I cannot pass by one without pausing to admire it. If it’s within reach, I cannot resist touching it. I trace the retro curves and mechanical angles before finally letting my fingers settle reverently on the keys. Glass and lacquer, enamel and chrome, Bakelite and celluloid – the keys are the most irresistible part of these elegant machines.
The first commercially successful typewriter was the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. E. Remington & Sons began production of this historic machine, which they dubbed the Remington No. 1, in 1873 after striking an agreement with the patent holder. Though E. Remington & Sons produced a variety of items, including agricultural equipment and sewing machines, the company was perhaps best known for its rifles and other small arms. It’s odd to think of one company producing both firearms and typewriters. It makes me wonder which of those two products has had a bigger influence over the centuries.
It wasn’t long before other manufacturers began producing their own typewriter models. Almost all of the successors to the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer featured the now-ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard, which was designed by Christopher Sholes in 1868. Today, typewriter collectors covet a wide variety of makes from iconic names like Underwood, Corona, Imperial, Royal, Hermes, Olivetti, and Olympia.
A few years ago, my daughter paid twenty dollars for a working 1940s-era Smith-Corona (complete with carrying case) that she spotted at the Todd Farm flea market. Her typewriter is almost identical to the 1934 model that typewriter geek/aficionado Tom Hanks owns. Hanks’ Corona was featured in a series of short videos showing the actor/director tapping out missives in front of landmark sites in Atlanta, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, and London.
A typewriter, however, needn’t have traveled the world in the company of an illustrious Hollywood personage to lay claim to a certain mystique. There’s just something intrinsically fascinating about these relics from another age. First of all, they are undeniably beautiful. From the dark and slightly menacing Victorian-era, Jules Verne-esque machines to the jewel-toned specimens from the 1930s and 1940s in lustrous shades of olive green, bright coral, candy apple red, and even blushing pink, every typewriter has a style and personality all its own. Even the later corporate workhorse models like the IBM Selectric were available in colors ranging from cheerful tangerine to a more serious but still stylish cobalt blue.
But, don’t be fooled. A typewriter’s beauty goes much deeper than its shiny carapace, polished type hammers, or glistening keys. A typewriter’s true allure lies in the less tangible elements of its nature. Like people, each typewriter has a unique story. Each machine has a mysterious and multi-faceted past that includes not only the physical aspects of its journey through the years, but also the trail of pages it produced.
When I look at a typewriter, I wonder not only where it came from and who owned it, but also what it was used for. What stories, letters, or other documents were produced by someone tapping away at its sturdy keys? Perhaps it had a simple purpose in an office or school churning out business correspondence or report cards. Maybe it spent time with politicians in Washington DC or with journalists in New York. Or maybe, just maybe, it belonged to a novelist or a playwright.
I cannot deny that the digital word processors we use today are far more efficient than their typewriter ancestors, but they will never have anything like the same kind of character or charm. Our desktops and laptops may connect us with the world via the Internet and automatically correct spelling errors, but they lack the individuality and gravitas of the writing machines of days gone by.
There is nothing like the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter – the click-clack of the keys, the “bing” that sounds at the end of each line, and the satisfying zip of the carriage return. And there is nothing that feels as solid and real under your fingertips as a genuine, mechanical keyboard. Most importantly, no modern word processor can ever hope to compete with the romance of writing on an antique typewriter. There’s magic in those old keys. I can tell just by touching them.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/or introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.