The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The sentence contains all 26 letters of the alphabet and, as such, was a standard speed test for young typists. As a forgettable exercise in nostalgia, try keyboarding that same sentence on a laptop—so it’s no surprise that a growing number of analog-obsessed younger adults are composing term papers, love letters and even novels on vintage typewriters.
For older generations in business, government, academia and the arts, a typewriter was a constant companion. John Quintus was introduced to typing in 1959. “I took a typing class in ninth grade,” says the retired Foreign Service officer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Delaware. “It was, in many ways, the most important class I took in my secondary education. I memorized that keyboard just as assiduously as I’d memorized the multiplication tables in elementary school. I was fast and accurate.”
Quintus started with an Underwood, a popular brand in the day, graduating to a Smith Corona portable in college. “May the Lord always bless Smith-Corona,” he says. “That trusty machine got me through four years of college and through graduate school in the 1970s, eventually producing a successful doctoral dissertation.”
Quintus eventually succumbed to a word processor. “Unlike Tom Hanks, I don’t collect old typewriters,” says Quintus of the Oscar-winning actor, who’s among a growing list of celebrities who champion the old machines. “But I fully understand Tom’s nostalgia for the days of typewriter noises, carbon paper and even Wite-Out.”
Bryan Kravitz routinely spans the generation gap between nostalgia-driven collectors and a younger breed of no-nonsense typing addicts who feel they’re more creative on a typewriter than a computer. Kravitz founded Philly Typewriter (phillytypewriter.com) in 2014. Before that, he repaired typewriters—something he learned to do in trade school in the 1970s. He spent three years learning to repair the fabled IBM Selectric. And if that sounds like an extended apprenticeship, consider this: “The Selectric has around 2,500 parts,” says Kravitz. “They made about 13 million of them, and they all need a lot of maintenance.”
Open only by appointment at its South Philadelphia location, Philly Typewriter isn’t your typical repair shop. Kravitz has a wide inventory of refurbished typewriters, some dating back more than a century. Though millions of old machines reside in landfills, it’s still easy to find working typewriters at flea markets, in antique stores, and on eBay. You may also want to check the basements of grandparents who couldn’t bring themselves to throw theirs away.
Like most typewriter fanatics, Kravitz loves to discuss history. “The first patents were issued in 1868,” he says. “They had the technology to make one earlier, but there wasn’t the need.”
Remington (of sewing machine fame) was one of the first to commercialize the typewriter. But they weren’t particularly inventive with their technology, using a foot treadle to spring the carriage return. Also, the typist (or “typewriter,” as both the user and the machine were initially called) couldn’t directly see what was on the page. “They showed it at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876,” Kravitz says. “Bell’s telephone took the event.”
Typewriters got better, smaller and cheaper, culminating in the electrification and birth of the IBM Selectric. “They made about 13 million of them, and they all need a lot of maintenance,” says Kravitz.
Two big things happened next. Businesses at the turn of the century desperately needed typists and stenographers, and that gave women trained in secretarial school their first entry into the modern business office. “They could make more money in an office than being a domestic, a factory worker or even a teacher,” says Kravtiz.
By the 1920s, typewriter production had consolidated from dozens of smaller producers into four major ones—Underwood, Remington, Smith Corona and Royal. Meanwhile, writers like John Steinbeck protested vigorously when their editors in New York and Boston made them submit manuscripts in typed form, rather than the traditional sheaf of handwritten pages. For the next half century, typewriters got better, smaller and cheaper, culminating in electrification and the birth of Kravitz’s beloved Selectric, which did away with individual strikers, allowed font changes, and erased errors automatically. “Then Steve Jobs collapsed the industry in the 1980s,” Kravitz says.
In the 1990s, University of Delaware anthropologist Peter Weil assembled one of the world’s largest collections of archival material about typewriters. With Paul Robert, he coauthored 2016’s Typewriter: A Celebration of the Ultimate Writing Machines. “I’m still writing,” he says. “But when I finish, the archives will go to Hagley Museum.”
Weil also became prominent in the Early Typewriter Collectors association. He assembled a collection of 115 typewriters before selling off all but a handful. Like Kravitz, he doesn’t use the typewriter regularly, except perhaps to address envelopes or write note cards. But there are plenty of new converts out there. “There’s been a tremendous change recently among people between 25 and 45 wanting all things analog—classic cameras, mechanical watches, turntables and records, as well as typewriters,” Weil says. “There are writers who’ve abandoned word processors in favor of typewriters.”
Some companies continue to develop next-generation typewriters. “If the demand continues to be high, I can see new typewriters emerging, probably in the $2,500 to $3,000 range,” Weil predicts.