Q: What can keep all your words secret, requires no charger, makes a distinctive noise and may be in your garage or attic today?
A: A typewriter
Whether yours is a vintage Remington or that Cadillac of typewriters, the IBM Correcting Selectric, it’s time to bring it out, dust it off and perhaps turn it over to one of the few remaining typewriter repair shops for a tune up. Or if you happen to have inherited the Rolls Royce of typewriters, the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, you can sell it for about $100,000.
Typewriters are making a comeback, and when the documentary “California Typewriter” is released in theaters August 18, the current wave of interest in collecting typewriters—even writing with them—is likely to become a tsunami. The film features several celebrities, each of whom has his own unique reason for loving typewriters: Tom Hanks (he owns 250 working machines), John Mayer, David McCullough and Sam Shepard, in what would turn out to be one of his final films. (Shepard died on July 27, 2017.)
It’s been about 10 years since typewriter fans began meeting up online, and since then interest has been growing. Now there are public type-ins; a Facebook page for typewriter collectors; typewriter bloggers; street typists, such as those who type poems on the spot for passersby with Typewriter Rodeo; a Twitter hashtag (#typewritercollector); a typewriter museum; and even a manifesto, which is published in Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. And, yes, there’s a Typewriter Orchestra that performs exclusively on the QWERTY keyboard, as well as orchestral performances with typewriter.
Typewriters—an Escape from Digital Technology
The typewriter was considered a complicated technology when it replaced the fountain pen in the late 1800s. But a hundred years later, manual typewriters had become “low tech,” and at the turn of the 21st century, even electric ones were quickly being put on the shelf to make room for desktop computers. Yay! No more White Out or smudgy carbon paper!
“Typewriters used to be the symbol of efficiency and standardization and impersonality. Now they’ve come to mean just the opposite.” —Richard Polt
So why go back to such a low-tech tool now? “Using a typewriter is a way of getting some distance from today’s technology,” Richard Polt, PhD, author of “Typewriter Revolution” and a blogger about typewriter collecting says. “It’s not that computers are all bad, but we can lose a sense of what’s an appropriate boundary between our public and private lives.”
But while the typewriter comeback is retro, it isn’t strictly about nostalgia. Many typewriter fans were born in the age of cellphones and never experienced the ping of the return lever. At Los Altos Business Machines, which has repaired typewriters in Los Altos California since 1981, some 80 percent of the customers are under 40. Most range in age from 10 to 35, owner John Sansone says.
“Teenage girls like the typewriters from the 1930s and ’40s with the glass keys,” Sansone says. “They’ve not seen many things that are mechanical. They get a kick out of the levers and springs. And they like that all it does is type.”
Many of Sansone’s customers are young writers. “They’re attracted to the romance of it. Also, since a typewriter doesn’t do anything but type, there’s no instant messaging, no interruptions—they can let their imagination go.”
Not all typewriter collectors actually use their machines; some keep them on a shelf to be admired as the beautiful pieces of mechanical technology that they are. Polt does use some of his. “We’re choosing to write in a different way,” he says of collectors like himself who put their typewriters to work. “Typewriters used to be the symbol of efficiency and standardization and impersonality. Now they’ve come to mean just the opposite.” Today, he says, writing something on a typewriter is perceived as personal, quirky and individual.
Typewriters for Sale
Many of the young people who bring their finds to Sansone for refurbishing found them in their grandparents’ attic. If you have one that you haven’t used for years, it’s probably still as good as when you last used it—though the ribbon may have dried out.
How much might your old typewriter be worth? We ran a search on Etsy, where an old typewriter is clearly an object of desire, and found a 1970s fully serviced Smith Corona with a new ribbon for $220; a 1940s Smith Corona was over $400.
If you’re looking to buy a used typewriter and relive your clack-clack-clack days, try flea markets and Craigslist, which top Sansone’s list of sources. Whether you’re buying or selling, it’s best to pick an avenue that doesn’t involve shipping, he says.
We asked Polt where a typewriter owner might be able to find a buyer. He recommends the public Facebook group Antique Typewriter Classifieds. Despite the name, it’s not strictly for antiques. Polt is editor of ETCetera, the Early Typewriter Collectors’ Association magazine and told us he would be glad to print a free ad for anyone selling a truly antique typewriter—one that’s over 100 years old. For a machine that was made in your lifetime, you could also try a local repair shop. Google Typewriter repairs + your city or check out the list on Polt’s website.
Then again, maybe you should hold on to your old typewriter. The revolution has just begun!
Do you still own—or use—a typewriter?