Put a newly acquired pair of salt and pepper shakers on the shelf, or wash a Depression Glass bowl, and there's not much left to do with it. But not old typewriters. 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.
In the one hundred and twenty-five 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 complicated 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 even 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 character you want 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.
Peoples & Crown
inexpensive, point & shoot method of typing without a keyboard
Index writing machines are simple and were cheaper than keyboard typewriters, but despite their slow speed and inferior printing, 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 $5.00 at a time when a keyboard machine sold for as much as $100. By the end of the 19th Century, second-hand and rebuilt keyboard typewriters satisfied the demand for inexpensive writing machines and index typewriters faded away to become toys for children. Oddly enough, most index machines appeared after keyboard typewriters became available.
this index machine used printers type on a slide
Keyboard typewriters can form an impressive collection by simply having one specimen of each kind of keyboard machine. A typical keyboard typewriter is the Underwood, a good specimen of which is still a useful and serviceable writing machine. However, although the famous Underwood No. 5 was the first truly modern typewriter, because more than three million of them were manufactured from 1900 to 1932, it is of little value and far from rare.
Columbia Barlock Model 8 Typewriter
double keyboard typewriter
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.
single element typewriter using a type shuttle
The Hammond typewriter (unrelated to Hammond organ) was the most successful one. Others of this kind were the Blickensderfer (an American typewriter despite its German-sounding but actually Dutch-American name). The Blickensderfer was the first successful portable and sold so well in its time it is one of the most frequently encountered old-time typewriters.
Blickensderfer No. 6 Typewriter
single element typewriter using a type ball
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).
Remington Standard Typewriter No.2
understrike, standard keyboard typewriter
The best-selling typewriter of that kind (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 almost identical 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 beginners 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 last several 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 does not work anymore. This makes collecting typewriters a hobby where the earliest examples are still available and waiting to be found.
How much are collectible typewriters worth? Nobody really knows, which makes collecting them even more fun. There are no standard, catalog prices for old typewriters the way there are for baseball cards and postage stamps. Not enough are bought and sold regularly to create a marketplace that would establish standard values (although it is my opinion that this will soon change). 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.
I've discovered that most of the value of a collectible typewriter is brought to it by the time and skill a collector invests in restoring it. A typewriter "as found" is never worth as much as one that a collector cleans up, polishes, and repairs..
Where do I find old typewriters for my collection? You'd expect to find them in typewriter and office equipment stores that have been in business a long time. But most of the time the owner has already thrown out his old machines, because these dealers seem to be less sentimental about old writing machines than people who have had one in the family for several generations. So office equipment stores are not the most rewarding places to begin. How about flea markets and antiques shows? Better, but not always. I find that 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 field value Olivers at only 50 dollars in good condition.
Royal Portable Typewriters
So if you are 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, 60 to 70 years after they were bought for a family high school student, they 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 approach 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. But it is possible to buy a typewriter that is not worth much now nor apt to increase in value and you must know what you're doing. Whether you are a speculator or a lover of fine old machines, consider joining me in the hobby of collecting typewriters..
Anthony Casillo has been in the typewriter industry for over thirty-five years and now collects and restores antique typewriters. He can be reached at:
TTS Business Products
325 Nassau Blvd., Garden City South, NY 11530
(516) 489-8300 Daytime - (516) 395-3400 Evenings - (516) 489-6501 Fax
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