Saturday, December 28, 2013


By Jeri Westerson

You know you’re old when you remember what it was like to type on a typewriter. Kids today. They just don’t know the trouble it was. Hammering away at those keys to ensure you’d made contact from ink ribbon to paper. Reaching the end of the line with a ting of the bell, and then flinging the carriage back for another go at the next line. Typing too far when you’ve really got going and the paper runs out only to end up typing on the roller. Changing ribbons. Using carbon paper. Do I miss it? Hell no. Typing a manuscript on a typewriter would never have been viable for me. I make too many mistakes. And it’s glorious to cut and paste without literally having to do it with scissors and Scotch tape.

But I do like the look of typewriters. I have a modest collection of them from the twenties, thirties, and forties. I look at typewriters like some collectors gravitate toward clocks. The mechanisms are far
more interesting than their actual purpose. The little bell signaling you’ve come to the end of the page. The way the ribbon moves. The keys themselves, like a tiny print shop at your finger tips. And remember, this is movable type at its best. Once you’ve typed onto paper, you can actually feel the impression of the letters because there were these little metal sculptures literally banged into the page. Altogether visceral. If you’d like to relive those wonderful days of yesteryear, you might want to pick up a copy of the book by Darren Wershler-Henry, “The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting.” He will tell you when typewriters were finally commercially developed (1830s seemed to be the time they were finally looking like a typewriter, though variations had been invented prior to that time.)

And did you know, for instance, that the only reason the keyboard is laid out as it is (even on our current PCs) was so that the most commonly used letters wouldn’t get the machine stuck (those of you old enough will remember having to reach into the open area in front of the paper and release the hopelessly tangled arms when we went too fast with too many fingers pushing too hard)?

And if collecting the whole typewriter isn’t your bag, you can always wear bits of it.

Today, typewriters remain an oddity of another era. A Forerunner of what we use all the time (as you are using now). Kids don't even take typing classes in school anymore. They simply learn by doing since grammar school. No more quick brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs. Type, delete, type again, and print. Thank God.

*The above photos are part of my own collection.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'd forgotten some of the features you mention--all spot on. I laughed myself silly when there was a four-second video circulating on Facebook (it's probably on YouTube) where the woman is typing on a pre-flat screen boxy computer, reaches the end of the line, flings her hand sideways the way you described, and knocks the whole computer off the table. I too had a collection of typewriters, including my mother's Royal Standard that she might have had since the 1920s and the six-pound Olivetti Lettera portable I took to Africa (Peace Corps) in the 1960s. I eventually had to let them go for lack of storage space. Today, I'd probably have sold them on eBay.

Sheila Connolly said...

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, at a summer school class in a building without air conditioning (you would think I would have quit then and there). I do still have my mother's Smith-Corona electric typewriter from the 60s, which I used for all my high school papers. I could always type faster than I could write in longhand (yes, cursive!).

mz. em said...

I learned on a manual typewriter. Boy were my fingers weak to start. I don't know that I could do it now but my mister says I type hard on my lap top keyboard. So, maybe there's memory there in these old fingers.

Anonymous said...

My grammar school graduation present in 1936 was a Royal portable typewriter (because my penmanship was poor). It saw me through college and 30 year of teaching, and my husband through his PhD. in 1950 plus his first 4 books.

"Do I miss it? Hell NO!"

mz. em said...

Grand as they were in the day, I don't miss mine either.

Jeri Westerson said...

It's not worth it, Liz. There are few rare typewriters and none of the ones I own are worth very much at all. Most typewriters you encounter at garage sales and such aren't worth much. But they are cool.

Mary said...

I wish I had the Olivetti portable that we used to have in the 60's... I imagine my parents got it in the late 1950's. I never dreamed I would feel nostalgic for that typewriter, but I do. And so much correction tape was used by me! I never took typing, but now I type pretty well using both computer and tablet keyboards -- it only took 30 years!
I rememeber quite well reaching into the open space to untangle the tangled typing keys. Kids (even my own son, 25) have no idea...
And yes, there is something wonderful about touching those old typed pages-- the indentations from the type.
Great article!

Terry Shames said...

Just got around to reading this. Boy, does it bring back memories. For some reason I decided to teach myself to type using an old self-teaching book that my mother had. I guess I was motivated even in those days, because by the time I got to typing class, I could already type. And change the ribbon, and unstick the keys...etc!

Don't miss that at all. I think of the college papers I could have done so much faster had I not had to retype them because of the errors.