Antique Typewriters

Underwood Portable Typewriter Works, Bridgeport, Connecticut

"A Machine to Supersede the Pen! Ministers, lawyers, authors, and all who desire to escape the drudgery of the pen, are cordially invited to call at our office, and learn to use the Typewriter. Use of machines, paper, and instructions, FREE!"

This text, from an ad in the October 1912 edition of "Advertising & Selling with the Advertising News", offers a surprising perspective on Victorian business culture. Having been in use for decades as a "personal writing aid", typewriters were not, in 1912, universally accepted as an office machine. In the 19th Century, it was believed that business correspondence needed the "personal touch" of handwritten letters. This perception was soon to change; typewriters were about to be viewed as indispensable in a modern office.

As demand increased, inventors struggled to create an ideal typewriter: one that was affordable, efficient, and adaptable. In 2007, Joan Acocella wrote for New Yorker Magazine: "historians estimate that the typewriter was invented at least fifty-two times, as one tinkerer after another groped toward a usable design." Hundreds of typewriters appeared, some with double keyboards, curved keyboards, or no keyboard at all. The Martin Howard Typewriter Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum offers a fascinating look at the variety of machines created during this period.

"Affordable, efficient, and adaptable" proved to be a difficult combination to achieve. Typewriters that were affordable weren't very efficient. For example, the Coffman Index Writer cost just $5 and was as easy-to-use as a modern paper cutter. But, producing a document on one was slow-going. Slightly faster and still affordable ($10-$20) was the Mignon Index Writer. The Mignon didn't have a keyboard, either, but an experienced user could type up to 100 strokes per minute. As a point of comparison on these prices, a horse-drawn carriage - minus the horse - cost $60-$100.

Keyboard typewriters were the most efficient, but it took decades to arrive at an acceptable combination of keyboard layout and other features (shift keys, numbers, spacing, ribbon, return, etc.) The first such typewriter - the one on which all subsequent machines are based - was the Underwood. As with modern technology, increased demand led to increased production and lower prices. As more models hit the market, trade-ins were common and a steady supply of used machines became available.

The "gold standard" of adaptability in a typewriter was conceived and built by the Hammond Typewriter Company of New York in 1884.

Hammonds had a very loyal following that was slow to adopt other machines (dare I compare them to Apple iPhone users?). Hellen Keller was a devoted Hammond user. Hammond machines used interchangeable type-shuttles rather than fixed typeface bars. A type-shuttle was a semi-circular strip of hard rubber or light metal that could easily be replaced. Type shuttles were available in twenty-six languages and one-hundred-eight styles, including medical and mathematical characters. To stress their competitive advantage, Hammond advertising featured the motto "For Every Nation, For Every Tongue."

Although Hammond eventually produced a straight-keyboard machine, they are known primarily for their curved keyboards (marketed as the "Ideal" keyboard) and fine woodworking. Hammond cases were crafted from Mahogany or Oak, and special orders were taken for inlaid and decorated cases. In later years, Hammond made a lightweight aluminum case for their "portable" model.

Hammonds were famed for the quality of their print. Unlike most typewriters - which used front-striking as their print methodology, Hammonds used a spring-driven hammer which pushed the paper onto the ribbon from behind. You've likely seen a front-strike typewriter in use: when a key is depressed, a typeface bar rises and strikes an inked ribbon, which leaves an ink-mark on the paper. With a Hammond machine, pressing a key moved the shuttle so that the desired letter was positioned. Then, a spring-loaded hammer struck the paper from behind, inking the letter against the ribbon.

Such a design eliminated a common complaint regarding manual typewriters: uneven character inking. Front-striking typeface bars were dependent on a typist's finger strength for the quality of their print. A typist’s index fingers were usually stronger than their "pinky" fingers. Consequently, on a front-striking machine, some letters on a page were lighter in color than others. Since the Hammond's rear-striking hammer was spring-activated, every letter had the same amount of inking. The printing was so good that as late as the 1960s the Hammond Vari-typer was still used for photographic advertising layouts.

Eventually, Hammond machines fell victim to the dominance of the QWERTY keyboard arrangement, and by World War Two they had disappeared from general use.

Collectors can still find a good supply of early typewriters, but most will need restoration. Novices will find The Typewriter Restoration Site and Basic Typewriter Restoration good jumping-off points for getting old machines back into working condition.

Amazon has about two-dozen books (hardcover, paperback, and Kindle) on pricing and collecting antique typewriters.

Notable high prices in antique typewriters include a Remington 1 (Sholes & Glidden) sold in 2014 for $29, 900 on eBay; an 1880 Crandall sold in 2016 for $4,175; and a Sun Index brought $2,100 in 2016 on eBay.

As of this writing, eBay has about 600 current listings for antique & vintage typewriters and typewriter parts. In the past sixty days, the same search shows 1218 completed listings, 723 of which sold, for roughly a 60% sell-through rate. High price was for a Hammond #2 which sold for $1475; second-highest sale was another Hammond #2 which brought $949. Low-end sales included a #12 Underwood for $25 and a Remington portable for $26. Entrepreneurs can pick up machines cheaply, restore them, and sell them for nice prices

The sheer variety of antique typewriters makes collecting them a consummate hobby. Of the early machines, Martin Howard says:

"It is to this wonderful age of invention and modification, that I and other collectors are so attracted. The diversity of design and the evolution of the machine provides a rich world for us to explore."

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