently than their computer. For these people, the filling in of forms, addressing of envelopes, and other small tasks always seemed to get done more quickly on a typewriter, giving the machines an extended life as a secondary writing instrument in many offices.
And then there are the collectors who see beauty in old, twisted, and often rusted metal. It is not uncommon for a dedicated collector to travel great distances to procure an ancient typewriter for his or her collection. Filling basements, attics, and storage sheds with these old unwanted relics is routine for typewriter collectors on their quest to assemble a collection and research the typewriter’s past. Some collectors have glass showcases in their homes to display the aristocrats in their collections. “History preserved,” as it is often said.
What follows in this book are highlights from my four-decade journey in collecting and researching typewriters; all the machines pictured here are from my personal collection in Garden City, New York. These pages explore eighty of the most historically important and eye-catching mechanical writing machines that were manufactured in the period between the 1870s and 1960s.
So many of us have a typewriter story to tell—whether we used the machines for papers in high school and college, or watched our grandparents type out letters on their cherished machines—stories that evoke fond memories of a much simpler time. In the pages that follow, the typewriter will tell its own remarkable story.
. . .
For the past two decades, the death of the typewriter has been proclaimed repeatedly. Holdouts and niche applications that could not be completed on computers until more recently, such as typing labels and envelopes or filling in forms, helped keep it barely alive. It quietly limps along as many typewriters that are thirty or more years old are still actively in use today. The faithful, along with those who have recently discovered the typewriter’s charm and humble approach to writing, have ensured that it will be celebrated in its retirement for many years to come.
THE SHOLES & GLIDDEN TYPE WRITER (1874)
The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer has the distinction of being the first commercially successful typewriter. Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden, with assistance from a team of inventors and promoters, are credited with inventing the machine and bringing it to market. It was manufactured by E. Remington and Sons, an arms and sewing machine manufacturer in Ilion, New York. The Type Writer, as it was first called, was the landmark invention that helped transform business communication and industry in the late nineteenth century. Advertised as “a machine now superseding the pen,” the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer is ornately decorated with patriotic banners, flowers, images of young women, and landscapes. It types in uppercase characters only and is a blind writer, meaning one cannot see what is being typed. The user must raise the carriage up on its hinges to view their work.
It was on the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer that the QWERTY keyboard, the same keyboard arrangement in use today, made its first appearance. The Sholes & Glidden uses a spooled ribbon for inking and a bell to sound the end of a writing line. Both were innovative features that would be standard hardware on other typewriters for many years to follow. There were approximately four thousand units manufactured and sold during its four years of production.
SERIAL #1183 ORIGINAL PRICE $125
WEIGHT 30 lbs (13.6 kg)
DIMENSIONS 15½ x 16 x 15½ in (39 x 40.5 x 39 cm)
MERRITT TYPE WRITER (1890)
The great parade of index typewriters in the 1890s produced a bewildering array of designs, including the one for the Merritt. Larger and beefier than its contemporaries, the Merritt offered a one-of-a-kind approach with its metal printer’s type.
The Merritt is an understrike linear index typewriter that uses a sliding rack of printer’s type which, when selected, is pushed up into a socket beneath the platen for printing. This method provides typing with a near-perfect alignment of characters, albeit a slow one. The metal type also provides a sharper impression than most other low-cost index designs using rubber type. Two ink rollers on either side of the printing point provide inking. They are mounted in a drop-in holder that is easily removable when ink needs to be replenished. With the aid of two shift keys, Caps. and Figs., the Merritt is capable of printing seventy-eight characters.
Although it was not promoted in advertisements, replacing the type rack with others of different styles of type can be easily done. The Merritt’s nickel-plated body mounted on a wood base makes it especially appealing to collectors.
SERIAL #9072 ORIGINAL PRICE $15
WEIGHT 6 lbs (2.7 kg)
DIMENSIONS 12 x 6 x 5 in (30.5 x 15 x 12 cm)
This curious little device was invented by Frank Lambert of Brooklyn, New York, who reportedly labored for seventeen years at perfecting his invention before it was eventually manufactured. Although its first patent was granted in 1884, production of the machine did not commence until 1900.
At first sight, the Lambert’s circular keyboard design resembles that of a vintage rotary telephone——not something one would expect to find on a typewriter. Depressing a button on the keyboard causes its center to pivot, resulting in the corresponding character on a type ring beneath it to lower for printing. A circular ink pad remains in constant contact with the type, insuring that the typeface stays inked at all times. A larger round button in the center is the spacebar, and a lever on the left allows the user to shift between upper- and lowercase characters and punctuation. Its black wooden roller, often mistaken for a platen, is a take-up roller with a clamp to grip the top edge of the paper and wrap it around the roller after it has been typed on. Printing takes place on a small flat area directly in front of this roller. Although it is sometimes misclassified as an index typewriter, the Lambert’s ingenious design fits the true definition of a keyboard typewriter——it requires only one step, the depressing of a single key, to print a character and advance one space along the writing line. The Lambert typewriter was moderately successful with several thousand units being sold before its manufacture was halted in 1904.
SERIAL #2024 ORIGINAL PRICE $25
WEIGHT 5½ lbs (2.5 kg)
DIMENSIONS 11 x 7¾ x 6 in (28 x 20 x 15 cm)
HAMMOND MULTIPLEX (GREEN, 1913)
The Hammond Typewriter Company had been well established for three decades when they introduced the Multiplex model to the market. During this thirty-year period the typewriter industry had undergone a transformation toward visible typewriters, yet Hammond enjoyed continued success with their nineteenth-century type-shuttle design. The Hammond Typewriter Company constantly sought to enhance the Hammond’s design by adding new features to the machine. The Multiplex is the result of that effort.
Unlike previous Hammond models that held one type shuttle at a time, the Multiplex can be fitted with two type shuttles at once. A typist can effortlessly change between two styles of type by lifting the turret at the top and rotating it one hundred eighty degrees to position a second type shuttle in place for printing. This design was incorporated into Hammond’s office models as well as their portable typewriters.
Small quantities of the lightweight aluminum Multiplex painted green were produced for the United States Army during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson is known to have typed many of his own speeches on a Hammond Multiplex typewriter. The Hammond Multiplex typewriter appears to have effectively improved on perfection.
SERIAL #AL207088 ORIGINAL PRICE $100
WEIGHT 11 lbs (5 kg)
DIMENSIONS 11 x 13 x 7 in (28 x 33 x 17 cm)
ROYAL QUIET DELUXE (1955)
The Royal Quiet DeLuxe of 1955 is the result of a post–World War II makeover of an original design dating back almost two decades earlier. When first introduced in 1939, the Quiet DeLuxe included premium features such as a touch control to adjust keyboard pressure and Royal’s newly patented and trademarked Magic Margin: margins that reposition themselves with the touch of a button. Yet, with all its muscle, the Quiet DeLuxe presented itself in a dreary manner with an outer casing covered in a dull, dark, textured finish. In 1944, World War II caused a two-year halt in typewriter manufacturing, but when production resumed, in an optimistic post-war environment, the Quiet DeLuxe underwent a series of changes that would prove its best days were yet to come.
The post-war Quiet DeLuxe received two body style updates, but its most noticeable change came in 1955 when a variety of bright pastel color options were unveiled. A soft cream-colored keyboard was the icing on the cake, making the Quiet DeLuxe into one of the more remarkable looking typewriters of its era. A marketing campaign featuring full-page advertisements in national magazines portrayed a portable typewriter for the young, or anyone on the go, and offering little or no money down with liberal trade-in allowances and discounts. The Royal Quiet DeLuxe was now something to write home about.
SERIAL #AT3707723 ORIGINAL PRICE $129.85
WEIGHT 13 lbs (5.9 kg)
DIMENSIONS 11 x 12 x 5½ in (28 x 30.5 x 14 cm)
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