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Baum On Books

Book Review: Typewriters - Iconic Machines From The Golden Age of Mechanical Writing


Before the computer, there was the typewriter. It revolutionized the way we worked and did business. It could also be a thing of beauty.  A new book takes a look at both the utility, and the design, of the typewriter.  Book critic Joan Baum has this review.

For those of an [ahem] certain age the computer was not the main writing machine for school or business. At least not until the 1980s when it displaced the typewriter, beloved instrument of blessed memory. Now the typewriter is celebrated in a fascinating new book by Long Island collector and researcher, and typewriter restorer Anthony Carillo. In Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing, Carillo, with the aid of photographer Bruce Curtis, tells and shows why this incredible machine, first patented in the U.S. 190 years ago, is worth knowing about.

In a brief forward, actor Tom Hanks, a typewriter fan and collector himself, gives 11 reasons to have one. Among them he lists illegible penmanship, but his main reason for what he and Carillo see as a “resurgence of interest” in the typewriter is nostalgia: you always remember what you were like, where, when and why – when you recall using one. Hanks also suggests the attraction of sound -- the bell at the end of the carriage return, the clicking of the keys, the gear-like turn-loading of the paper, sheet by sheet. Slower than a computer, the typewriter also meant that that you had to think about what you wrote, unless you wanted to mess around with correct tape. Hanks also adds, waggishly, that the typewriter is also a Chick Magnet. Well, we’ll leave him alone with that one!

Carillo, of course, has a broader and deeper take. He notes that he began collecting when he happened upon a vintage green 30-lb. Oliver 40 years ago and it was love - and curiosity - at first sight.  Today, he points out, lots of people find that using a typewriter to address envelopes or fill in forms is faster and thus preferable to using a computer. He also hints at a sleeper desire “to escape from modern technology.” And, of course, he gives aesthetic reasons for wanting one. So many of the 80 old machines featured in his book show that they are works of art.

The Manufacture went slowly at first, due to lack of mass production and of financial backing, not to mention that the earliest machines meant, called under  strike typewriters--you couldn’t see what you were doing unless you lifted up the carriage. Eventually in the 1890’s a front strike typewriter evolved and what you typed was immediately visible.   

Typewriters took off, mainly courtesy Remington & Sons, and the machine became a collaborative effort between engineering and business. Demand increased and women in droves entered the workforce as typists, sometimes known as typewriters.

The surprise of Carillo’s handsome book is the variety of typewriters that quickly came on the market – different keyboards, arrangements, typefaces, bar placement, shape, size, weight, color – much of which was to avoid patent infringement. Some machines were bizarre, some made for niche markets, some over the top in decorative design. Credit Smith-Corona for the portable in 1957 and IBM in 1961 for the best-selling, sleek Selectric with its ball-shaped element and 2,800 parts.

Tony Carillo is passionate about typewriters and loves that he’s not alone.  One of his customers, he ,sent him her typewriter to repair in a taxi.  Another kissed his restorative work.  I happen to have a refurbished 1928 Underwood.  But I confess: I wrote this review on my laptop.