Tool of the trade

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This is an L.C. Smith and Corona Company Standard Typewriter in the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  It is a training model for children:  instead of letters printed on the keys, illustrations of animals correspond with rings children wore on their fingers that would correspond to the position or deck of the keys they were typing.

Except for the key rings and the animals, this is the exact model of a typewriter I have owned since I bought it in the early 1990s.  The Standard typewriter was built in the 1930s so it was at least 50 years old when I bought it.  It took me some time to realize what terrific shape it was (and continues to be) in.  But it was an antique, a museum piece, even then.

ernesthemingwayI bought this typewriter to write during a summer traveling overseas.  It was not the most practical purchase, since a notebook would have been far better and lighter.  The typewriter weighed at least 10 pounds and didn’t come with its case.  But buying the typewriter was quite possibly the most romantic thing I have ever done.  As I recall, I was smitten with an image of Ernest Hemingway  hammering away at his desk.  (I learned only later, reading A Moveable Feast during that trip, that he wrote his first drafts with a pencil.)

It cost $50 when I found it at the Vallejo Typewriter Company on Tennessee Street in my home town.  As you might imagine, the company no longer exists.   In 1993, it still sold and repaired machines of all kinds.  It was locally famous for displaying in its window the typewriter used by Burt Lancaster as he played Robert Stroud in the 1962 film The Bird Man of Alcatraz.  I have no idea how the owners came to own that typewriter and, unfortunately, what became of it since the store shut down.

My typewriter was manual (and, as a result, less heavy than an electric typwriter) so it didn’t require power as I crossed borders with varying voltages and electrical outlets.  It’s all-metal construction was painted and well-oiled so it was virtually waterproof.  It was almost indestructable, even what I initially thought were its delicate parts.  It had an evocative odor — the good, clean smell of a well-maintained machine.  It is hard to come by that sensation today even in a museum of industry.

I learned to type on a typewriter in a junior high school classroom in the mid-1980s.  Although they were electric, I fail to remember the model.   For a time as a child I enjoyed banging out short stories and scripts on my grandmother’s IBM Selectric.  The Selectric used a special innovation called a typeball instead of individual letter hammers for each keystroke.  The typeball would rapidly rotate based on the key to imprint the letter on paper.  The ball could be swapped out for different typefaces.  For my proud Italian grandmother, it somehow fit that she used an italic typeface for all her letters.

None of that prepared me for a manual typewriter.  By 1993 I had been working on computer keyboards for at least five years.  It took a week just to build the hand and wrist strength necessary to hit the keys hard enough and with enough follow-through to type.  Even after weeks on the road I would find the tips of my fingers insensible if I typed too long.

But carpal tunnel or repetitive motion stress was never a problem.  Unlike the flat modern computer keyboard, the keyboard on the Standard was large and steeply terraced with well-spaced keys.  Hitting all the keys required constant movement with the hands raised and moving all over the keyboard.  There was no resting position but as a result no particular load or stress on the hands or wrists.

I immediately learned that unlike my Apple computer at the time or even the Selectric, which had a correcting ribbon, everything I typed on the Standard was permanent and irremediable.  This fact dramatically, if not instantly, affected my writing.  Typing on the Standard required more forethought and planning as I wrote.   I had to choose words and compose sentences, even whole paragraphs, in my head before I started typing.  Prone as I was at the time to random digressions, the Standard actually helped me maintain intent and focus.  It improved my spelling and composition.

It was also insanely loud.  Once I got going, the physical, even violent nature of typing became apparent.  My friends could hear me working outside the building and down the street.  Nobody particularly complained as I recall and I encountered only mild curiousity.  More eccentric things I’m sure have been seen on the streets and in the hostels across Europe.  Nonetheless, I do remember somebody calling to me on the street in Milan as I hoofed the typewriter on my ruck: “Hey!  Whatta you-a doin’ with that a-writin’ machine?”

Things we love only become romantic when they are obsolete.  Although I still have that typewriter, I’ve never used it since that trip in 1993.  It was outmoded 30 years before I bought it.  But it made me a better writer.  Even as a mass-produced item its old world engineering made it a work of art — maybe something worth seeing in a museum.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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One Response to Tool of the trade

  1. Gina Snyder says:

    It was not untill now, reading this reflection piece, that I brought into focus my own love affair with my father’s typewriter. He let me type and I wanted to imitate him, by writing letters and I distinctly recall typing a term paper in 7th grade science on “the Atom.” I felt grown up! Most of the people I knew did not own a typewriter.
    All of what you describe I remember: the sounds, the weight, the smooth surfaces, the impact and satisfaction of truly striking a key to make a good Imprint. I loved it.

    It was lovely to read your recollection. Another piece of James history.
    Love you,
    Mom

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