Did someone come out at night and insert the HELP . . . . .?
Let’s talk about the relic that’s helped to bring us countless words of wisdom—in more than 144 characters at a time. Yes, today’s relic is the typewriter.
I still have the typewriter that got me through the final years of high school, then college—a Royal Sabre portable, complete with manual (it’s around somewhere, although the key to the typewriter case likely has gone missing). When I moved in 2003, I started to put it outdoors for the neighborhood scavengers, but couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. It was one of the most expensive gifts from my reluctant parents.
Why the Royal Sabre? I don’t remember where we bought it. We would have looked at discount stores like K-mart or perhaps Ames, where I’d picked out my Huffy Superstar 10-speed bicycle. We’d have looked at quality and price. My thrifty dad, who’d turned 16 in 1929, didn’t believe in throwing away good money on poor quality (or generic store brands, unless they’d proven themselves). Because of the store’s nature, there wouldn’t have been much of a selection. I don’t recall the price, but I’d guess about $80 to $90. (Incidentally, this is the price I remember for the Huffy Superstar.)
As a portable typewriter, the Royal Sabre was noisy. The keys striking the platen solidly made quite a racket, especially when a poor, erratic like me was in front of the keyboard. My bad habit of typing during the wee hours began in high school, when Mr. Verrault’s papers were due Monday morning. I’m embarrassed now to admit that, in a single-wide, 55-foot-long trailer, on Sunday nights/Monday mornings I was at it until after midnight. Forty years later I can’t tell you how late, but later than suited my early-to-bed, early-to-rise parents. Oddly, I don’t recall much criticism from them for keeping them up. (Of course, my dad could have slept through the Apocalypse.) If he were convinced something was necessary for my education and future independence, my dad would go along as best he could. Of course the procrastination wasn’t necessary—hence my guilty conscience 40 years later!
At college, I found many of my fellow students were more affluent and had electric models, which I considered decadent (I’d told my mother the same thing about electric can openers). I learned I had a fixed number of computer hours per quarter, but playing the text-based Adventure seemed easier than learning to write/type without a program. Although I had a vague idea about computers from Star Trek (for example, oddly computers sound like Nurse Chapel), in practice they were a new and mysterious beast to me.
Then, as now, typing was the last step in the writing process. At 3 a.m., I was writing the paper longhand in pencil on notebook paper in the dorm lounge. At 6 a.m., I was typing the pages slowly on the faithful Royal Sabre. At 9 a.m., I was finishing proofing and marking errors or retyping if needed. At 9:55 I was running madly up several flights of faux-Gothic stairs (or waiting impatiently for an elevator) to meet a 10 a.m. deadline. By then I would have had some wild hallucinations from fatigue and panic. The Royal Sabre would go back into its hard plastic case, and I would go to bed, too tired and wound up to sleep.
One of my college professors—I don’t recall which—sternly forbade the use of erasable typewriter paper. The finish made it easy to erase mistakes, but it was friendly to neither pen nor pencil. He was so adamant that he would threaten to knock your grade down or refuse the paper if you dared to defy his prohibition. For someone like me—with portable typewriter, subpar typing skills, no correction key, and no budget for different kinds of paper, this seemed excessive.
At some point my dad’s sister Marietta acquired a word processor, and several years after college so did I—a Smith-Corona. It had some built-in storage and some kind of external storage. When I first got it, I spent a happy afternoon playing with the different setups and type wheels, and practicing my typing speed. Suddenly it was dark, and I realized hours had passed while I was blissfully unaware. I used the Smith-Corona for resumés (for all the good that did me) and some correspondence. I’m not sure how I used it, just that it mostly supplanted the Royal Sabre. I don’t think I used it much because it was large and heavy, and I was lazy about getting it out and setting it up. It was also hard to write and edit on the three-line(?) screen.
When it was in semi-regular use, the Royal Sabre never needed repair that I recall. Help was hand nearby, however, if required. A-Active (named to appear at or near the top of telephone directory listings—another relic) Business Machines operated in Hyde Park, first on 57th Street, then at 1633 East 55th, where I remember passing it. I never went in, but the ancient Underwood(?) in the window would catch my eye. The last ad I could find in the Hyde Park Herald for A-Active is dated July 6, 1994—which was probably about the time I brought home my first computer, a Macintosh Classic II borrowed from work.
The Classic was followed by a series of Apple laptops, and the Smith-Corona word processor faded from favor as I was sucked into eWorld and America Online. When I moved in 2003, I debated with myself over keeping the Smith Corona. Unlike the Royal Sabre, it ended up in the alley, its fate to be forever unknown to me.
In a previous, early work life, sometimes I used a typewriter, likely an IBM Selectric model. When the proofing business was slow, I might help with filling out forms. If I remember right, one or two typewriters had been dedicated to and set up for this task. I don’t recall details (probably to preserve my emotional health), but I’m sure it was a lot of fun to line up everything and hit the magic correction key when the mind or finger slipped as they often did, or start over if things went way south—as they often did. I’m sure I saw the correction key as a technological marvel. I’m pretty sure computerization and automation of forms became big business as soon as introduced.
Every now and then (more then than now), I play with Hanxwriter, a typewrite simulator for Apple devices inspired by actor Tom Hanks. If you want to spend more money, you can “buy” typewriters from the “Signature Collection,” like Hanx Prime Select, Hanx 707 (the closest to the Royal Sabre’s shower stall green), Hanx Golden Touch, Hanx Del Sol, Hanx Electrix, or Hanx Matterhorn. Despite the “now and then” above, I finally bought all. Hanxwriter can save documents as PDFs only, not text—so, like typewritten pages, Hanxwriter pages are not easily edited. There’s something amusing about that.
The Royal Sabre weighs more than even heavy laptops, and from the start I thought the handle on the case was too flimsy for the weight. It’s stood the test of time, however, and as far as I know the typewriter would still work with a fresh ribbon. Surprisingly, ribbons are available for many typewriters, including the Royal Sabre. I tell myself that someday I’m going to get one and try out my computer-improved typing skills, although I doubt they’re better on a machine where you have to depress each key with an impressive force—hence the beauty of those “decadent” IBM Selectrics. Someday.
These are a few of my favorite new things—rustic wood pencil holders from Got Wood? Workshop in Spring Hill, Kansas, via Etsy. You pick your wood. He makes the holder, sends you a photo for approval, and voilà—you’ve got mail. The one on your right, ordered first, is elm and sits in the living room. The one on your left is Osage orange and handles desk duty.
Check out Matt Plumlee’s bio and the Got Wood? Workshop logo.
(The flaming marshmallow ornament commemorates a 2016 stay in a forest preserve cabin, complete with two campfires and s’mores.)
This ordinary Office Depot pencil I found in the hallway outside my apartment struck me as odd. I couldn’t picture the academic and professional denizens of my building using a pencil clip or belonging to a union. You’ll note, too, that the point has been sharpened with a pen knife or the like, not a conventional school or office sharpener. This is the tool of a working man, not of a writer, artist, student, or dilettante. This is a pencil that has more important things to do than languish on a desk or in a backpack. This is a pencil with places to go, measures to mark, things to do every day. I wondered.
When I stopped wondering, I realized it must have been dropped by one of the contractors installing The Flamingo’s new fire system. I will leave it with the manager in the hope that it will find its way to useful employment again.
Addition: See Michael Leddy’s post about the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers logo.
Some might think it would take a 3 mile pencil to write one of my longer blog posts. Meanwhile, the peanut erasers turned up tonight in a search of my stash.
Small notebook96 blank pages (8 perforated sheets)Made with bamboo paper (80 GSM)ISBN 978-1-936077-03-84-pack for $5.99 at Blick Art (downtown Chicago)2% of sales from WRITERSBLOK goes to helping kids to learn to read and writeDistributed by KIKKERLAND DESIGN, INC. (www.kikkerland.com) Writing … Continue reading →
I found a Quo Vadis Textagenda daily planner, a Rhodia No. 14 pad, a teeny Rhodia No. 10 pad (I’d heard of it, but assumed it was a myth), and a gorgeous Clairefontaine notebook with a textured red cover, all courtesy of Exaclair, Inc. Vice President of Marketing Karen Doherty. Although I’m not an expert, and I’m also terrible at keeping a schedule, I’m going to break the Textagenda in at work over the next couple of weeks and write a review. Stay tuned.
Here’s one more post in pencils and things mode — if you’re not aware of O’BON, purveyors of colorful graphite and colored pencils made from newspaper, as well as other writing-related items, check them out. Here are the O’BON Wildlife and O’BONanza pencil series with an O’BONanza kiwi notebook made with bagasse (sugar-cane paper). The 2B pencils write well and are beautiful to hold and look at, plus they’re very easy to sharpen. The bagasse notebooks are smooth and lightweight, and may even serve as a conversation starter when you write at your favorite café or teahouse.
Yes, I do have more pencils than clothes, or brains for that matter. Here are the latest. I’m insane.
This is what I look like when I’m writing at Bonjour. Don’t let it deter you from stopping in for a croissant or morning roll.