Typewriter History

and Collecting


The Golden Age of Typewriters

 When the Typewriter was King!


There was time, not long ago, before personal computers, when a small mechanical device was the primary source for written documents and correspondence.  It was developed to help people become more productive and was so successful that it dominated desktops in businesses, schools and homes throughout the world for over a century.  It began life as a relatively simple instrument powered by human force and shortly thereafter by electric power.  In its heyday, a global industry existed to support its design, manufacture, sales and service.  It became indispensable as a tool for modern business yet, almost overnight and unceremoniously, it became obsolete, falling victim to a new technology, again promising to help people become more productive.   It was called the typewriter and as several generations came to know it as a staple item, another generation has now come of age without ever having used one.  The obituary for the typewriter has been written many times over the past two decades, however, for many reasons, it refuses to give up without a fight.  What you will experience on this website is my story of the golden age of typewriters.   Each photo is one of a typewriter that was found, rescued and preserved for prosperity.   All were worthy of investing my time and energy to add to my collection of historic typewriters. 

Typewriters... something old that's new to collect!

 

In the one hundred and forty odd years since the first commercially successful typewriter was introduced, more than three hundred different makes and models of writing machines were invented, patented, or manufactured in North America.  Many unusual typewriters were produced, each one hoping to become the preferred design by the typists of a century ago.  Early typewriters could be as simple as a wheel with letters attached or as complex as having two sets of keyboards.  In order to gain acceptance in a society unacquainted with typewriters, some machines were ornately decorated with flowers, mother of pearl inlay or cast in metals such as brass or aluminum.  One model was coated with a bronze finish.  One thing for certain, their appearance was as charming as they were functional.


The two basic categories into which all writing machines can be placed is "keyboard" and "index."  The keyboard category comprises all of what most people think of as a typewriter, one in which a keyboard is used to select the desired character and the key depressed to print the character.  An index typewriter has a chart on which all the characters appear, and a pointer or wheel that is used to select the desired one.  Depression or manipulation of another lever or device prints the character.

Index writing machines were simple and were cheaper than keyboard typewriters.  Despite their slow speed and inferior printing they were popular in their heyday, the first few decades after the first successful keyboard writing machine appeared in 1874.  Index writers sold for as little as $1 at a time when a keyboard machine sold for as much as $125.  By the end of the Nineteenth Century, second-hand and rebuilt keyboard typewriters satisfied the demand for inexpensive writing machines and index typewriters faded away, some to become toys for children.  Oddly enough, most index machines appeared after keyboard typewriters became available.


A typical keyboard typewriter is the Underwood, a good specimen of which is still a useful and serviceable writing machine.  The popular Underwood No. 5 was the first truly modern typewriter, because more than three million of them were manufactured from 1900 to 1932. Its great success and availability today reduces it to a minimal monetary value.  They are far from rare.  To evade patent infringement, early manufacturers of keyboard writing machines were compelled to find a tremendous number of ways to print a character on paper.  The most common type of keyboard writing machine is the typebar machine in which each key controls one or more characters.  A typebar is a lever which at one end is connected to a key on a keyboard and at the other end carries one or more types.  Depression of a key on the keyboard swings the typebar so that its type strikes the paper.  The Royal typewriter that you may have learned to type on in high school is typical of a typebar machine.


Another popular style of keyboard typewriter is the single-element machine. The IBM Selectric is the most modern version. All the types are carried on a single drum or ball, or some other shaped element, and when a key is depressed, the type element rotates or swings to present the selected letter to the printing point. The type element strikes the paper to print or a hammer strikes the type element from behind the paper to create a printed impression through an intervening ribbon. Sometimes an ink roller rubs the type element to ink the letter.


The Hammond typewriter (unrelated to Hammond organ) was the most successful of the early single-element typewriters.  Another of this kind was the Blickensderfer (an American typewriter despite its German-sounding but actually Dutch-American name). The Blickensderfer was also the first successful portable and sold so well in its time it is one of the most frequently encountered old-time typewriters.


In the early decades of the typewriter, most of the keyboard machines' typebars struck the underside of the roller, or platen, so in order to see what was just typed, the operator had to raise the carriage (it was usually hinged for that purpose).  The best-selling typewriter of this type (called an understroke) was the Remington, which struck with that principle until 1908 when the visible front- strike Underwood overtook the Remington.  By 1914 the understroke machine was gone.  Old understroke typewriters are curiosities and abundant enough to find a good specimen for a typewriter collection.


A common and typical index typewriter is the Simplex, introduced in 1892 and manufactured in a bewildering array of similar models for a half a century.  You will find one on sale in almost every flea market or antiques show you visit.  The Simplex typewriter is an excellent beginner’s collectable typewriter because it is unusual in appearance, relatively easy to clean up and requires only a small amount of space to display.


For the past thirty-five years I have enjoyed tracking down survivors, restoring them, and researching their history.  And quite often I am delighted by a new find and a new discovery.  Old typewriters, relegated to an attic or garage, have a talent for survival, so writing machines a hundred years old still turn up.  People find it difficult to throw away a typewriter, even when it no longer works.  This makes collecting typewriters a hobby where the earliest examples are still available and waiting to be found.


How much are collectible typewriters worth?  No one can really say for sure, which makes collecting them even more fun.  There are no standard, catalog prices for old typewriters the way there are for some other collectibles.  Not enough are bought and sold regularly to create a marketplace that would establish standard values (although it is my opinion that this will change over time).  It usually comes down to what a buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept.  Also, condition is very important in establishing value, and the condition of a typewriter can range from like-new to rust- bucket.  Rarity aside, a typewriter "as found" is never worth as much as one that a collector cleans up, polishes, and repairs.


Where did I find old typewriters for my collection?  You might want to sit at home and simply search online auctions and resale sites.  This could produce results, however it is not particularly fulfilling or much fun. Garage and tag sales offer great possibilities but require the most time and leg-work.   How about flea markets and antiques shows?  Good, and fun, but not always rewarding.  I find that most antiques dealers know less about collectible writing machines than you'd expect.  Many of them over-estimate the value of some typewriters that actually are rather common even though they look rare.  For instance, the Oliver typewriter looks like no other writing machine, and for that reason dealers usually want a lot for one. But more than a million Oliver typewriters were made and are so sturdy it seems that most of them are still around. So well- informed collectors who know their typewriters value Olivers modestly even when they are in good condition.  I suggest that a mix of all available resources along with networking with other collectors will most often produce the best results.


After the joy of the hunt, a newly acquired typewriter may need restoration.  A century of dust and dirt may have to be removed and a lot of dull nickel and paint polished back to its original glitter, the mystery of making it work again has to be solved.  And once it does, you can enjoy demonstrating it to visitors who always express a lot of surprise that an object as ordinary as a typewriter can be so extraordinary.


So if you're looking for a new kind of collectible, take a look at old typewriters.  Also take a close look at the portable typewriters you are likely to find at garage sales.  Usually these typewriters, still in their carrying cases, are in good condition and now more than 50 years after they were first purchased are old enough to be collectible yet still reasonable in price.  They are regarded as "sleepers," well worth investing in now and hanging onto; I expect them to increase in value as we continue into the twenty-first century and computer technology takes us even further from the mechanical wonders of a time long since forgotten.  It isn't often that one can get in on a ground floor of a particular area of collecting, and this is a ground floor.  Whether you are a speculator or a lover of fine old machines, consider joining me in the hobby of collecting typewriters.

Tony Casillo has been in the typewriter industry for over forty years and also collects and restores antique typewriters.  He can be reached at:


TTS Business Products, 325 Nassau Blvd. So., Garden City, NY 11530-5313
(516) 489-8300 Daytime - (516) 395-3400 Evenings - (516) 489-6501 Fax
typebar@aol.com

  Sholes & Glidden Typewriter
Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, circa 1874
The first commercially successful typewriter.
 
Crown Index Typewriter
Crown Index Typewriter
inexpensive, point & shoot method of typing without a keyboard
Barlock No. 4  Typewriter
Barlock No. 4 Typewriter
double keyboard typewriter
Hammond No. 1 typewriter
Hammond No. 1 Typewriter
single element typewriter using a type shuttle
Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter circa 1895.
Blickensderfer No. 5 Typewriter
single element typewriter using a type ball
Early Remington 4 understrike typewriter with carriage raised.

Early Remington Understrike Typewriter
with carriage raised for viewing typewritten document
Dollar Index typewriter, circa 1892.
Dollar Index Typewriter
Circa 1892
The Golden Royal Portable Typewriter, 1949
The Golden Royal Portable Typewriter, 1949


 

 

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