I heard from a neighbor friend that an older gentleman in our community was having trouble with his new typewriter. His advancing dementia made using his computer difficult, so his family got him a Royal Scriptor II from Office Depot to allow him to still write messages.
Let alone that electronic typewriters are not my thing, that the Scriptor was $300 was damn near offensive to me. I told my friend I’d be happy to help diagnose the problem, but also that I’d be just as happy to donate one of my typewriters. This would allow them to get their money back, avoid plugs and cables, and type on something that was made when people knew how to make typewriters.
My Royal Futura 800 seemed like a good option. I was considering selling it, but since I got it for free I thought it would be better to pay it forward. Like Andy’s toys in Toy Story, I think typewriters just want to be used. All the better by someone who will appreciate that use.
My colleague texted me a picture of a curvaceous mid-century Royal standard with no model name and with unknown functionality. Her mother was looking to get rid of it. I told her I’d probably just clean it up and resell it. That was fine with her, and the price of free was fine with me.
A mystery typewriter! Very exciting. When I popped open her trunk and lifted it towards my car, I suddenly remembered why I don’t collect standards. It was beastly, as cumbersome as a Selectric and longer than it was wide.
Without a clue as to the model name, I consulted the trusty Typewriter Database and found a photo of a very similar machine. It was the photo filename that told me this typewriter’s name, not, deceivingly, what I thought was the serial number but was actually some other parts number in front of the typebars.
Bow down to the Royal Empress:
Long will this gargantuan typewriter live! I could use it as a safe. The serial #MCP-11-8013175 (the P indicates pica font) would place it in 1964 or 1965. I’m not sure which since the other serials in that range seem to be a bit jumbled. It looks gray in the picture, but it’s more of a gray-green-beige mixture. Perfect for a bland office or, as indicated by a sticker on the back, hospital:
My preference is for portables, and not only because of storage limitations. But I can definitely see the appeal of standards like this one. If you don’t collect and just want a reliable desk typer, this Empress could rule over your writing spot until the next millennium. I’ll still be selling it, but I’m happy for whoever is made happy by it next.
A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.
Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:
Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.
what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?
— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)
Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:
I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).
She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:
I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.
And yet, she’s not precious about them:
My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on somesolid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:
Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machineis a gorgeous compendium of ads, photographs, and other artwork depicting typewriters and related ephemera from their invention in the late 1860s to the 1980s, when personal computers began to supersede their analog ancestors.
In other words: straight-up typewriter porn.
Some interesting tidbits:
Charles Weller, a clerk who witnessed the early development of the machine, talked years later about how the typewriter got its name: “Typewriter was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.” Other names like “writing machine” and “printing machine” didn’t quite fit, and in retrospect were clearly inferior choices to typewriter, which indeed is an unusual but perfectly apt name.
Typewriters were recruited to the World War II effort just as other industries and product were. The Royal ad below: “Uncle Sam wants every typewriter you can spare because the fighting forces need typewriters desperately today. They’re needed to speed up production, the movement of supplies, orders to ships and planes and troops. The typewriter industry can’t supply ’em – we’re busy making ordnance.” Manufacturers implored customers to either sell theirs to the government or maintain them better, as supplies and repairmen would be at a deficit due to war production.
A Secretary Is Not A Toy
Sex and sexism are common themes throughout the decades of typewriter advertising shown in this book. Early 20th century graphics often depicted the office secretary as the “temptress at work” or an idle daydreamer, with the word typewriter “often used to describe both the machine and its operator.” The ads above make winking reference to these assumptions with the bait-and-switch headline that’s actually just selling carbon copy paper. The ads below promoted using bright red fingernail polish to contrast with the style of the machine; in a brilliant move of synergy, Underwood even made its own “chip-resistant” polish secretaries could sample by writing in on their office stationery.
Typewriters and Self-Worth
Showing us that some things never change, some mid-century ads promoted typewriters to young people as statements of social standing, self-improvement, and self-worth. One Corona ad from 1921 just comes right out with it: “You probably suspect that we are trying to sell you a Corona. Nothing of the sort. We are just trying to convince you that you need a Corona. That’s different.” Royal really hit the self-improvement theme hard, promising a 38% rise in grades due to all the “exclusives” the 1958 Royal Portable provided.
While I would have appreciated more contextual information accompanying the artwork, Vangool mostly lets the many images speak for themselves. Overall, it’s a superbly made coffee-table book that fans of typewriters and the graphic arts especially will enjoy.
I don’t remember how long ago this 1959 Royal Futura 800 typewriter came into my possession, but I know it sat in my old room at my parents’ place for about a decade before, in my recent typewriter mania, I eagerly reclaimed it for examination, restoration, and loving use.
As outwardly there wasn’t much wrong with it, the Before shot I took looks quite similar to the After:
The body is undamaged and mostly quite shiny all the way around. Mechanically it’s sound too, typing smoothly and with no apparent malfunctions. Its insides, however, were filthy: cat hair, dried padding dust, and the detritus of decades had accumulated on its oiled architecture. Initially I was ill-equipped for the thorough clean job it needed, but after a quick trip to Walgreens my supply cache was filled with Q-tips, cotton wiping pads, a compressed air can for spraying out hard-to-reach areas, and a pen light for peering into the innards.
Pre-cleaning serial number.
Piece by piece I went along and wiped down what I could, making sure not to disturb any of the mechanisms. The very middle section, wedged between the escapement and the carriage, was a tough get. Without taking the whole machine apart — a process I feared that, past a certain point, I wouldn’t be able to recover from — I couldn’t touch every piece that needed cleaning, but with the compressed air can and some swabs I got to damn near everything I could. Since nothing was obstructing the machinations I figured I’d leave good-enough alone.
The most difficult parts to clean were the glue remnants from the padding pieces, on the removable side pieces and inside the ribbon cover (which pops out when you push the red Royal logo in front):
The aged padding crumbled off at the slightest touch (unfortunately falling into the body), but the hardened glue remained recalcitrant, even after a few rounds of goo remover and scraping. I could have kept at it but wanted to move on, so I just made sure the pieces were otherwise clean.
As this was my first major typewriter clean-up project, I learned a lot. Though each typewriter make and model will present its own challenges, the biggest mistake I made with the Futura will apply to every typewriter I work on. I realized only after it was too late that I didn’t make note of which screws went where. During disassembly I thought “The black ones go here” and “the short silver ones go here”; but a day later, after I’d spent so much time and energy inside the thing, as I was bringing the body pieces together I realized my error. Oh crap, where do these go? Trial and error got me the rest of the way and all systems returned to order eventually, but I was very happy when it finally reconstituted and typed without a hitch.
The low-grade panic I felt did inspire my first lesson: Document. Right after the Futura was restored back to health, I put a bunch of loose leaf paper into a three-ring binder, wrote Royal Futura 800 atop the first page, and took notes on everything I’d done and seen: initial impressions and observations, notable blemishes and potential problem spots, its serial number, and suggestions for further repairs and cleaning. As I’d be moving on to other typewriters, I didn’t want to start mixing up what I did on which machine and which required which maintenance. I’ll do a typeface sample on each of the notes pages, too, so I can compare them at a glance.
The Futura came with an orange wooden case lined with a golden metal trim, but it was missing its handle, making it a cumbersome carry. Someone in the Typewriter Facebook group mentioned using a belt as a replacement, so I got a thin leather belt (that unfortunately doesn’t match very well, but it was free, so I have that going for me) and wound it around the remaining metal loops. Works great.
Finally, using the Typewriter Database I narrowed down the manufacture date of the machine to 1959, based on its serial number. I then uploaded it as my first gallery on my Typewriter Database page. Still need to add a few more photos and a typeface specimen, but for now I’ll enjoy notching my first typewriter before quickly moving on to the next.
I’ve gone a little typewriter mad lately. In addition to my grandma’s IBM Selectric I, I’ve recently acquired a Smith-Corona Classic 12, Royal Futura 800, Rover 5000 Super deLuxe, Smith-Corona Skyriter, and a Smith-Corona Electra 12. All at thrift stores or antique shops and all for $30 or less. They are all fixer-uppers in one way or another, though mostly just need cleaning.
Tonight I banged out a first draft of an upcoming review on the Futura. It was strange. My style of writing with word processors consists of starting from somewhere in the middle of my thoughts and editing as I write. But I can’t do that on a typewriter. All I can do is write and compile my thoughts as they come, and save the editing for the computer. An occasional change of habits is good, I think, for the soul and for the craft.