Daily Archives: May 2, 2011

Timeworn Typewriters

Vintage typewriters are having a moment.  I think they’ve been having a moment for some time but suddenly their images are all around me, everywhere I turn in both real and digital life.  Perhaps it is the ongoing impact of Steampunk (AllSaints Spitalfields stores feature many vintage machines in their displays, generally sewing machines and typewriters), or maybe it’s a sentimental  attachment that has grown stronger with their gradual disappearance from our lives.  Just last week I heard that the last typewriter had rolled off the production line of the last factory (in India) that still produced them.

I was thinking about typewriters even before I happened upon a charming old movie on television last week:  The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.  This 1947 musical (with music by the Gershwin brothers) stars Betty Grable as a young suffragette taking on Boston Brahmin society at the turn of the century armed only with her typewriter. After receiving her certificate from a business college in New York, she comes up to work in traditional Boston as the first female typist or typewriter (the turn “typewriter” is used exclusively for the person who is operating the machine rather than the machine itself).  Everyone is shocked!  She then becomes part of the very active suffrage movement (allowing us to listen to suffragette songs) and of course falls in love with her Brahmin boss, thus changing Boston society forever.  

The typewriter-as-liberation theme was also played out in the recent PBS series Downton Abbey, in which a young parlor maid in Edwardian England surreptitiously acquires typewriting skills in order to escape from domestic service. There was a commercial school here in Salem at around the same time, providing young women with the skills necessary to get them out of the factory.  From The Virtual Typewriter Museum, I have also learned that the first portable typewriter was produced right here in Salem in 1881 by the Hall Type-Writer Company.  Who knew?

Most of the nostalgia for typewriters is focused on dark and bulky models from the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but colorful mid-century models have their fans as well:  the Olivetti portable typewriter seems to be particularly in demand.  But for me, if you’re going to go back, you might as well go way back.  This print (click on the image to get the link to Etsy) should suffice.

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