For those who know me, it’s no secret that I enjoy perusing the classifieds for yard or estate sales. But a recent online visit to the local Craigslist site led to the purchase of a manual typewriter. A 1958 Remington Quiet-Riter, to be exact.
This column was written on it.
Some might consider an almost-60-year-old typewriter a nonsensical purchase, considering that desktops, laptops and iPads (the latter typically being my chosen device for writing) are much easier to navigate and correct mistakes.
All of these assertions regarding modern technology are true, but there’s just something special about a typewriter. And I decided that I wanted one.
I called the number in the Craigslist ad and an older gentleman answered. I rattled off the typical questions I normally ask regarding anything I’m interested in buying, especially if it’s an older item. Does it still work? Any problems with it? What kind of shape is it in? And, most importantly, why are you selling it?
He explained that when he was in high school in the late 1950’s, his grandmother offered to buy him a typewriter if he would take a typing class. He said that he agreed. She bought the typewriter and he took the class, but he said that he had to be honest that he never learned to type very well.
In the 50’s, taking typing was not considered very manly. I can only imagine how unmanly it was since I took typing 20 years later in the late 1970’s.
In 1977, my buddy Steve and I needed to choose an elective in school. We selected typing class. We picked typing, not because we thought we’d ever really use it much, but because we were 15 and the class was filled with girls.
Once we were in the class, Steve and I quickly realized that typing was no blow-off course. Typing was difficult. It was especially difficult for two guys in a sea of girls. Mrs. Lewis gave all of the new IBM electric typewriters to them, and Steve and I were relegated to the leftover World War II era Underwood manual models.
Once it became obvious that the girls weren’t going to notice us any more in a typing class than they did in study hall, we decided to making typing a competition.
Anyone who’s ever taken typing knows that speed and accuracy are how you’re graded. Each day, we would try to outdo the other. Bragging rights became just as important as making a good grade.
I can recall the day that I typed 27 words per minute with no errors. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’m telling you, try it today on a manual typewriter and you’ll see it’s not easy.
Steve and I continued our typing competition and by year’s end, both of us were very proficient.
I would later determine that typing was the most valuable class I’ve ever taken.
Scarcely a year after typing class, I was accepted in the journalism class to work on the student newspaper and high school annual. The year after that, I was hired at the local radio station, which required the ability to rapidly gather, type and report the news.
The man with the Craigslist ad agreed to meet me in a local grocery store parking lot during my lunch hour. He pulled the typewriter case out of his shiny new truck and placed it on the tailgate. It was quite a contrast; the old typewriter sitting on the back of a modern pickup.
He opened the case and I was very surprised. When he told me that he never really learned to type, I could see why. The Remington looked virtually unused. It was like opening a time capsule.
The original manual was still in the bottom of the case. A woman with a 50’s hairdo and wearing clothing from the period smiled at me from the cover as she happily typed.
The keys still had the newness to them. None of the letters or symbols were faded.
We agreed on a price. I paid him, took the typewriter back to work, and later home.
I surprised myself with how much I remembered regarding the operation of a manual typewriter. How to feed a sheet of paper, where the lever was to move the carriage back and forth…it all came back to me.
What I had forgotten was how many of the symbols have been moved. The apostrophe on a typewriter is used by holding down the shift key and punching the number 8. The quotation mark is found by holding the shift key and punching the number 2.
On today’s computers, those two symbols are typically found to the right of the colon and semicolon key. On typewriters, the key to the right of the colon and semicolon key includes the @ and ¢ symbols.
The underline key on a modern keyboard is found above the letter P. On a typewriter, you hold the shift key and punch the number 6. Typewriters also have a key for ½ and ¼. Try finding those on a new keyboard.
I have no idea why these symbols were moved from their original locations, but I had to relearn where they were originally to write this column.
One of the most interesting things I learned about typewriters is that, when adjusted for inflation, they used to cost more than many of today’s computers.
On YouTube, I found a TV commercial from 1958 selling my typewriter. It features two girls chatting on the phone. One of them is beaming with glee because her Remington Quiet-Riter was the inspiration for a play she had written, which was about to be staged by the local drama club.
Suddenly, a pitchman appears in the ad, explaining how affordable the new typewriters are. The Remington ranges from $84 to $133. “Get yours for only $5 down and $1.50 per week, plus carrying charges,” he says.
Carrying charges is a 1950’s term for interest.
I went online and found an inflation converter. If you bought this typewriter in 1958 for $133, that’s the equivalent of $1,110.72 in today’s money.
Reversing the same calculator, I entered in the $35 I paid the gentleman for his typewriter and discovered that I got a great deal. I paid $4.19 in 1958 money.
I’m appreciative for the great deal he made me, and I’m guessing that his grandmother might have been appreciative that the Remington went to someone who is finally using it.
The truth is, I’m a low-tech kinda guy. My percolator is older than I am, I like old cars better than new ones, and writing this on a typewriter brought me joy and a lot of memories.
It also filled the house with a sound that reminded me of a time when Steve and I tried, but failed, to get the girls’ attention.
By John Moore
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