The Revival of the Manual Typewriter

A personal essay

I’ve been writing on typewriters nearly every day for almost three years. I have six of them now—a Royal, an Olympia, two Underwoods, an Olivetti, and a Smith-Corona. I keep whichever typewriter I happen to be writing on tucked away in a corner of my room, between my dresser and back wall. You can’t even see it from the door. It sits next to a window I find myself looking out when I don’t know what to write. Above my desk, I have newspaper and magazine articles on books, writing, shyness, and introversion. Despite its minimal size—just a desk, a typewriter, and a few words for company—it’s a perfect little refuge when the world gets to be too much. A typewriter isn’t something that necessarily calls attention to itself, but it does demand the attention of the one who uses it. It demands to be appreciated and cared for.

Top left to bottom right: Underwood Standard, Olympia De Luxe, Olivetti Studio 44, Smith-Corona, Underwood Universal. I keep my sixth, a Royal, with me at school

I first fell in love with the idea of owning a typewriter. It was just a half-baked fantasy I never expected to come true. I didn’t expect it even when I saw one sitting outside a stall at the SoWa Open Market in Boston, even when I went to find my mom to tell her about it, and especially when we went back to the empty spot where the typewriter was sitting only moments before. But then that fantasy came true.

That first encounter with the flea market typewriter prompted me to start looking seriously on eBay. Though I now know there are smarter, and far cheaper, ways to buy typewriters, I lucked out on my first purchase. By December 2010, I had my first typewriter: a sleek black 1938 Royal portable. And let me tell you, she is one sexy machine. I still remember putting it out on the dining room table as I tried to learn all of its little quirks at once. I was trying to grow accustomed to the strange, foreign, and anachronistic machine in front of me. Throughout 2011, I used my typewriter to start a year-long writing project in which I typed and then scanned—a practice called typecasting—a piece of writing everyday that I posted to a blog.

Since that first purchase, I’ve spent most of the last two years absorbing and learning as much as I can about typewriters. The brands start to stick in your head after awhile—Royal, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Olympia, Remington, Olivetti, and Oliver, to name a few. You come to learn that beyond the basic mechanics of making sure the typewriter works, a lot of typewriter hunting is about preference. How the machine looks, feels, and sounds are all key characteristics I consider. The feeling of how a typewriter types is especially important. If it doesn’t feel good—durable, dependable, smooth as glass—then I won’t type on it no matter how it looks. I’ve recently taken a liking to my repaired Underwood Universal. It doesn’t type as darkly as I would like, but it’s in good condition and is much quieter than the Royal I typically use. It just feels reliable.

I bought my next four typewriters rather impulsively over the course of two trips to the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. The first trip I walked away with a $100 Underwood Standard—a heavy son-of-a-bitch—and a grey Olympia De Luxe, only $35. As I carried them back to the car, my mom commented, “Everyone has their vices.” Mine just happened to be books and typewriters. The next trip I came away with a grey Underwood Universal and an Olivetti that I regret buying now. At Brimfield, I looked at every typewriter I could find, even if it was out of my price range or all beaten up. I was eager to see as many as I could; I wanted to peer into their insides to see how they ticked. At Brimfield, you can usually find one or two sellers of used typewriters along with maybe two dozen or so individual typewriters scattered across the fields of antiques. I could spot them two or three tents away—my mom called it “typewriter radar.”

My sister spotted the last typewriter I bought while at a flew market in Brooklyn. She texted me a picture and said, “Don’t know how well you can see it, dark red, smith and corona, yours for only 85.” With shipping, the price was a bit steep, but I was undeterred. I promptly replied, “Yes, please.”

After more than two years of sitting at a desk, hammering away, you start to become intimately familiar with the particular machine you’re using. You become attuned to the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of your typewriter and working around them becomes second nature. For example, before I got my Royal fixed I had to repeat the capital letters because they were too faint the first time and I had to watch out for the lowercase “d” (sometimes the machine would skip a space after I typed one).

Like people, no two typewriters are the same. Each one feels distinctly different and has a different history of grade school assignments, covert love letters, prose and poetry, government propaganda, and wartime memos. The coldness of the keys under your fingers feels like the only truth in the world and the smell of metal and grease when you dig your nose into the typebars, the cavity of the machine, feels like the home of a serious writer.

A typewriter is a miraculous tool for disconnecting in a time when we are all constantly connected to our smartphones or tablets. When I’m sitting down at a computer, I don’t know what I’m going to do next; I can get distracted very easily. In today’s increasingly connected world, production and focus in writing are being sacrificed for Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts. There are a thousand distractions. But with a typewriter, I know I’m writing. When you sit in front of a typewriter, that’s all there is: you and the machine. In an age where every action is given less time, depth, and attention, a typewriter demands focus and dedication. There are no links to click, tabs to check, or pages to refresh. When constant digital connectedness has taken over most of our daily lives, a typewriter can give us back that time and attention.

Using a typewriter has challenged me to think, and write, in an entirely new way. Over time, I’ve learned that the defining trait of a typewriter lies in its sole use as a writing tool and that its most valuable qualities are what it lacks. Without the luxuries of seamless editing and a quick spell check, I am forced to slow down and place a heightened importance on each thought and word; a typewriter demands conviction in one’s thoughts. Typewriters have earned a permanent place in my heart, and using them nearly every day has allowed my love of words to extend to the machines that makes them permanent. Words have given me a medium with which to convey my perception of the world, and typewriters help me to distinctively record those thoughts in ways modern technology cannot.

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