Typewriters were the dominant writing machine for nearly 100 years. Over that time typewriter companies came and went, leaving behind hundreds of different types of machines. Even today there are still millions of typewriters around in basements, attics, storage rooms, and even in use. If you’ve never had a typewriter before, or have decided you want one back in your life, how do you know what to buy? How do you find the right machine for your needs? To help you answer these questions I’ve come up with this guide. If you want the short version you can skip to Choosing a Typewriter: TL:DR section at the end. For a more advice, read on.
What Kind of Typewriters Are There?
There are lots of typewriters around. When you find one, how do you know what kind you’re looking at? How do you know if it’s one you should buy, or one you should skip?
To start, you will want to be able to classify each of the typewriters you come across. Being able to identify the kind of machine, and when it was made, will help you focus on the kind of typewriter you might want.
Manual or Electric Typewriters
Manual typewriters work by the typist depressing the keys with his or her fingers. The keys have levers and springs that force the type slugs to strike an inked ribbon against the rubber roller, called a platen. If there is a piece of paper loaded against the platen, the type slug leaves a letter, number, or symbol on the page. This is why it’s called typing.
Manual typewriter platens are attached to moving carriages that are pulled by a cord or wire (called a draw string or draw band) held under tension by a spring. These allow the paper to move after each type stroke, as well as give the typer the ability, through various control features, to advance the paper, adjust the line spacing, set tabs and margins, and more. Electric typewriters have electric motors that move the keys, the carriage, or both.
Mahogany Rhino, with rare exception, only sells manual typewriters.
Portable or Standard Typewriters
Typewriters come in two basic sizes: portable and standard. A portable typewriter, as its name implies, is designed to be moveable. Portable typewriters are similar to laptop computers, and typically come in a carrying case of some kind. So-called ‘ultra’ portables are generally the smallest typewriters made, while some portables come in cases that are closer in size to suitcases than modern laptop bags.
Standard typewriters, also known as office typewriters, are closer to what we might think of as desktop computers. They are larger, do not come with a case, and can often weigh 40 pounds or more. They’re designed to be placed on a desk and not moved unless absolutely necessary.
Antique typewriters are generally categorized as any machine made during, or before, the earliest years of the 20th century. Before typewriter manufacturers adopted the design most of us are familiar with, typewriters came in a wide variety of layouts. These machines are often easy to identify because they look almost nothing like what most people think of as typewriters. Some are large machines, while others are diminutive. Some, like the Caligraph, are ‘upstrike’ typewriters that do not allow a user to view the letters as they’re typed on the paper, while others, like the Oliver (pictured), use a ‘downstrike’ mechanism that allows for only partially viewing of the type produced.
Antique typewriters are, in general, heavier, less reliable, and harder to maintain and repair than newer machines. Though they may work fine when you find them, any problem that develops could be impossible to repair. Further, antique typewriters are often harder on a typist’s hands. These machine usually have a heavier feel to them requiring more finger pressure to use than later versions. This can cause a typist’s fingers to quickly become fatigued.
Antique typewriters are ideal for people who want a solely decorative typewriter as a showpiece or focal point in a room, or for people who want to use a distinctive machine for occasional typing. Many antique typewriters are striking, drawing the eyes and attention of anyone who sees them. While it is possible to use antique typewriters for heavy writing duties, they are usually best uses as primarily decorative or collectible objects.
Modern, Pre-War Typewriters
A modern or pre-war (World War II) typewriter will typically have glass-topped, nickel-rimmed keys. These machines will look like what most people think a typewriter looks like, with a QWRTY keyboard layout, space bar, shift keys, roller, and other familiar features found on almost all modern machines.
Pre-war machines tend to be heavier than post-war machines, and are usually made with cast iron or steel components Pre-war portables typically came in cloth-covered wooden case, many with leather carrying handles.
Many pre-war machines, though old, are still able to be used on a daily basis. These machines can last as long as you want them to, as long as you care for them properly and they do not develop mechanical problems. Repairs on pre-war machines are often easier to make as there are still many of them available, and replacement parts, if needed, can usually be found.
Pre-war typewriters are fairly common, but can be prone to specific problems, such as hardened rubber platens (rollers), sticky keys, and even carriages that won’t move, or which stop moving soon after using them. They also tend to have a heavier typing action, and are not ideally suited to people who want a typewriter for heavy use. However, a good refurbished pre-war machine, on the other hand, can last a lifetime, and they are often reliable enough to use on a daily basis.
Post-War, Midcentury Typewriters
Some machines made after World War II have glass keys like their pre-war counterparts, but only a few. By the early 1950s the vast majority of typewriters came with plastic keys, making differentiating them from pre-war machines fairly easy. Styles and colors also began changing after factories re-tooled for the post-war years, and by the late 1950s there were a wide array of colors and styles available.
Typewriter manufacturers hit their stride in the post-war era, and many of the midcentury machines, such as the Olympia (pictured) line, the Hermes machines, and the Smith-Coronas from this time periods are widely regarded as the finest manual typewriters ever made.
Some machines were created by noted designers, such as the late 1940s Royal Quiet De Luxe designed by Henry Drefuss. Midcentury portable typewriters are more common than standard or office versions, and all of them, assuming they are in good condition, are generally well-made, reliable, and easy-to-use.
Post Midcentury Typewriters
Typewriter companies began introducing plastic cases and parts in the late 1960s. By the 1970 some typewriters were almost entirely made from plastics, apart from the metal mechanical components. Because of the plastic pieces, these machines are often lighter and smaller than machines made in previous decades.
Apart from the introduction of plastic components, the other big trend in this era was the outsourcing of typewriter production to other countries, and the emergence of Japanese-made manual typewriters. These machines, such as those made by Brother (pictured) were small, affordable, well-made, and reliable. This era also saw the introduction of the IBM Selectric, an electric machine that featured an innovative ‘golf ball’ print head. The Selectric, and its successors, came to dominate the typewriter market, leading to fewer and fewer manual typewriters being made.
The Typewriter’s Last Hurrah
By the late 1980s and early 1990s manual typewriters had all but disappeared, as electronic machines, word processors, and computers had come to dominate the market. The introduction of ‘daisy wheel’ electronic typewriters and word processors continued to chip away at the market, while the widespread adoption of the personal computer served as the typewriter’s final blow. Today there are a couple of manufacturers in India and China still make manual typewriters, but their quality is nowhere near that of a good vintage or antique machine.
Collector, Writer, or Decorator?
Now that you know a little about the history of manual typewriters, let’s take a look at why people buy them. As we said, there are still millions of manual typewriters floating around out there. They’re available in different sizes, styles, brands, and with different features. How do you know which one is right for you?
To find your typewriter, you’ll have to ask yourself some basic questions.
- Why do you want a typewriter?
- What do you want to do with your typewriter?
- Are there machines that draw your eye or which strike you as particularly desirable?
While only you can answer these questions, there are some common reasons why people buy manual typewriters from me.
Some people buy typewriters as collectibles. As with any other collectible, some typewriters are more valuable than others. In general, collectors look for rare machines in good condition, specific machines with particular traits, or machines from a specific time period or manufacturer.
For example, machines such as the mid-50s Royal Quiet De Luxe line (pictured here) are famous for their bright, vibrant colors, and are prized by collectors.
Other machines, such as the Olivetti Valentine for example, are prized as works of industrial art. The Valentine was designed by noted Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, and is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Collectors can spend years trying to find the right machine, and many begin collecting only after purchasing their first typewriter and falling in love with it. So, as a word of caution, don’t buy a typewriter too quickly. You may find that your purchase is the first of many!
A good writing typewriter will allow you to get your words on paper easily, effectively, and as effortlessly as possible. A good manual typewriter is one that doesn’t put too much strain on a typist’s hands, and which types clean, crisp text.
If you want a typewriter for heavy writing duties you’ll want to find a reliable, stable machine. In general, a standard or office typewriter will be more stable than a portable simply because standard typewriters are heavier. Portable machines can move around on the surface of your desk as you type, especially the smaller ‘ultra’ portables.
Some brands of typewriter are better known as strong typing machines than others. In particular, mid-century typewriters from Hermes (pictured) and Olympia are typically regarded as some of the finest manual typewriters ever made. Mid-century Royals, Smith-Coronas, Underwoods, and Olivettis are also excellent choices for people who want to use a typewriter for regular writing.
Pre-war machines, though often well made and reliable, can be harder on a typist’s fingers, as they often require more force to depress the keys. While this difference might seem minor at first, typing for hours on end can easily lead to finger fatigue on pre-war machines with heavier keys.
For light or occasional writing duties, almost any working typewriter will be fine.
Anyone who wants to use a typewriter might also want to invest in a good typewriter pad. A pad will not only reduce typing noise, but will help stabilize a typewriter on the writing surface.
A decorative typewriter doesn’t have to have a new ribbon, it doesn’t have to work, and it doesn’t even have to be clean. If you want a typewriter for decorative purposes, focus on the visual appeal of the machine. Do you like the color and the style? Is your eye drawn to it? Does it match the aesthetic of your room or the area in which you wish to display it?
Antique and pre-war typewriters are common choices for decorative typewriters, especially unique looking machines such as the Hammond, Blickensderfer, and Oliver. Others, such as some Underwood standard models (pictured) have open mechanical elements that many people find desirable. Decorators can be drawn to a machine because it looks old, gives off a vintage vibe, or simply because it comes in a color they like.
Typewriters for Wedding Registries
A lot of people have contacted me about using a typewriter for their wedding registries, or as accessories to give attendees the chance to write the couple a note. Many people choose a pre-war typewriter with glass-top keys for their wedding registry, while others go for more colorful, midcentury machines. In general, a good wedding machine will be one that matches your wedding’s style, and one that is in good working condition.
Typewriters as Gifts
When it comes to buying a typewriter as as a gift, anything goes, but knowing what the gift recipient wants is key. Are you buying a gift for a child who is enchanted with typewriters and who wants to use one? If so, a reliable, hardy machine that can stand up to some less-than-gentle use is probably a good idea. And what if you’re buying a gift for a college graduate, or that loved one who likes to write? Again, taking the time to match a machine with that person’s needs and style can take some shopping around, but I’ve heard from many of my customers that their typewriters gifts have been lovingly received.
Care and Maintenance
Caring for your manual typewriter is usually fairly simple. While any machine can break, typewriters usually only need some basic care to keep them working. Taking a few minutes to clean or dust your typewriter every couple of months or so can go far to ensure your machine a long, trouble-free life.
Dusting and Cleaning
A typewriter’s primary enemy is dust, dirt, and anything else that can get into the carefully assembled parts and cause them to seize or stop. Keeping your typewriter in its case, or under a dust cover, is the best way to ensure it doesn’t get too clogged with dust or debris. Occasionally dusting the machine, or using a can of compressed air to blow away any particles, is also a good idea.
Beyond that, you can use a a good typewriter brush to keep the type slugs clear of any dried ink. Using some denatured alcohol and a rag to brush the type slugs clean can work, but you’ll want to make sure you don’t splatter the ink on the rest of the machine. A good typewriter brush can also let you brush away dust from between the type segments, or remove debris from the deeper, hard to reach areas.
Most typewriters don’t need to be oiled very often, and many can operate without any lubrication at all. When you choose to lubricate a typewriter you’ll want to focus on the parts that get the most use. These are the rails, the ribbon spool stems, and the shift bar pivots. Adding a drop or two of a high quality machine oil to these areas, wiping away the excess, and testing the moving parts to move the oil around will help protect those areas from wear.
Typewriter ribbons are still readily available, and are usually simple to replace. Check your machine’s owner’s manual for instructions on how to change your ribbon. Most machines will accept a universal ribbon, but some, such as Remingtons or Olivettis, need ribbons specifically designed for those machines. If you have a ribbon that won’t fit the spools of your current machine, you can usually take the old ribbon off the old spools by hand and replace it with the new ribbon you’v purchased by winding the ribbon from one spool to another.
What if something goes wrong? What if something breaks? What if your typewriter stops working and you cannot figure out why?
Typewriters are machines, and all machines can break. Anyone who buys a typewriter should know that their machine can break down, and can do so without warning. What do you do when if and when this happens?
Believe it or not, there are still typewriter repair shops around, though they are few and far between. If you find a shop in your area you can always call them and ask how much they charge to take a look at your machine.
Also, though I’m not a trained repairperson, I have helped customers with problems that their machines have developed. If your typewriter develops a problem, just send me a message and I’ll try to help.
Choosing the Right Typewriter: TL;DR
What kind of typewriter do you need? Ask yourself the following questions:
- How much do you want to type? If you want to type a lot, consider a standard typewriter, or a reliable mid-century portable, such as Smith-Corona, Olympia, or Hermes. If you don’t want to type a lot, almost any working pre or post-war typewriter will work?
- What do you want your machine to look like? Are you attracted to a specific style, make, or model? Are there colors you like or don’t like? Stick to these when considering your options.
- How much do you want to spend? Working, vintage typewriters come in all kinds, and a wide range of prices. Decide how much you want to spend before you get your heart set on a specific model.
And, if you’r still not getting anywhere:
- Ask me. I’ve helped many people decide what kind of typewriter is right for them. If you’re not sure what kind of machine you should buy, just contact me. I promise I’ll help you find the right typewriter for you.