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August 21, 2014, 6:05 am

Not much nostalgia for the typewriter

Several weeks ago, my son was working on a project that required the completion of several pre-printed forms. Printing the required information on the designated lines and specific boxes was not an option; completing the forms on a computer was virtually impossible. The only way to complete this paperwork in a neat and efficient manner was by the use of a typewriter.

Finding one became a real challenge. The last typewriter that was in our home was donated to Goodwill shortly after the computer was introduced for home use. So the search began. I knew there was one or possibly two at our newspaper offices but they were closed. Telephone calls were made to family members and friends; office supply establishments were contacted; the Internet was searched. Finally, buried away in my church’s office, was a typewriter. Getting accustomed to its operation was a struggle. This experience took me back to when the typewriter was an absolute necessity. It was impossible to function as a student, as a business person and as an everyday citizen, without the typewriter with that clickety-clack sound, back in the day.

My introduction to the typewriter was by an Underwood in my parents’ home. My skills were refined at Sulzberger Junior High School when I took an elective class in typing. There were few boys in typing classes. Boys were constantly asked, “What are you doing in this class instead of shop?” I can still see the teacher at the front of the class reviewing the keyboard? Did you learn typing by a technique where the letters did not appear on the keys? Keyboard lessons also addressed the way to place your fingers on the keyboard. Whenever I see some young person typing with the index finger in the same manner they send text messages, I recognize that it was unlikely he or she had formal typing instruction. For the most part, those who type by “hunting and pecking” learned by trial and error. The major objective was to get the desired letters on the paper. For a passing grade, typing 40 words a minute, after counting for mistakes, was acceptable. My grade f was excellent, as I routinely managed to type 75 words a minute, even accounting for a few errors. My speed on a computer keyboard is a direct result of my typing classes from back in the day.

Your new-found knowledge and skill in the use of the typewriter became an integral part of your classroom and homework projects. It seemed that typed reports received better grades than printed or handwritten ones. I shall never forget issues associated with my typing assignments. Just think about typing a letter, book report or a term report. Now keep in mind, our typewriters were manual; there were no electric typewriters back then. Making a mistake brought a challenge. When I made a mistake, I reached for my typewriter eraser, the round gray eraser with a black brush attached. If you did not have a typewriter eraser, you might have used a regular eraser, in particular, the eraser on a pencil. Whichever you used, quite often the result was a hole in your paper. When this occurred you turned in a sloppy letter or report, or you did like most good students and typed the page again. Turning in a report with holes caused by erasers resulted in a lower grade.

Today, most of us can appreciate the ease of typing something on a computer; you can start typing from memory or from copy; what you type can be saved for future use; parts of previously typed documents can be highlighted and copied for use in your new project; spell check highlights incorrect or questionable words; wordy sentences are also identified; fonts for printing can be changed; and you can identify the number of copies you wish to print. None of this was possible, back in the day. Most of what was typed had been previously handwritten long before you sat down at the typewriter. A dictionary was nearby to check spelling; there was no spell check. Thus, proofreading was very important during the era of the typewriter. If you needed a copy or two, you used carbon paper, that dark, onion-skin-weight paper between two or more sheets of paper to get copies. It was a real ordeal; the ink from the carbon paper was very messy and would end up on your hands as well as your clothing. Things became even more difficult and challenging when an error occurred and you had to make a correction while using carbon paper.

If many copies were needed, you may recall making a stencil. Do you recall removing the ribbon so the bare keys on the typewriter could strike the stencil to eliminate the wax so that the ink could flow through the remaining tissue paper? Can you still see the waxed mulberry paper used to make a stencil? If so, you must have had the experience of correcting a mistake by brushing it out with correction fluid that could be typed over once it dried. Can you ever forget the awful experience of wrapping a stencil around an ink-filled drum that we called a mimeograph machine? The mimeograph machine operator was covered with an apron, long sleeves and gloves, as ink would splash everywhere as it turned. If one needed a large number of copies, short of going to a commercial printing establishment, this is what was required, back in the day.

While the design of the keyboard has been passed on to computers we use today, most of us have no idea of the origin, meaning and practicality of the QWERTY keyboard arrangement. I wish to share what I learned about this term as a result of writing this column. Those are the first six letters on the top row of the keyboard. The design was invented by Latham Sholes in 1878 and has little to do with speed for the operator, but more to do with the manner in which the keys hit the paper. Sholes originally experimented with arranging the letters in alphabetical order, but found the keys jammed together at a central pint when they were struck with increasing speed. Through much trial and error, the keyboard layout we use today was fashioned from what was designed, back then.

While I pointed out earlier that I do not have a functional typewriter in my home today, I do have the antique Underwood that was in my parents’ home many years ago. The black and red ribbon is still in the typewriter; however, I have limited knowledge of using the red part of the ribbon i. People did use it for highlighting words or letters, underscoring words or when typing financial documents. If you did not have an Underwood typewriter, you may have owned or operated a Remington, Smith-Corona, or Royal. While most of us used manual typewriters, you may have been in the workforce or engaged in a great deal of home typing at the time the electric typewriter, in particular, the IBM Selectric was introduced. I will always remember this typewriter, as it had a “typeball” that replaced the traditional bars that swung up to strike the ribbon and page. This typewriter, you must recall looked sleek, was electric, and made it possible to use different fonts in the same document. The Correcting Selectric introduced in the early ’70s eliminated the need for cover-up tape, Wite Out correction fluid or typewriter erasers. IBM Selectric typewriters added many features that made them the top of the line .Many people to this day, long after the computer became so dominant, still use them. IBM Selectric typewriters and their descendents captured 75 percent of the market for electric typewriters in the 1970s.

Most of my reflections with regard to life in the past conclude with dreams of returning to circumstances as they used to be. However, I have no desire to go back to the typewriter with the absence of multiple fonts; an inability to easily make corrections; carbon paper; stencils; and, all the other things described in this column. I will admit, however, that as a result of some of the issues raised in this column, I have every intention of paying close attention at flea markets, yard sales and for items that friends or co-workers may be discarding. I recognize that I need a typewriter, manual or electric, stored away in my home for something that cannot be addressed with the use of a computer; projects that can only be completed with a typewriter, the only choice we had, back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146.