Why (and How) I Use a Typewriter

Using a typewriter is a form of time travel.

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Hello! I’m writing this to you from 1954.

That’s not true, of course (it’s still 2022), but I feel like I’m sending it from Eisenhower’s first term. I’m typing the first draft of this piece on a 1954 Smith Corona Silent, a green and gray beauty from the fine folks at Nashville Typewriter.

Now, deciding to buy a typewriter in this age of the internet and texting and iPads is like saying, “Hey, I bought a butter churn!” But there are plenty of writers who still use typewriters, including Robert CaroLoren EstlemanCormac McCarthy, Don Delillo, and Danielle Steel (and she has written almost 200 books on her ’40s Olympia, so she must be doing something right).

I love using something made in 1936 or 1954 or 1980, something that lasts forever, that looks and works exactly like it did back then. Using a typewriter is a form of time travel.

Mine’s the first one on the left, and I got the original case too! (Smith-Corona ad from the Post’s December 4, 1954, issue)

For people who know me well, the fact that I use a typewriter isn’t a surprise. I’m someone who still has a landline, uses a paper planner, has more notebooks than I will ever fill, and wears a wristwatch (one with hands!). So owning a typewriter fits into that life quite nicely.

Why do I love them so much?

  • They’re made for doing one thing: writing. There are no distractions, no email to check, no alerts that grab your attention (except the “ding” that tells you to return the carriage). Some people look at these old machines and think, “But you can’t access the internet on it!” Not being able to access the internet on my writing machine is a feature, not a bug.
  • Make a list of the 25 best novels of all-time. I bet most, if not all of them, were written on a typewriter (maybe even handwritten!), not a computer.
  • No one prints out an email or a text and sticks it to their bulletin board or tells someone else about it. Type a letter to someone and snail mail it (with the address and return address handwritten) and it will immediately become a prized possession (bills and IRS letters excluded).
  • No glitches, no viruses, no malware, no social media. Works during a power outage, too.

Of course, I don’t use a typewriter all the time. It’s impossible in the 21st century. As someone who does a lot of work online and has to email their work to editors and other people, doing all of my writing on a typewriter just isn’t something that would work today. Tom Hanks is probably the world’s biggest typewriter nerd and uses one every single day, but he wrote his book of short stories on a computer. Even Andy Rooney, who famously used an old Underwood manual for decades (he owned 17) eventually switched to a computer and admitted it was easier (though he still owned several typewriters and used them for letters and notes and such).

And after using a computer keyboard for over 30 years, typing on a typewriter is hard. I haven’t used a typewriter since the 1980s, and it really does take some time to get back into the swing of things, to get a rhythm going, for your fingers to remember how to press those keys. Sometimes the next key seems so far away. I’ll get used to it, but I can’t imagine doing all of my writing on a typewriter (though if I had to, I would).

But it’s wonderful for writing letters, creating first drafts, making notes and lists, and a typed message on a card or thank you note looks fantastic. I didn’t buy it for show or to solidify any hipster credentials. I’m actually using it!

So I write on both a typewriter and a MacBook. I live in 1954 and in 2022. Old and new, analog and digital, beauty and convenience. I straddle both worlds and try to use the technology that suits me best and works the best depending on what I’m doing. And that’s really what we all should be doing with technology, isn’t it?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my eye on a nice Olivetti …

Featured image: Shutterstock

 

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Comments

  1. Over the last several years I’ve returned to writing with a fountain pen and then typing (and re-typing) the results on my ’59 Olympia SF. I was prompted to do this by general fatigue with the digital world and the need to escape screens, which only increased with the onset of the pandemic. To date I’ve written any number of short stories, a play, and a novel this way—and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process! It’s so much more pleasurable, I find, than working on a computer.

    Thanks for this lovely article!

  2. A modern day typewriter? A laptop/desktop with no internet access, and an external drive for backing up what you write on said laptop/desktop with no internet access; i.e., external disk drives, but not the floppy. That is as far back as I’m willing to go now.

  3. Uh, no, I’m not going back. The white out, the eraser pencil, the use of razor blades to clean off a mistake, nope. I learned to type on the old manuals in sophomore high school class and, like riding a bicycle, you never forget. I use a laptop because it catches my mistakes and warns me to autocorrect. I am free to think as I write without worrying about the mistakes like the one made above I just made above on the word laptop which I just corrected. In six years, I have written over 3,500 pages on assorted topics, typing over two million words, thoughts, ideas, joys, sorrows, warnings, and love. So, thank you Mr. Underwood or whoever you were for the typewriter I began on in the early 1970’s but God bless those individuals that made it so much easier to think on what I am/was writing and not on how I was going to erase the mistakes.

  4. Dear Mr. Sassone,
    All of what you say is music to my ears. I am an obsolete typewriter salesman. I am professing to be the Worlds Oldest typewriter salesperson. I spent 19 years with the Underwood Olivetti Corp. Nice to know that you are now looking for an Olivetti. My career lasted for 33 years during that time period I seem to have put all three of the companies I worked for out of business. When Olivetti figured out they were losing millions of dollars in the USA they went home and shut down a business that should have really opened up more beautiful pieces of equipment. After reading the book “The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti” I realized that the day I started with them in 1960 was the begging of the end. If you need to check on me I have created a page called Typewriter Salespersons Page. My objective was to see if I could locate anyone who sold typewriters. The only person I have found so far is a salesman I hired while managing the District office in Indianapolis Indiana.

  5. Elke: I’m the same way with my cell phone (not a smart phone!). I only use it for emergencies.

    Ron: I have heard of some offices who still uses typewriters. (Prisons too!)

    Gord: That’s incredible that a teacher would get mad at a student writing left-handed. Truly a different time, heh.

    Jay: Don’t consider yourself a retro-nerd. You’re a “retro-aficionado.”

    Deane: I’ve seen so many people who have given up their landlines and gone cell phone-only the past several years. I’ll never give mine up. And those coworkers are like a lot of people. Their instinct is to mock people who like the “old” things but then realize they might like them too.

  6. Love this article, thank you for this! I recently had to have my 1942 Underwood in for a tune-up and when I mentioned this during a work conference Teams call (the technician was calling on my LANDLINE and I HAD to take it, my boss said, “I’m sorry, what did you just say – your typewriter technician called you?? Who has a typewriter let alone a typewriter technician??” Everyone was amused in a somewhat unflattering but comical way (they make fun of me for still having the landline). Anyway, after ten minutes of extolling the virtues of typewriters (all of which you include in this beautiful article!), they at least agreed that my points had merit and more than a few admitted that they sure would love to receive a typewritten letter in the mail. I have forwarded a copy of your article to my co-workers!

    P.S. I also still have a wall-mounted phone. P.P.S. My 31 year old daughter ‘borrowed’ one of my Underwoods two years ago; I’ll never get it back.

  7. Okay, I’m old and admit I use the computer all the time for writing, finances, etc. Much easier for corrections, etc.

    But …. I have my 1936 KHM Royal sitting right here on my desk and still use it to type addresses on envelopes. Saves trying to load the right sheet of address labels and making the computer print right.

    I was a small-town newspaper reporter and editor in the 1950s and used my old typewriter to turn out thousands of words a day (some days). It was fed by a roll of newsprint with a saw blade across the back for ripping and handing to the girls who cut the tape for the linotypes. Even broke the space bar one day. Finally saved up enough to get a portable and then a Selectric (wow!). Got into PR and don’t think we started using word processors until the 80s. So… wouldn’t be without it!

  8. I must be a retro-nerd. First, I subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post. (When do I receive my first issue?) I also enjoy typewriters. Yes, I have a Smith-Corona portable dating from the late 1950’s, and an Underwood Standard from 1919 that I refurbished. There is still a wall-mounted telephone in my home. My eldest daughter tried to call out with it once, but couldn’t figure out how to use it. (By the way, why is calling from a cell phone still referred to as “dialing?”) I drive (sometimes) a 1963 MGA, which was the LAST vehicle to have a crank starter for those “just in case” times, but I embrace improvements whenever possible. For example, when I was still teaching chemistry, I provided and taught my students to use paper slide-rules to help them comprehend logarithms. I also tried teaching them how to use an abacus to aid in quick thinking. That failed, predictably, since “quick thinking” appears to be an oxymoron these days. Of course, I was severely castigated by the school administration for not using “technology.”

    Just remember though that even typewriters were not always accepted as the latest and greatest new thing:

    A grumpy old farmer named Flint
    Growled “…there be no reason to print.”
    “I kin read writin’ just fine;
    I does it all of the time.
    Take yur machine an’ outta-here sprint!”

  9. Dear Editor:
    My mum had a Smith-Corona portable typewriter and every time my teacher got mad that was writing with my left hand, I would retalliate by typing out my book report.
    The teacher would then phone mum to say, she didn’t appreciate a parent interfering with the child’s assignment.
    Mum of course giggle, and, tell the teacher you have been after him for writing left-handed again.
    “Yes, well” the teacher would snort, “its so wrong for him to be writing with his left hand” pausing and adding it “its abnormal”.
    Now past 70, I can appreciate that I am fully ambedexterious, so that if, God-forbid I have a stroke, I can use either hand to write and do things.
    Once in a while, I will sharpen up my left-hand writing skills just in case.
    But, in other matters, I can and do use either hand for whatever I might find myself doing.
    Strrrrrange times, and, equally, strrrrrrange thinking back then.
    Happy to see that there is no longer any pressure from the teaching community to”correct the defective left-handers” in schools.
    Sincerely.
    Gord Young
    Peterborough – Canada

  10. My wife does billing at the local dentist office. She still uses a typewriter to do the bills. And she types the name and address on the envelopes too.

  11. Great article, I also have a landline and an answering machine to screen incoming calls. I have a cell phone but do not use it, it is strictly for (Tracfone) emergencies only. My car is a 2006 Mazda3 and I use paper map directions if needed. I do have a 6-year-old laptop, because for some things you have to use a computer to get results, but I still do it the “old way” from about 55 years ago. In some ways I miss the OLD WAY, because it seemed we had more time, now it is always instant gratification.

  12. I feel kinship although I no longer have a typewriter I do have a land line, no cell phone and my car is a 2004 Toyota with no frills. Good to know others don’t give up the useful things of the past.

  13. Good for you! A few years ago, I got the typewriter bug myself. I thought it would be cool to collect old typewriters because as you say, they are indeed beautiful in and of themselves. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit on the heavy side and take up space, and since most of my available space is taken up with books (yes, real books, something else I’d be willing to bet you have a lot of!), that hobby didn’t last too long. Still, now you’ve made me wish I’d cleared off at least one more shelf for a Royal or an Underwood!

  14. Bob, Mom is cheering you from the grave. And I’m cheering you right along with her.

  15. I used a portable Hermes from my grandmother into the 2000’s that she probably bought between ’57 and ’60. It’s light green and worked very well. My only problem was correcting goofs and still having the page look nice. But basically I feel your ending paragraph sums it up best.

    Just because newer technology comes along, doesn’t mean there was/is anything wrong with the older versions of things, like a typewriter over the computer. Simply use each one depending on what you want or need to do at any given time. Thanks for the links of the beautiful mid-century typewriters. My favorite is the maroon Voss De Luxe.

  16. What a beautiful article. To make annotations of ideas, I also use a typewriter, it seems to me a more pleasant sensation. We are many like you! Cheers

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