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Antique Typewriters: Collectibles for Wordsmiths and Typophiles
Print Magazine, August 2002
YOU STRIKE A KEY marked with an alphabet letter. Up swings a lever capped with a corresponding metal type slug and hits a roller -- the platen -- around which is wrapped a piece of paper. Between the type and the paper is an inked ribbon, which transfers the impression of the letter to the paper.
The typewriter. An elegantly efficient machine. Timeless and relatively straightforward, right? After all, the keyboard you use to write e-mail today hasn't changed much since the first typewriter was brought to market by gun maker Remington & Sons in the 1870s. Remington's Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, displayed in a glass case in the lobby of Dun & Bradstreet headquarters in Murray Hill, New Jersey -- testament to R. G. Dun's percipience that this newfangled invention would aid his business directory publishing venture -- looks exactly like the predecessor of the modern office machine it is. Chunky, black, with Victorian-style decals of pastel roses, it has all the parts associated with the typewriter: the "QWERTY" keyboard in four straight rows, space bar, the bell that rings when you near the end of the line.
But early typewriter manufacturers and engineers apparently couldn't leave well enough alone. Other brands and models, to the untrained eye, are barely recognizable as typewriters. You'd think they might be foot-measuring devices, electrocardiographs, lie detectors, tortilla presses, musical instruments, Rube Goldbergesque birth-control-pill dispensers. That's because in the 1890s, not unlike what's happening with cellphones and PDAs today, there was a wildly competitive proliferation of brands, features, mechanisms and designs. Dozens of inventors tried to cash in on the new technology and develop lighter, less cumbersome, more affordable apparatuses -- without infringing each other's patents. The results were beautiful, weird and fascinating.
To collectors like magazine writer Berkeley Rice, there is always a rarer prize, a specimen in better condition, with a finer case or accessory. "I used to think people who collected antiques were strange. Now I'm one of them," says Rice, whose Sleepy Hollow, New York, home is filled with 100 typewriters. A former Newsweek reporter who's written nonfiction books on subjects ranging from the pet industry to suburban drug dealers, Rice's obsession began in 1997 when his son Andrew, an ergonomics expert, brought home a folding Corona as an example of early office machine engineering. Rice kept an eye out for more examples for Andrew, and after buying two or three, got hooked himself. "I was intrigued by the different styles and mechanics of what had previously seemed to be an obvious piece of machinery," he says. "As a writer, I stuck with manual typewriters long after electric models and computers were in common usage. I liked the feel of them; typing felt like you were actually doing the work, not the machine."
About 200 other serious collectors in the U.S. -- and 200 or 300 more worldwide -- feel the same way. They buy, sell, barter, renovate and exhibit those machines that haven't ended up in museums, private collections or the scrap heap. Or in the movies. When Woody Allen's set decorator needed two dozen 1920s Remington, Royal and Underwood office models for an insurance office scene in Curse of the Jade Scorpion she called Rice. What he didn't have to sell he put together from other sources. Darryl Rehr, an L.A. writer-producer-director and author of the trade paperback bible of typewriter collecting, Antique Typewriters & Office Collectibles (Collector Books, 1997), tries to work a typewriter scene into each of his history and adventure TV documentaries. "It's my Hitchcock touch," he says. "I used a 1939 chrome-plated Royal in a documentary about gumshoe detectives. It's a bright, shiny, gorgeous machine."
Every collector has personal favorites. Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, got his first typewriter, a 1931 Remington, at age 12, a gift from his father. He now has 75, some displayed in his office on campus and some at home. "That Remington is still a treasure," he says. "I have it on my desk. It has sentimental value and nice Deco lines." Polt admits to a weakness for devices with interchangeable fonts, like the Hammond, whose type shuttles ultimately evolved into the Varityper cold-typesetting system, and the Blickensderfer, which featured type wheels that snapped on and off. The "Blick," the precursor of the IBM Selectric "golf ball" of the 1960s, offered hundreds of type wheel choices: different weights and fonts, including wheels for mathematics, engineering, Greek, Russian and Hebrew. "There was a wide variety of type faces pretty early on," notes Polt. And there were all kinds of other gizmos. Some machines justified the margins. One of the more ingenious, the Oliver, had a screw-tightened contrivance that held a pencil for drawing lines between columns of figures. Most had two- and three-tone ribbons that allowed you to type in black and red or other colors. Index models (rather than using a keyboard, the typist dials a letter or points a lever to it) like the Merrit, Peoples and Odell were smaller, lighter, with fewer moving parts, and popular with small businesses and individuals who couldn't afford a $100 office machine. The Classic Typewriter Page, a charmingly designed web site maintained by Polt, features a virtual encyclopedia. (http://xavier.xu.edu/%7Epolt/typewriters.html)
Although some of the rarer specimens go for $5,000 to $10,000, typewriters are relatively affordable. Models in good working condition priced from $50 to $100 can be found on eBay as well as on sites like Classic Typewriter Classifieds.
(http://www.typewritercollector.com/classifieds.html) Many aficionados would rather haunt real venues, though, spending their weekends examining mechanisms, tapping keyboards and listening for the satisfying 'ding' of little bells in flea markets, antique shops and tag and estate sales.
Darryl Rehr began collecting at the Rose Bowl and Long Beach flea markets. "I started in TV news in 1972 and bought a 1905 Royal to use at home," he says. "It didn't last long and I replaced in with a 1908 Remington #10. That was a great machine." In the mid '80s Rehr got into it seriously, which for him meant the adventure of discovering a new machine; learning about it, writing about it, and then trading or selling it. "If anything, prices have gone down," he maintains. "Germany was a hot spot for collectors, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall there weren't as many rich people to drive prices up." Rehr is also a big collector of typewriter ephemera: ribbon tins -- art forms in themselves -- novelty postcards, and magazine and newspaper ads. "I have tons of that stuff," he acknowledges, having recently whittled his collection of nearly 1,000 tins down to 200 or so.
"Everyone collects for a different reason," declares Lin Lewis, a Charleston, South Carolina, justice of the peace, who displays 40 prized typewriters in her office. "I love all the different ways print gets on paper." Lewis, who, like many women who came of age in the '60s, learned to type in high school secretarial classes, is also interested in the socioeconomic aspects of the typewriter. "It liberated women from menial, blue-collar jobs and allowed them to move into pink-collar clerical, secretarial and administrative positions," she says. "The typewriter gave women marketable business skills."
The antique typewriter world is a small one, and collectors meet in chat rooms and at exhibitions and conferences. Lewis recently traveled to Europe with two of her collecting friends, Jann Dorothy, chief operating officer of the California Bar, and Lynda Beckler, a northern California insurance executive. In Amsterdam, they met up with Paul Robert, webmaster of the Virtual Typewriter Museum (www.mmworks.nl/typewritermuseum /collection/index.html), who accompanied them to an auction in Cologne. "I bought a Virotyp for $700," Lewis reports. "This little index machine was invented in 1914 by a French cavalryman so he could type reports in the saddle. We typewriter collectors are always on the lookout for the better quality, the rarer, the earlier model," she says. "We're always upgrading our collections or filling out a niche." If a typophile or wordsmith, or a graphic designer or illustrator, then, should covet a case of ribbon tins or a cool antique typewriter or two for the office reception area, where should he or she go? Take Darryl Rehr's advice: "If you want to decorate, start on eBay. Buy what you like. Pay what you can afford. But if you want to collect, learn something. Look at typewriters with an eye to history, origin and quality." Adds Berkeley Rice, "Once you start, though, you may not be able to stop. My collection now fills our basement and what used to be the family room. And I'm still hunting."
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Graphic designer and writer Ellen Shapiro got her first typewriter, a 1953 Royalite portable, so claims her mother, at age five.
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