One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.
Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.
This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”
All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day:
I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.
Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.
I’m a little tardy on this, but I wanted to share what my wife got me for Father’s Day. After a great deal of secret preparations, she presented a one-of-a-kind Little Bookof Typewriters for me and our son:
The first page includes a scan of something we got from Tom Hanks in reply to one of my letters to him. It’s his “Eleven Reasons to Use a Typewriter” pamphlet, signed and with an inscription saying “Chad — they are all true”:
Then she took pictures of our typewriters and laid them out with their names. Here’s a few:
It’s become one of 18 Month Old’s favorite books. He’s even started saying “Dora!” when he sees it. Though he has his own typewriter, I have a real Royal Royalite that’s beat up enough to allow a toddler to tap and pick at. One day he’ll graduate to more quality machines. Here’s to raising the next generation of typists! ~/:::/°
In the meantime, he and I have this incredibly thoughtful and useful book to enjoy. We’re lucky guys.
Love this photo by Adrian Borda, called “Under An Ocean of Words”, which captures the view from inside a typewriter looking up through smoke. I’ve seen this view plenty during repair and cleaning sessions, but never quite this dramatically. Perhaps I should take up smoking.
Here’s my advice for selling a typewriter: Don’t Google it before selling. Don’t see what it’s going for on eBay or Etsy. Especially if it’s a functional model of a popular and photogenic brand you’re just using for decoration and know nothing about. Just sell it to me at a ridiculously low price.
That is my advice for selling a typewriter.
OK, tongue-in-cheek aside—though by all means take it seriously—I was inspired to write this after my sister scouted an Olivetti Lettera 22 on Facebook Marketplace for $10. Surely it’s a junker, I thought. Nope. The sellers were moving and needed to clear out, stat, money be damned. She got it for $5.
Most people aren’t appraisers and can’t be expected to know the value of antiques. I’m sure I have donated or tossed things over the years I could have sold for a pretty penny. I’m just surprised when something as pretty and sleek as a blue Olivetti changes hands for nothing.
Putting on a type-in last year was a lot of fun, so I was happy to be asked by the Evanston Literary Festival to host one again. This year it was at my favorite secondhand bookstore in Evanston: Squeezebox Books & Music. Rather than setting the typewriters at a table together for a shared typing experience like a traditional type-in, I scattered them throughout the store. This fit the space better and gave people some privacy, while also encouraging them to browse the whole place.
Overall it was much more low-key and intimate than last year’s. (The pouring rain probably didn’t help the attendance.) But my main goal for any PDT (Public Display of Typewriters) is to make it fun and educational for novices. On that account it was a success. I got to show several kids and young people the basics, which I hope radicalized them into the Revolution.
And my beloved Skyriter was kept company in the art books corner:
I also brought one to sell, another Skyriter my sister spotted online for $10:
It worked fine despite some scuffs and scratches, so I listed it for $80 hoping to get lucky. Squeezebox was kind enough to display it on their checkout counter. Towards the end of the type-in a young couple arrived toting a quirky, sticker-pummeled Sears portable and Remington Travel-Riter, not realizing the event wasn’t of the BYOTypewriter variety. But I was glad to talk shop with them, and even gladder when they bought the Skyriter. He uses typewriters for ASCII art and she’s an ESL instructor who likes to use them for class material, so it’ll be put to good use.
Finally, some snapshots from the day’s typings:
A lot of them were done by a pair of tween sisters who rotated through all the typing stations (hence the “weird dad” reference—perhaps they are Judge John Hodgman fans?):
Spent one of our last pre-baby Sundays repairing a typewriter, watching Jeopardy, and enjoying the snow. This caseless Olympia SM4, owned by a friend of a friend, was rescued from their deceased relative’s basement. It’s in fine shape mechanically. Just needed its metal polished, body scrubbed, innards dusted, and ribbon replaced. Now is (almost) as good as new:
I’m just gonna say it: Cookie Monster is the best Muppet in the Jim Henson Muppetverse. And not just because of his typewriter scene in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I watched last night. Though I cannot endorse his flagrant destruction of a perfectly good fake typewriter, his GIF-worthy reaction at the end of his scene with Gordon is golden.
Also, I just now discovered his parody of “Call Me Maybe”, maybe the best pop song of the last 10 years:
Once in a while I stop by a nearby antique rental shop that is stocked full with all kinds of vintage junk. And in its musty, cavernous basement, among the rotary phones, LPs, radios, and TVs, is a wall of typewriters. I already sifted through most of them awhile back: varying conditions and styles, some just needing a good cleaning and others more in-depth work, and all of them too expensive ($100+) to buy outright.
This time, expecting to find the usual suspects collecting dust, I turned the corner and saw, uncovered in the noir-ish lamplight, a gorgeous 1961 Olympia SM7:
It’s very similar to my other Olympia SM7, just with a different color scheme and a larger typeface. Since it didn’t have a price tag, I took a pic and, expecting the worst, asked the woman at checkout (who wasn’t the usual proprietor) what she wanted for it.
She wanted $30.
Did she not know how the other typewriters were priced? Was she just happy to sell anything? I knew enough not to ask. When the typewriter gods offer an unconditional gift, accept it and appreciate your good fortune.
But before I bought it, I wanted to do a customary typing test. As I reached into my backpack for scrap paper, I noticed a piece of printer paper in the case beneath the typewriter. Almost a page long, untitled and single-spaced, it was a window into the mind of someone freshly out of a dark time, struggling with some heavy regret.
Was it by the typewriter’s previous owner? A recent store browser? It could have been just a creative writing exercise, but it felt genuine to me.
So before making this typewriter my own, I feel duty-bound to honor this anonymous person’s story by presenting the unedited transcript here. Thanks for typing, whoever you are:
How is it that something so tiny can have so much power, can bring so much happiness yet destruction and deep sadness. What was once an ancient medicine has brought my life, and my body, to its knees. It has healed me none and taken everything from me including my morals and dignity, and on top of all that it stole any happiness that it once gave, which I now see was no more than a false prophet.
The bastard that I speak of has gone by many names and has taken on many names and has gone by many forms. The one that I am most familiar with is Heroin. Maybe you have heard his name before. Odds are you have as he has been creeping his way out of the jungles and mountains around and into our American cities, slowly but masterfully working his way into the outlying suburbs and even further into our countryside.
We are a nation plagued by opioid addiction and at this point no one, no family, has become immune to it. You see this is a problem that does not discriminate. It attacks our mothers, fathers, and children, it attacks the rich and the poor alike and it doesn’t stop until you are dead or until you jump out of the ring with him, making a conscious decision to “give up” because you will never win this fight. He wins every time, leaving you only one choice, to admit defeat and choose to live without him, which really is not giving up, but knowing that you are powerless over him because in the end there is only one choice and that is to choose a life without him, so I am told anyway.
This is all very new to me. It’s taken fifteen years for me to realize that heroin is not my friend, as I had once thought. All those times that I can remember him being there for me, all those times that he had helped me celebrate, all those times that he was there to comfort me, it was all a lie and the bastard was stealing from me the entire time. As I sit here now it seems as plain as day. It seems like the warnings of who I was becoming from all those on the sidelines were right. I’m sitting here a defeated man, pieces shattered far and wide, alone.
I hope in the end for this to be a tale of triumph, but knowing the outline in my head I don’t know how a story of destruction, sickness, and loss can come to have a happy ending. Maybe it could serve as a cautionary tale, maybe I will just serve me the purpose of getting some of these things off my chest and onto paper, maybe this is just another selfish expedition on my part. Whatever it is I believe that it belongs on these pages.
In the new Phish song “More” frontman for the band sings a few lines that go “half of what I say is lies, and it takes so much to keep up this disguise, I see a doorway through the haze and I’m trying to get it”. This verse has spoken to me, as it reminds me of who I’ve become, a look into the mirror if you will.