Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: Underwood

At the corner of 84 Charing Cross Road and Typewriter Street

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.

And:

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 some solid 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:

There’s also the real Helene:

Underwood you like this one?

The good thing about being known as “a typewriter guy” is the same as the bad thing: people bring you typewriters to buy. After talking with some coworkers about California Typewriter, The Typewriter Revolution, and other typewriterana, one said her parents had some in their attic and she’d see if she could find them. The next week she brought in this 1938 Underwood Portable 4-bank:

She said she’d gotten it at an antique store years ago because it looked cool (she was right) but hadn’t used it since.  It’s missing its right margin stop, rubber feet, and ribbon spool covers, but besides that and a little rust on the typebars it types just fine.

Still, with my space for typewriters at a premium, I’m gonna resell it. If the buyer can locate an extra margin stop and a new ribbon they’ll be set with a nice machine.

The Typewriter: A Graphic History

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Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine is 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:

The Name

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.

The War

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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