Lisa Q. Mathews

A Girl and Her Typewriter

Yep, it’s cold, brutal, boring February. But there is one bright spot, in addition to watching Groundhog Day on endless loop: It’s International Typewriter Appreciation Month! Maybe you already know that, because I first wrote this post many Typewriter Months ago. But because I owe a lot to typewriters–in fact, I might not even be here on this earth without one–I thought I’d share it again.

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My parents started dating (in part, I hope) because my mom typed my dad’s papers in college. His typewriter, it seemed, was always “breaking.” That’s what I told Mrs. Dunlop, my high school typing teacher, about mine, too. She warned me I’d be sorry someday, because I’d NEVER get a job if I didn’t learn to type.

Unfazed, I headed off to college with an adorable blue typewriter in a matching plastic case, which my roommate used to type my papers for a dollar a page.  I handed off messy, handwritten pages to her…or, if it was a truly desperate situation, dictated off the cuff. Like father, like daughter, I guess. Ironically, when my dad got out of the Navy, he kicked off a half-century career with IBM selling typewriters.

I did regret my keyboard-dodging proficiency when Mrs. Dunlop’s dark prophecy came to pass. After college, I wanted to be an editor, but I didn’t get into the Harvard-Radcliffe publishing prep program I wanted because I couldn’t type 40 wpm to save my life.  I made the rounds of various publishers with my resume, never failing to flunk the 3-minute typing test administered by Human Resources. I made so many errors with my pathetic Hunt and Peck method, they outnumbered the words correctly typed.

After a summer of job-hunting by day and practicing by night, someone finally had mercy on me and hired me into their sales department. They quickly determined I belonged in Editorial and sent me to the editor-in-chief, who threw me to the wolves. Well, not actual wolves—just 4 crazy-busy editors who needed reams of author/agent correspondence typed. Pronto, with no mistakes.

I put in my dues, painting toxic correction fluid over typos on my original pages and each of the 12 (no lie) carbon copies behind them. I congratulated myself on my rapidly-improving skills, but then brand new typewriters arrived, with annoying correction ribbons and cartridges that just made things worse. When I met my friends for drinks after work—most of them had clean, lucrative financial or legal jobs—my hands and clothes were covered in ink and dandruff-like flecks of Wite-Out. (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. Ask me how I know.)

At the time, of course, I had no idea what fresh hell lay ahead: the word processor.  I was the last editor to let go of my formerly-detested typewriter. Literally. They had to pry it out of my hands.

A few Valentine’s ago, my husband surprised me with a night at the Press Hotel in Portland, Maine. He knew I’d love it because the building once housed the offices and printing plant of the state’s largest newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, from 1923 until 2010.

In the lobby, typewriters adorn an entire wall—and another is covered in vintage cases.

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Near the entrance, a single Underwood typewriter is on display. Beside it are several thick, clean sheets of Press Hotel letterhead, in case guests feel the urge to send someone an actual note instead of a text. Of course I had to give it a whirl. (I have this same typewriter at home, by the way.)

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The newspaper’s former “city room” is now the Inkwell Bar and the rooms are furnished like 1920’s writer’s offices. The coffee tables and the upstairs corridors display 150 years of headlines (my fave: Elderly Lobster Set Free)

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The silver-metal-lined walls of the narrow elevator channeled typewriter key arms—the same ones that foiled me in high school. Did you know that the QWERTY keyboard was created to avoid the letter bars crossing and sticking? It slows down your typing speed by mixing up heavily-used letters with lesser-used ones.

As my husband and I stepped inside our room, I swear I felt the ghosts of journalists past—industrious, chainsmoking, mostly-guy writers, furiously typing against the clock. I also caught a very definite whiff of the highly irresistible scent I’d known all my life.

Ink. With a subtle note of Wite-Out.

Readers, are you a perfect typist, or do you think voice text is the best invention since stone tablets? (Also, if you happen to have a pitiful typo story, please share in the comments!)

 

 

42 thoughts on “A Girl and Her Typewriter

  1. Twelve sheets of carbon paper made me laugh. I’d need a sledge hammer to get through that! Remember that onion skin, erasable paper? I loved that.

    I am an excellent typist. I have four typewriters in my house as we speak, er, type. Have you seen the documentary California Typewriter? We’re big fans. When I use the typewriter I’m amazed at how difficult it is. Although, I recently went from using my laptop keyboard to an external one and that seems difficult too. Definite loss of finger strength!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Absolutely love this, Lisa. Delightful from beginning to end!

    Am a wee bit obsessed with typewriters myself…we should start a club.

    I remember how amazing it was to move from a typewriter where you had to push the return lever at the end of a line to one that returned by itself automatically, (Writing that makes me feel so old! Like: gather round, children, so I can tell you about how when I was growing up, our writing machines DINGED at the end of a line! )

    And oh, using Wite-Out was awful…I did prefer the liquid to the correction tape that left a somehow overly thick, inadequate blob. But equally bad was trying to figure out how to line up a word on a previously typed line…no matter how hard you tried, it was always just a little off somehow.

    Thank you for a fun trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Word processors are the greatest invention ever! I have so many typos I’d be like you, with each page drowning in Wite-Out. I love the fact that I can quickly and easily correct stuff as I find it.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I don’t miss typewriters one bit. The cutting, the pasting, the witing-out. Have you tried to use one lately? It’s hard! How did we ever do it? Were our hands stronger then because we were younger? My dad typed like a fiend. Maybe we kept up our finger strength because we had to. While I remember that lovely high school gift of a portable typewriter, and feel sad that Smith Corona and Underwood are no longer with us, give me a computer any day!

    Liked by 6 people

  5. My dad bought me an electric typewriter when I went off to law school, with the caveat that in order to accept the gift, I had to promise to type all my exams. The reason was that ny law professor father didn’t want my professors to have to try to read my horrible handwriting. It was that year that I truly learned to type, and I ended up even typing the bar exam.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Wite-Out! Cartridges! Carbon copies! What a fabulous trip down memory lane!! Add me to the list of typewriter-obsessed and typewriter-gifted after graduation. (And pretty-please let me into Typewriter Club!)

    I didn’t take typing in high school, but soon learned that an English major with physician’s handwriting wasn’t an ideal combination. My dad taught me to type, and I do a passable job. My typing hero is my best friend who’s a medical transcriptionist. She types 100++ words per minute. It looks like she’s going to break the keyboard!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh my word!
    That is the only reason I got into the Army when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Because I could type like 80 wpm at the age of 18.
    My fastest was 120, on an IBM Selectric. Remember those?
    I would love to have a typewriter now. But at least I have a keyboard that is designed like a typewriter, including the clicking noises. It just doesn’t ding when I hit the return.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. We could not pass Mrs Rubin’s class without getting a perfect typing score. So I was able to type 80wpm. I remember all the stages of the typewriter from manual to electric with the ribbon then with that ball thing and I was so thrilled to embrace the Wang.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I learned to type on a Royal typewriter in third grade. By high school I was the queen of the timed write contests at approx. 80wpm. Once I started on the IBM Selectric I was up to 100wpm and finally finished my word processing career at 110-120wpm. Those old typewriters were amazing. I actually wrote four teen books on my old Smith Corona in high school sitting on my bed. That was it for my fiction writing career. Then it was on to computers…thanks for the trip down memory lane. Love the Chicks and can’t wait to see you at LCC.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. On a good day, I type 100+. On a bad day, it’s all in Martian.

    I used to work in the IBM typewriter division in Orange, CA… as an admin/typist!

    My only story of woe was long after PCs were common. I got a job at an aeronautics firm in the HR dept which, for no obv reason, still used electric typewriters… errors and wite-out not allowed!! I typed a full page, in triplicate, and made a typo on the very last line… twice. 66 lines of text, always in triplicate, typed 3 times to finally get it 100% correct. I don’t know if I did anything else that day!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. ps: Your title reminded me of Jr High. We had a typewriter in the back of the room and I’d frequently type stories about “Loretta and her faithful typewriter” and leave them in the typewriter for others to find. Most of the time, they journeyed to forests where and encountered handsome men with typewriters.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. For high school graduation 3 of my siblings gifted me with a portable Underwood that had a transitor radio in the case! I still have it! Used it all through college and after. Btw I assume you all know one of the earliest forms of correction fluid was Liquid Paper which was developed by Bette Naismith (mother of Michael Naismith of The Monkees fame.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a great post, Lisa! My mom was a part-time stripper (4-color offset printing… haha) and I spent a lot of time around all kinds of machines that just aren’t used any more. One of the copy editors in the building typed his memos with a perfectly maintained Royal QDL from the 1940s, and that particular memory has always flashed back to me as I grew up and watched the publishing world go digital.

    Like

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