Remington ad, 1875
June 23 was National Typewriter Day. If you’re wondering why I didn’t celebrate it, it’s because I forgot. I used my first typewriter when I was four, and I ditched my last one over twenty years ago. There was a time when I couldn’t write without it, but now I find the typewriter easy to forget.
Perhaps you are asking yourself, “What is a typewriter?” Between the printing press and the personal computer, a writing technology emerged that spread like wildfire and then suddenly disappeared almost without a trace: it was the typewriter.
Typewriters began to appear in the 1870s, and they spread rapidly both in offices and at home, but in 100 years they were all but gone. L.C. Smith began selling typing machines in 1886 and was the first to introduce typewriters with both capital and lower case letters. A century later, the personal computer put an end to the typewriter’s meteoric success. Smith Corona, the leading manufacturer of personal typewriters, went into a serious decline in the mid-1980s and declared bankruptcy in 1995.
Other writing technologies have gone obsolete, though most stayed around far longer than the typewriter. People wrote on clay for thousands of years, and quill pens were a major writing tool for centuries. Clay is used for art now, not writing. We still use pens, just not ones made from goose feathers. And we still type, though we’re likely to call it keyboarding, because we don’t use typewriters anymore. Students entering college today may have never even seen one.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the typewriter revolution had a greater impact, in a shorter time, than the print revolution. It took centuries for print to replace the handwritten manuscript, and even then, rough drafts, letters, diaries, business documents, notes, and invoices—which constituted the bulk of the writing being done—continued to be written out by hand, or later, on the typewriters which by the early 1900s were appearing in offices throughout England and the United States. So it's fair to say that although people read texts produced on printing presses, more of them actually used typewriters and pens every day.
An 1875 advertisement in the Nation for the Remington “type-writer” explains the machine’s advantages, but since many readers at the time were likely to be unfamiliar with typewriters, there's a picture of the device and the ad explains that “it is worked by keys, similar to a piano.”
This ad for the Remington "type-writer" ran in the Nation, Dec. 16, 1875. Image: Library of Congress
The ad touts the typewriter as superseding the pen. It’s easy to use--a 19th century version of plug and play--with no steep learning curve: “Anyone who can spell can begin to write with it, and, after two weeks’ training, can write faster than with the pen.” The typewriter writes twice as fast as a pen—“from thirty to sixty words per minute” (actual mileage may vary)—and unlike messy pens, it won’t soil the writer’s clothes or fingers. Plus the machine’s text is more legible than handwriting because it’s “in plain type, just like print.”
The Remington “type-writer”—the word is written hyphenated, as many new compounds are at first—is pitched as a machine that’s “an ornament to an office, study, or sitting-room” and—the ad runs just before the holidays—it makes a “beautiful Christmas present for a boy or girl.” After all, kids are drawn to the new technology, plus it’s educational: “Young persons acquire its use with wonderful ease and interest. It fascinates them, and there is no device comparable to it for teaching children to spell and punctuate.” You can just imagine how their eyes will light up when they see their new “type-writer” under the tree.
According to the marketers at Remington, the “type-writer” is a particular boon to women: “No invention has opened to women so broad and easy an avenue to profitable and suitable employment as the Type-Writer.” And there’s an appeal to do-gooders to give “the gift of a type-writer to a poor, deserving young woman [to] put her at once in the way of earning a good living as a copyist.” The alternative hinted at, well that would be unthinkable.
Remington also recommends its typewriter as a “relief” to “editors, authors, clergymen—all who are obliged to undergo the drudgery of the pen.” But it’s clear that the machine’s strength, and profit, lies in its ability to copy text, not create it: the women who will use the machine at home or in offices are to earn their living as copyists, not authors, and for anyone who doesn't want to buy their own typewriter, Remington offers to copy their documents quickly and economically, “at half the price that it can be done with the pen.”
The text being typed on the Remington shown in the ad is a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It is spoken by Brutus, the revolutionary who overthrows the tyrannical Caesar, and it emphasizes the transformative power that is being marketed along with the machine: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” Of course the fortune being touted here is financial, not political. At the end of the ad there’s a call, not for a revolution of the proletariat, but for regional sales reps to sell these new machines, a job certain to be “a safe, sure, and profitable business.”
The typewriter was so new in 1875 that it required some explication, but by 1897 it had become a common-enough feature of everyday life that when the novelist Bram Stoker mentions the machine in Dracula, he doesn’t have to explain to readers what a typewriter is, what it’s for, or how it works.
On the other hand, Stoker accepts the common assumption that typewriters are tools for copyists. Writers write their journals by hand in the novel, or they dictate into a phonograph (though the phonograph was invented in 1877, not long after the typewriter, Stoker feels the need to explain its use as a voice recorder to readers). Then Mina Harker uses her “traveller’s typewriter” to transcribe the notes that tell the vampire story, commenting, as if she had a side-business selling Remingtons, “I should have felt quite astray doing the work if I had to write with a pen.” But Dracula finds and burns their handwritten diaries and their wax cylinders, and at the close of the novel, Jonathan Harker observes that the surviving typescripts—mere copies of the lost originals—are neither valid nor convincing:
In all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document. Nothing but a mass of typewriting. . . . We could hardly ask any one . . . to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.
Eventually typing did become a tool for composing text, from the most mundane to the wildest of stories, not just a tool for copying it. Educators even tried to convince writers that typing made them smarter than handwriting. In the 1930s researchers demonstrated that elementary school children who did all their schoolwork on portable typewriters outperformed control groups using pens and pencils—the typists even had better handwriting. But school children did not go on to type in class, partly because the machines were too expensive (it was the Depression, after all), partly because, although the students took to typing readily, it proved too difficult to train their teachers to use the machines.
Children in this third-grade class were asked to do all their schoolwork on a portable typewriter. Classes like this across the country outperformed the nontyping control groups on standardized tests of reading, math, social studies, and science. Their teachers even claimed the typists had better handwriting.
In the end, most typists remained copiers, though enough writers were composing at the keyboard for the New York Times to complain in 1938 that the typewriter had usurped the place of “writing with one’s own hand.” The editorial warned that “the universal typewriter may swallow all” as if the typical memo, report or invoice needed the personal touch that only longhand could provide. While the Times editor may have scrawled this lament about the increased mechanization of writing on a pad of narrow-lined, yellow paper, reporters in the newsroom were most likely clacking away at their typewriters, pouring their souls into their words, trying to meet their deadline. Any metro editor suggesting that their work would be more honest and direct if it was handwritten would be facing a revolt.
From "Of lead pencils," the New York Times, Aug. 22, 1938.
And now the typewriter has become a quaint antique, relegated to museums and attics, replaced by the personal computer. The PC allowed typists to copy documents faster, cheaper, and more efficiently, but the true digital revolution came when computers, linked to the internet, made it possible for everyone to join the once-exclusive writers club. No more editors, publishers, or reviewers to stand between writers and their audience. All you need is a laptop, a wifi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.
Olivetti Lettera 21 portable typewriter, introduced in 1949. You won't find one at Starbucks.