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Schoolgirls once learned the art of touch typing
And it was, almost. Die-hard fans continued to clack-clack away at their beloved machines, unmoved by the seductive overtures of the laptop. Now they are being joined by growing numbers of young converts – correction fluid at the ready – fascinated by the typewriter’s literary glamour, its retro look, the sensory attraction of its noise and feel. Not to mention the lack of internet distraction.
This month Tom Hanks – a collector for more than 30 years – publishes his first collection of short stories, Uncommon Type, all inspired by his beloved typewriters. (He has more than 300). While in the recently released American film, California Typewriters Hanks and other famous fans, the late Sam Shepard and John Mayer among them, explain their passion as a backdrop to the story of one sales and repair shop, and its reinvention for the smartphone generation.
Millennial typewriter fans – ironically connected in the “typosphere” by the internet – travel to mass type-ins, sip coffee while they clatter the keys in typewriter cafés, slavishly follow devoted Instagram feeds and lust over potential purchases in the coolest vintage shops and websites.
Julie and Philip Chapman, owners of charliefoxtrotvintage.co.uk began selling fully reconditioned typewriters on their market stall in Sydney in 2012. With demand soon outstripping supply, the couple moved back to the UK – “there is more stock here,” says Julie – and now work full-time restoring and selling vintage machines.
“We just keep up,” says Julie.
“The market is very strong and growing.” Customers, she says, “range from ages six to 95 so far”. The latter, an ex-journalist and keen letter-writer found a manual typewriter easier to use than a computer with an unsteady hand.
As well as students – “particularly those doing English or media degrees” – customers include poets, creative writers, designers and people looking for 21st, 40th and anniversary presents.
Many have never seen a typewriter in action. “When we started we saw how young people are fascinated by them, the way the keys hit the ink, the ink hits the paper. They love the mechanics of it.”
Also key – pardon the pun – is the simplicity and focus of a typewriter. “It’s a machine which does just one thing and that’s unusual these days.” To the digital generation, the idea of getting on with an essay, a novel even, without distraction by email, social media, music streaming and more is new, not old.
“Typewriters force you to stop and think about what you are going to write. It’s an effort to type and even more of one to delete, so you won’t just write drivel,” says Julie. “It is good for creativity.”
Actor Tom Hanks has a collection of 300 machines and has published a book of stories
Novelist Will Self is just one writer to have turned back – to his mother’s Olivetti Lettera 22 – having found the internet a hindrance in the first draft of his novels. Woody Allen, Hunter S Thompson and Cormac McCarthy are among those never to have gone digital in the first place.
“Technology is great but sometimes we need a break, something a little simpler,” says Julie. Modern fans are not turning their back on tech, she says – “they have mobile phones, laptops, tablets as well but it’s a small way of getting off grid, of re-using and recycling rather than dumping more stuff in landfill. You don’t even need electricity or a signal.”
While the ability to work without power supply appeals to digitallydetoxing young people, its signifance is even wider where electricity is less reliably available, such as India and Latin America, where manual typewriters remain a common sight. Their durability – lasting 60, 70 and more years while computers are built to become obsolete – is another attraction.
Security and privacy – with typewriters essentially unhackable – are yet another bonus, leading some embassies, police forces and other institutions to dust off the old machines. Russia’s Federal Guard Service, responsible for protecting the country’s top officials, was reported to have ordered several Triumph Adler machines.
For the everyday user though it is romance and nostalgia which fuel the typewriter revival, believes Julie’s husband, Philip. “There is so much history. We have customers looking for a certain model because their favourite author used it, or their father or their grandmother.”
Woody Allen is among those who have never gone digital
On typewriter-friendly social media, fans share their love for the tactility of the keyboards, the weight of the machines and the unmistakable sound – once the background to every office. “You cannot replicate those experiences in a computer,” says Philip.
As we speak, Julie is tapping away at a 1930s Royal Portable with a satisfyingly resonant return carriage bell. Sound, she says, is very important. “We typewriter people love it. All typewriters sound different. The German ones are very sharp for instance.”
Of course using a manual typewriter in 2017 is not all about practicality or nostalgia it is also a fashion statement in an age of retromania (like Polaroid cameras, vinyl records and knitting).
At London’s Design Museum, a series of Olivetti Valentine machines, designed by revered architect and designer, Ettore Sottsass in 1969, is among the exhibits. “Sottsass used colour – revolution red, turquoise and ivory – to turn a business machine into a consumer object of desire,” says museum director, Deyan Sudjic.
“There is so much about the typewriter that allows us to understand the way design impacts on our lives today even though its technology belongs to the past,” he continues.
The first mass-produced typewriter was designed in 1868
“The QWERTY keyboard [the result of a bid to stop keys jamming by separating letters commonly used in sequence] still shapes all our relationships with the digital world.”
“As a museum we now have to explain what objects in our collection mean to young people who have no idea of what a typewriter once was,” he says. “One very smart 12-year-old got it at once: ‘A typewriter? You mean a laptop that prints as you write?’ ” Sudjic believes the typewriter’s relevance goes well beyond its aesthetic appeal but this clearly remains part of the attraction, says Julie Chapman. Her customers are particularly drawn to the pop colours of the 1970s versions.
She is personally particularly partial to the Italian-made Olivettis and the Swiss Hermes machines while Philip favours English Imperial machines.
“I get very excited when we get a lovely machine and bring it back to life,” says Julie. “It’s exciting to see it go out the door, knowing that it has had 60 years of history and now it could have 60 more.”
Sometimes though parting with the stock is just too hard. “There are about 40 that – even though we know we should – we just can’t bring ourselves to sell.”
To pre-order Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks, £16.99, published by William Heinemann on October 17, call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque or postal order payable to The Express Bookshop to: Tom Hanks Offer PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or www.expressbookshop.com UK delivery is free.
Cormac McCarthy sold one typewriter for $ 254k at an auction in 2009. He bought it for $ 50 in 1963
KEY FACTS ABOUT THE TYPEWRITER
1. The first mass-produced typewriter was designed in 1868 by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W Soule. By the end of the 1880s it was commonplace in offices.
2. Major typewriter manufacturers have included Remington, IBM, Imperial, Olivetti, Royal, Underwood, Adler and Olympia Werke. The last UK-produced typewriter was made at the Brother factory in Wrexham, which closed in 2012.
3. Retro-inspired inventors have produced several computer compatible mechanical keyboards, such as Lofree and Qwerkywriter.
4. A Lettera 32 Olivetti owned by author Cormac McCarthy (All The Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men) sold for $ 254,500 at auction in 2009. He bought it for $ 50 in 1963.
5. Typewriter fans have found novel ways to use their machines. Artist Jeremy Mayer turns them into sculptures while the Boston Typewriter Orchestra use them to make music.