“You see the words hit the paper. There’s no distractions.”
February 21, 2015 7:58 PM   Subscribe

The Last of the Typewriter Men: “Years ago, if you looked at the yellow pages, there were six pages of typewriter companies in Manhattan. Now, there’s us.”
Schweitzer’s clientele, recorded in two boxes of handwritten notecards behind his desk, includes several high-profile names, including noted typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (25 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Early $ store ads.
posted by clavdivs at 8:28 PM on February 21, 2015

I love this. I wonder if he really wears a suit to work every day, or if it was just because someone was coming to interview and take pictures of him. I have a regular watch repair guy and an old school cobbler, both of whom run businesses that have been in the family for generations; the watch repairman wears a suit every day and the cobbler a pressed shirt and tie under his apron. There's something deeply satisfying about taking my watch in for service every few years, knowing that with care, it will still keep perfect time in 50 years when I give it to my grand child. Or taking in a pair of Alden wing tips that cost hundreds originally but for a $75 resole and toe taps every 5 -10 years, they will look and feel fantastic for decades. Yeah, it would be more convenient and (probably) cheaper to use disposable substitutes, but having articles of craftsmanship that get used in my daily life makes the mundane tasks of checking the time and putting on my shoes regular reminders of care, thoughtfulness, and prideful human labor.

I'm not a writer, but if I was, I suspect I'd keep one of these marvelous machines around. In this age of MRIs and office ultrasounds, there's scarcely a need for the traditional tools of a physician, yet my stethoscope is a totem I carry to remind myself that medicine is a discipline of skill and of touch. It, along with my ophthalmoscope and my microscope are kept in top working condition. My patients tell tales of ER doctors that barely looked at them before ordering the full body cat scan, but in my exam room every heart gets checked for the early signs of progressive valvular disease and retinas are inspected for microvascular changes that go along with diabetes or hypertension. These are dying skills that the residents I train have no time for; in their defense, they rarely make a difference in diagnosis and treatments. But they do keep me attentive and connected to the work I do. That, and the pressed shirt and tie, is what separates the technician from the professional.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:09 PM on February 21, 2015 [50 favorites]

Who says you're not a writer, Slarty?
posted by tommyD at 4:57 AM on February 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

Typewriter and watch remairmen are technicians. The reason they dress up for work is that the former are apt to be asked to visit offices with that sort of dress code, and the latter are entrusted with valuable personal effects of people who are likely to be of higher social class than they are and expect those caretakers to dress more like bankers than janitors.

I'm a technician too and I split it down the middle. Since I program computers which generate important transaction documents I frequently visit offices, and I stopped wearing the Dickeys with my name on the lapel precisely because I showed up for a job 20 years ago and after I announced to the secretary that I was there to update her scale computer, she said "Oh, I thought you were here to spray for bugs."

On the other hand I also do field service on control systems in process areas where I may be asked to wear a hard hat and safety glasses or a Nomex or sanitary smock or climb or stoop or deal with washdown water or a decade's buildup of nasty industrial dirt, and a dress shirt or tie would be completely impractical. So I wear loose fitting slacks and a polo shirt and sneakers for mobility unless the environment requires steel toe boots.

If I worked exclusively on accounting type systems I'd probably wear a tie just like the guy who repairs our copy machine, and if I worked more exclusively on the embedded systems I'd probably go back to the work uniform, especially because I could get it fire rated and not need another layer in places with Nomex requirements.
posted by localroger at 5:40 AM on February 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

I started writing seriously as a Freshman in high school (for whatever value of "seriously" one wishes to ascribe to that particular age), which is the same year that the first Macintosh computer came out. My friend Eddie had one; I wrote my first short story on it. Whereas my only experience with a typewriter was to type just fast enough on it to be excused from a typing class, also in my freshman year.

As a result my writing experience is defined by how one can write on a computer -- specifically, the fact that line editing is not the laborious process it is in the physical medium of typewriting, where cutting and pasting is literally cutting and pasting, and where new drafts need to be entirely rekeyed. I don't need to write new drafts at all; I merely do what you can do when you write on a computer, and edit as I go along. When a manuscript of mine is done, I don't prepare myself for a second draft; I do a quick look at the last bit for grammar errors and then send it off. Drafting is (or can be, at least) an artifact of the technology used for writing.

For this reason I don't get particularly nostalgiac for typewriters. I like them esthetically and as objects that represent my field of endeavor, in equal measure with quill pens. But in both cases, it's not my instrument of creation, and I am glad for that. I am a writer of the computer age, and that suits me perfectly.
posted by jscalzi at 5:47 AM on February 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

I love feeling the sense of history walking into an old shop like this. I hope they continue to hold on without being priced out of the building to make way for yet another Wells Fargo/Duane Reade.
posted by dr_dank at 5:57 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have to agree with jscalzi on this. I admire typewriters as beautiful pieces of engineering, but I'd go insane if I had to use one now.

It's much the same as I feel about my own field of graphic design. I am very nostalgic for the former tools of my trade...markers, templates, technical pens, type gauges, proportion wheels, and pure white, all-rag cotton marker paper. But, for as much as I wax nostalgic over these things, I can't imagine going back to them. If, for no other reason than the guilt I felt as my trash can filled with sheet after sheet of bad ideas.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a regular watch repair guy and an old school cobbler, both of whom run businesses that have been in the family for generations; the watch repairman wears a suit every day and the cobbler a pressed shirt and tie under his apron.

I have a pocket watch that has been in the family for generations and the man I took it to for service just retired a couple of years ago at ninety-something. Not only was he always in shirt and tie, but he was such a legend among other local watch repairmen that when I asked my mom to take it in for service once years ago, she went to a more convenient nearby shop. The two-generations-younger repairman opened it up and saw the tiny precise initials inside and closed up the watch and handed it back, saying it would be disrespectful for him to work on it while the senior man was still around.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:30 AM on February 22, 2015 [21 favorites]

Heh, I typed a lot more than I hand wrote my whole life. But my typewriter is a decorative piece now I never could keep my fingers and brain synched up enough to type what I really meant. Good to know that if I need to get it repaired it's a great excuse to hop over to New York.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2015

Word processors only became available about halfway through my college career and I handed in a lot of typewritten papers but I never actually composed anything on a typewriter. I don't really have the kind of linear mind that can compose a whole sentence at once without having to go over it and rewrite parts of it so I wrote everything longhand on notebook paper first and then transcribed it out on the typewriter when I was happy with it.
posted by octothorpe at 9:02 AM on February 22, 2015

You know what else is obsolete? The Yellow Pages.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to use a typewriter in the military (IBM Selelctric). After I left the navy I bought one, and used it along with a Mac I had purchased while overseas. In the navy, I typed up supply requisitions that were transmitted by radio. It was a very precise, specific type of message with lots of arcane coding and numbers. I haven't used a typewriter in years, but...

It did teach me to structure a document first, before ever hitting a key. Even down to outlining simple documents if the point I'm making is complex. I still do it now, though to a lesser degree. I like to have a clear idea of what I want to say before I write anything. I watch others typing on computers and it's

...and I wonder if there is any structure in their thinking.

posted by disclaimer at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

You know what else is obsolete? The Yellow Pages.

Judging by the anorexic tome recently dropped at my door, I have to concurr. That said, I can still find what I need quicker by scanning the YP than I can via a web search. Perhaps this is an ancient talent doomed to be soon lost to the ages?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:44 AM on February 22, 2015

Hmm, I just looked in my yellow pages for "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" and didn't find anything. You must live in a much bigger city than I do.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:52 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I worked as a file clerk for my dad all through the mid to late 80s. VAX terminals (to manage an insurance brokerage) with some word processing tools but there was still a typewriter on almost every desk, and cases of whiteout in the stockroom. All the agents had a dictaphone and all the clerks had a playback machine with foot pedal and the most arcane looking headphones you could imagine. Every transaction (yearly renewal, claim etc) came with a personalized letter.

I took one semester of typing the year that my school bought electrics, so I spent half a semester on old royal CLUNK KLUNK mechanicals, and half a year on fairly new end Olivettis.

In grad school there was a typewriter in the sr student mailroom, identical to the selectrics I used to work on at my dad's place. One yeear we were all going to a conference and the forms had to be type written and handed in (the web was really just a thing in roughly that year); word got around that I knew the secrets of loading the machine (tension off the platen, centering the sheet, setting tab stobs etc) and I got so fed up with being hauled out of my lab 5x/day that we moved the typewriter in, and it sat on the end of a bench next to the extruder screw I was trying to build. Shoulda charged a buck a throw.
posted by hearthpig at 10:07 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would really like that old Adler, pica type typewriter back, I used to use. Nothing quite like the ding of the carriage return.
posted by Oyéah at 10:39 AM on February 22, 2015

I've gone through the sky in fetishising old tech. My particular obsession is radio, and I have from time to time in my life had wireless collections of various sizes. I still get a lot of pleasure from the few I have left - all of which have particular stories to tell about how they reflect certain key inflection points in tech history. But I've come to realise that I get a lot more out of stuff of the moment; a twenty-dollar USB dongle that does what a thousand dollars of expensive kit couldn't do ten years ago, or a four-hundred-dollar ham transceiver that can send and receive signals around the world in a way that was just impossible until recently, at any price.

I neither mind nor regret that there are no longer radio repairmen in the Yellow Pages. Once, I did. Perhaps it's living in London, where we still have costumed people with medieval weaponry involved in the machineries of state and if I want to urinate against a Roman wall at midnight on the way back from the pub exactly as a provinciales Londinii would have done two thousand years ago I can, practically at will. A historical artefact is only interesting inasmuch as it tells a story and holds a surprise: in any class of such artefacts, most will be somewhat trite.

The era of typewriters, and the artefacts themselves, are worthy of study and appreciation, and people should know what happened. Take as much pleasure from them as you like. But they're done.

Did having to use a typewriter create good discipline in ordering thoughts? Probably, and losing that is a genuine loss. Is it a worthwhile trade to exchange that loss for the ability to, oh, look up the genitive of Londinium in less time than to even find the right book on the shelf and then transmit it to a potential audience of a billion in seconds?

posted by Devonian at 11:47 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can practically hear the Mark Mothersbaugh score coming off those photos.
posted by thelonius at 1:18 PM on February 22, 2015

The era of typewriters, and the artefacts themselves, are worthy of study and appreciation, and people should know what happened. Take as much pleasure from them as you like. But they're done.

As an employee of a law firm, I can tell you that typewriters are not done.

Neither are fax machines.
posted by Lucinda at 2:02 PM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I guess this is the thread to compare the experience of typewritering with that of using a minimalist word processor or a digital typewriter?
posted by LogicalDash at 2:24 PM on February 22, 2015

The one thing you can do easily on a typewriter which is a pain in the rear without one is neatly filling in a physical pre-printed form. In some businesses this is still a thing. It is a little bit even in mine, but they decided the one remaining Correcting Selectric II wasn't worth the money to repair when it finally failed and so we do those things by hand now.
posted by localroger at 2:40 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's like a Ben Katchor story come to life!
posted by AJaffe at 2:49 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm part of a small group of writers and typewriter enthusiasts who take our vintage manual typewriters to various events (fundraisers, weddings, company parties, etc.) and type customized poems on demand for attendees. Typewriters are the perfect tool for this purpose -- sentimental, tangible, interesting to watch work for a few minutes. Kids are fascinated by the workings. I myself adore the tactile feedback and the clattering sound, the physical rhythm of it. And in a context of what's basically an act of improvisation, the inability to edit frees my mind in a certain way that lets me let go of thoughts of quality control, which are only a hindrance in that situation.

Also, many vintage models of typewriters are simply beautiful machines, with lots of little design touches that can practically make you swoon if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 12:01 AM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have a small and much-loved typewriter collection, but they mostly collect dust now. Only the 1940's Hermes Baby ever gets any occasional use. I learned to type on typewrites, but when I get a hankering for vintage-style unconnected writing with no distractions I am far more likely to use my Macintosh Classic II or my Tandy WP-2 portable word processor. I love using typewriters, but they just aren't particularly practical compared to the alternatives.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:33 AM on February 23, 2015

Hmm---I'm a part of a few niche groups on FB (I know) and looked up a few typewriters in my free time. Interesting typefaces but they do tire me out when I'm writing correspondence and I agree editing with them is very slow. However, they tend to be distraction-free and will generally work 90% of the time for writing on the positive side. The only thing I missed the most was spell-check and maybe the ability to go back and fix the paragraph spacing.

Although, I have seen old electronic typewriters at college for forms but most of the time people will either write in all caps or edit PDFs on their PCs before submitting them. I can still buy ink ribbons and spools online/offline though :)
posted by chrono_rabbit at 8:35 PM on February 24, 2015

« Older Yes we're gonna have a wingding 🎵   |   The Boys Who Loved Birds Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments