Many still prefer the feel, nostalgia of typewriters

June 7, 2014
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Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter
Suzie Archer, a clerk-typist in the Washington County register of wills office, said her young son had no idea what this machine was when he saw the typewriter on his mother’s desk. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Bob Siemon of Peters Township repairs an IBM Wheelwriter electric typewriter in the basement of his home recently. Siemon has been repairing typewriters since the 1980s and still has a demand for them. Order a Print
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Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter
A typewriter with a 14-inch carriage enables bookkeeper Kim Nixon to complete forms on wide, legal-size paper. In the background, clerk-typist Suzie Archer completes information for a marriage license in the Washington County register of wills office. Order a Print
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Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter
Suzie Archer learned how to type in high school, and the skill comes in handy in her job, completing typed forms in the register of wills office in the Washington County Courthouse. Order a Print
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Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter
Bookkeeper Kim Nixon is among the large staff at the Washington County register of wills office who rely on typewriters in their daily tasks. Order a Print
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Robin Richards/Observer-Reporter
Suzie Archer, a clerk-typist in the Washington County register of wills office, frequently uses her Canon typewriter to complete marriage license forms. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Seventeen IBM electric typewriters hang from shelving, with many more stored in Bob Siemon’s basement in Peters Township. Order a Print
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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
Dan and Cindy Faulk of Washington own several vintage typewriters and a push-button accounting machine passed on from both of their parents that the family have kept in pristine condition throughout the years. Order a Print

Before there were laptops, tablets and smartphones, there were typewriters.

Once written off as obsolete, the clunky, low-tech contraptions – with their clacks and dings – are making a modest comeback.

“Typewriters never completely went away. There are still businesses and people who use typewriters, and if something happens to their typewriters they get upset,” said Bob Siemon of Peters Township, a typewriter repairman who owns Hays Typewriter Co.

In the Washington County register of wills office, typewriters are used for typing marriage licenses, estate records, and other documents and labels.

Typewriters are “a matter of convenience for certain things,” said Mary Jo Poknis, register of wills, whose staff fills out a number of state forms using them. “And it’s a nice backup for when the computer doesn’t work. We have young people who come in here and see them on our desks and say, ‘You still have typewriters in your office?’ and we’ll tell them we’re just not ready to give them up yet.”

Similarly, typewriters are used at funeral homes (for recording death certificates), car dealerships, law offices and municipalities throughout the county, and Siemon – whose basement is filled with dozens of typewriters, mostly IBM Selectrics that he pulls parts from – keeps himself busy repairing many of them.

But there’s a renewed interest in typewriters, and they are being snapped up by a new generation of fans who are smitten with vintage Royals, Smith Coronas, Underwoods, Adlers and Olivettis.

It’s not just older folks who are buying typewriters: 20- and 30-somethings, too young to have suffered through typewriter ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and white correction fluid, are attracted to the machines.

Among them is Erin Faulk, 28, the social media and content manager at Washington & Jefferson College, who owns three Smith Corona typewriters (two 1960s sea foam green typewriters and a black 1940s machine) that belonged to her mother and grandmother.

“I used to play with them as a kid. My brother and I were fascinated by the keys. It was neat to see them flip up and strike the paper to make a letter,” said Faulk. “I used to pretend I was a writer, which is ironic since that’s what I grew up to be. Now, the typewriters have sentimental meaning to me since I never met my grandmother. They make me feel closer to her because they’re something she touched and used.”

People aren’t typing alone, either. Type-ins are held in coffee shops and bookstores across the country, where typewriter enthusiasts take part in typing speed competitions and typed letter-writing sessions.

And typewriters are showing up at weddings, where couples set up a typewriter with blank cards for guests to type a personal note to the newlyweds.

Part of the appeal of typewriters is their simplicity, and the opportunity they provide for users to disconnect from electronic gadgets, in much the same way a new generation has embraced record players and vinyl albums.

“What’s interesting about typewriters is that they aren’t built anymore. All of them already exist. They’re all already out there. They’re all so different, too. The feel of the keys are all different,” said Henry Goldkamp, 26, a St. Louis, Mo., poet and writer who in 2013 set up nearly 40 typewriters throughout the city and encouraged passers-by to type their thoughts. The project gained so much momentum that the month-long event stretched into four months and garnered nationwide attention.

Goldkamp is writing a book based on the responses. “I’m not some advocate for boycotting computers, but there’s more thought behind what you write with typewriters. There’s a physical effort involved. It makes me focus and ignore distractions. Typewriters fall more toward the sentiment of what it would be like to hand write a letter; they’re more personal.”

Chelsea Dicks, 21, a senior communication major at Waynesburg University, writes articles on her manual Underwood, a Christmas gift from her parents, and then re-types them on a computer.

“It makes me feel like a better writer when I’m typing on it,” said Dicks, channeling Ernest Hemingway, who wrote his novels (often standing up) on a Royal Quiet de Luxe typewriter. Romance novelist Danielle Steele writes her books on a 1946 Olympia typewriter, and Pulitzer prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy wrote dozens of books and screenplays including “The Road” and “No Country For Old Men,” on an Olivetti manual typewriter he bought in a pawn shop around 1963 before he auctioned it off for charity in 2009 when a friend bought him another one. McCarthy once estimated he typed around 5 million words on it.

For Brandon Szuminsky, instructor of communication at Waynesburg University, typewriters hold the same appeal as old baseball cards or hockey sticks do for sports enthusiasts.

“I like typewriters like I like old editions of books,” said Szuminsky, who has incorporated typewriters into the decor in his home and office. “I compare it to somebody who plays baseball collecting baseball cards or old bats. Typewriters remind me of a time when writing meant something, when there were no delete buttons. For someone who thinks about himself as a writer, it’s like a totem.”

Beth Voltz, owner of Rag Trader Vintage in Pittsburgh, uses discarded typewriters in her business.

She repurposes old typewriter keys, turning them into necklaces, cuff links, rings, tie tacks, earrings, bookmarks and hair pins that have become among the most popular items she sells.

“People are intrigued by the keys once they realize that they’re from real typewriters,” said Voltz. “They often turn to a young person near them and say, ‘You don’t know what these are, do you?’”

Voltz finds old typewriters at flea markets, antique stores and on eBay, and enlists her brothers and their power tools to pop off the keys.

She said people feel nostalgic when they see typewriters, and many choose a number or symbol that is significant to them.

Voltz started selling typewriter key jewelry in Soho in New York City and recalled her first customer, a man who was thrilled when he ran across a pair of semicolon cuff links she had made.

It turned out the man had a semicolon tattooed on his arm after he had part of his colon removed as a result of Crohn’s disease.

Voltz owns a couple of beat-up typewriters that she refuses to dissect, and the keys, once white, are now stained.

“I think the keys that show the most wear are the most beautiful and unique,” she said. “I have to wonder the story behind them … it’s neat to imagine the history behind the key you’re wearing around your neck.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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