Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she’s not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she’s flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.
Nothing makes me swoon at a flea market like a shiny Royal typewriter. And if it happens to be my favorite shade of bubblegum pink, I’m a total goner. It’s not an unusual sentiment—despite their bulk, price, and high-maintenance needs, typewriters inspire adoration from vintage lovers everywhere.
The first typewriter to ever be manufactured on a large scale was the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, produced by E. Remington and Sons in 1873. At the time, Remington was known for making sewing machines, and the first typewriter bore more than a few similarities to their number-one product, including a foot pedal for controlling the carriage return. It had a couple of huge drawbacks though: its type arms struck the paper underneath the carriage, so typists couldn’t see a darn thing they were doing, and it only typed in all caps. One element it introduced however, still influences typing today: the QWERTY keyboard, which was set up as such to reduce the number of side-by-side type bars being hit in quick succession and getting stuck.
The next incarnation of the typewriter allowed for lower-case letters as well as typing visibility and by 1920, the inner workings of typewriters were pretty well standardized. In the 1920s and ’30s, four main typewriter companies commandeered the field — Underwood, Royal, Remington, and Smith-Corona — putting out, for the most part, somewhat industrial-looking manual writing machines. It wasn’t until the 1940s, when manufacturers started marketing typewriters for home use, that their look became more enticing, and additional companies gained popularity including models from Hermes, Olympia, and Olivetti. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the business world was booming and secretaries and typists were abundant, the standard design for typewriters featured eye-popping colors and came housed in steel cases that made typewriters as good-looking as they were useful. It was also during this time period that electric typewriters caught on. But the ’60s marked the beginning of the end for the typewriter, and by the end of the ’70s, Remington had stopped production. Many other manufacturers followed suit, and typewriters, at least in the U.S., are now an iconic relic of the past. Which is, of course, one of the reasons they’re so desirable.
So what to look for when you’re in the market for a typewriter? It really depends on what you want it for. If you’re simply looking for a cool decoration or conversation piece, color and style are the only things you need worry about. If you want a machine you can actually use, Donna Brady, one half of typewriter restoration team Brady & Kowalski, recommends buying one in person whenever possible. “You should go with what feels good to type on. More times than not, what appeals to your eyes may not appeal to your fingers.” And though buying a refurbished typewriter can cost a few bills, it’s probably worth it since, as Brady points out, manual writing machines have up to 3,500 moving parts, any number of which can cause it to malfunction.
“If you happen upon a cheap typewriter that appears to be in working condition,” Brady says, “give it a good cleaning and oiling and you might just luck out.” Sounds easy enough, but with all those teeny-tiny parts, you don’t want to simply wing it. Grab some supplies, including a cloth, alcohol, a soft brush, a stiff toothbrush, 3-in-1 oil or gun oil, contact cement for loose keys, and a nail file, and take a gander at this awesome illustrated reference, which walks you through the cleaning and lubrication process. If it’s a problem you can’t fix yourself, Brady says, “There are still typewriter repair people out there, although they are few and far between, and sadly it’s a dying art.” She suggests checking this list, being kept up to date by typewriter collector Richard Polt, for a repairperson in your area. Once you have your typewriter up and running, Brady also has a few suggestions for maintaining it: “Use it frequently and keep it in a dust-free, climate-controlled environment. And when not in use, keep it stored in its case.” Now go get your click-clack on!