Among the list of now-obsolete technologies, the typewriter sits, squarely, between the invention of the icebox and the advent of the 8-track. If you’re too young to remember those two gems, then bully for you. Chances are, though, you’ve seen a typewriter once or twice.
The typewriter’s appeal is multifaceted. Why collect at all? To perhaps, embrace what once was, or, to proverbially take the long way home? Or is it for purely sensual motives, like the pleasing clickety-clacking of keys, or for overall aesthetics? Whatever the reasons, serious collector, Alan Seaver, posits that buying a typewriter, no matter your level of collecting expertise, was (and is) always a personal decision, and that typewriters actually mirror their owners’ personalities. What does your typewriter say about you? (…I am an old, slow clunker that does a bang-up job with quotes.)
Tactile and workhorse-y, it’s a machine that—despite its Luddite tendencies and weird idiosyncrasies (sticking keys, torn ribbons, broken draw cords)—is still used and appreciated today. Now, everything typewriter-esque seems to be making a big comeback. Take the Hemingwrite and the Qwerkywriter, for example. They’re two brand-new, portable, cloud and Bluetooth-based word processors, respectively, modeled after vintage typewriters. Even typewriter ribbon tins are now considered things of beauty.
The First Model: The Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer
In 1868, the first commercially successful typewriter was born. Invented that year by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden, both of Milwaukee, the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer was the first of its kind to feature the QWERTY keyboard. Its patent was sold to then-sewing machine manufacturer, Remington Arms Company (who began producing the machine in 1873), for $12,000.
Throughout the 19th century, it cost around $100 to own a typewriter—big bucks back then, considering today’s inflation.
Later Notable Models
Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are several more iconic models that followed the Sholes and Glidden. Brief rundowns were compiled with information gleaned from Machines of Loving Grace, the website of Alan Seaver, a world-renowned typewriter enthusiast and collector.
1896: The Underwood No. 5
This model became the gold standard of typewriters—it’s the model on which forthcoming typewriter designs were based— visible text, ribbon inking, and keys that directly hit the platen (rubber roller) were among its chief characteristics. According to Richard Polt, it pretty much set the standard for all typewriters up until the release of the IBM Selectric in 1961. The Underwood No. 5 is arguably the most successful typewriter design of all time, and it’s still a super-easy model to find.
1912-1940: The Corona No. 3
During this time, over 700,000 models were produced, which makes this Smith-Corona typewriter fairly common, but noteworthy due to its superior construction and historical significance. Competitors copied it somewhat unapologetically, and this model ushered in the No. 4, which was offered in blue, green, and red, along with $50 rebates for those who purchased the No. 3. A definite first! Its platen neatly folds inward to fit inside its exterior case.
1922: The Final American Oliver
Many are seen on the market today and slightly unusual looking, the most common US-made Oliver typewriters are numbers 3, 5, and 9. These versions (and the No. 11) utilize Printype, larger font that looked like print seen in books and newspapers of the time. Their solid construction has been key to their longevity. The Oliver company was purchased by the Brits in 1926, and the Oliver No. 11 (produced until 1931) is the company’s last US-made model.
1958: The Hermes 3000
It’s perhaps the most beloved of typewriters. Praised for its smooth action, the Swiss typewriter has a handy lid and sexy curves. Its namesake was dubbed as such by the Paillard Co., aptly referencing the mythological Greek messenger to the gods.
1961: The IBM Selectric
Before now, we saw mainly manual typewriters—those that needed no power source whatsoever. IBM’s new Selectric typewriter—a major innovation in typewriter history—trades keys (i.e. type bars) for a cylindrical, electronic printing element. In 1964, the newer, Magnetic Tape Selectric touted error-free typing at speeds of 150 words per minute—a real breakthrough.
What to Look For
Most serious typewriter collectors seek machines from 1875 to 1900. But how does a burgeoning enthusiast determine age and other defining characteristics? Here, some pointers as gleaned from typewriter collectors/enthusiasts, Richard Polt and Larry and Carole Meeker.
Serial & Model Numbers
Use these as a jump-off in determining brand (if it isn’t printed anywhere on the machine) and age. Once you locate the number, look it up in a database of registered machines.
A Metal Body
You won’t find many plastic components on typewriters made before the mid-1930s.
A crinkled, or wrinkled, finish indicates late 1930s – 1940s.
Post-WWII machines are assigned patent numbers above 2,400,000, have rounded, rectangular keys, and contain lots of plastic parts.
It’s a Winner if…
Don’t forget to check out all the Typewriters available on Krrb!