Old Man Monday: Three reasons why my old typewriter beats your laptop like it owes me money

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By The Old Man

I have a lingering fixation on old typewriters, and if I am any judge, this hardly qualifies as unique. Scope out any vintage store, hipster hangout or flea market and you are likely to find several cool old manual typewriters, often with price tags over $100.

This is a good thing.

Some of these machines become merely display pieces on someone’s book case. Some, tragically, are dismantled, their keys transformed into cufflinks or some other form of art. But the most fortunate machines continue to serve the noble purpose for which they were originally constructed: pounding words onto paper with decisive snaps.

I think more people need to rediscover the joys of writing on a typewriter, and here is why:

First, typing a note to someone is unique and private, especially in this age of cut and paste opinions and social media exposure. If you type someone a note or a letter and mail it to them, they know you did something specifically for them. You didn’t post if for an audience to see, and even if the ideas or words are not completely original, they passed directly from your fingertips through the keys of that old machine and onto the paper.

Second, I think typing is helpful to the writing process. Taking the electronic pulses of your brain and converting them into something tangible like ink on paper helps to solidify your thinking during the drafting period. Converting those brain pulses simply to some other group of electrons in a computer is too impermanent. You need to commit to your words and your ideas. The declarative striking of metal on paper reinforces that commitment. Take a pencil or pen to this draft and then re-type it into computer. I bet you will be happier with the results.

Third, old typewriters are iconic. Find a famous photograph of any writer from the mid-century or earlier: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and it will likely be of them and one of their favorite machines. They might be smoking a cigarette or sipping something brown from a glass, but they are also thinking about what’s on that page in front of them. And you can find a machine just like one that your favorite writer used. Of course, having a 1936 Royal doesn’t mean you will start writing like Dorothy Parker, but writing is tough, and you take inspiration where you find it.

Fifty years from now, nobody is going to be fondly typing on a 2014 Mac Air. But my 1940 Underwood will still be going strong, even if I am not.

Here is what to look for in an old typewriter:

1. All typewriters have things that mark their era. For example, pre-World War II machines often have glass-topped typewriter keys. Later ones will usually be plastic.

2. A lot of typewriter collectors have taken the time to create websites with historic information about the various typewriter brands. Some even post old owner’s manuals and serial numbers with manufacturing dates online.

3. If you find a machine you like but are worried about keys that seem sticky, look closely to see if it seems rusty or dusty. Dust you can clean out with compressed air or sometimes with a rag and some isopropyl alcohol (keep this away from plastic and rubber parts, however!). Rust is a much more difficult problem to fix.

4. Be conservative about using oil – it attracts and holds dust, which can make sticking parts eventually stick worse.

5. There are lots of sources online for new and restored ribbons, including advice on how to re-ink your own ribbons.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.

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