For the Love of a Vintage Typewriter

Renewed interest in this 'machine' has been building — and for many true aficionados, business has never been brisker

by Chris Woodward | Updated 08 Jan 2018 at 2:28 PM

Some things never truly go away — manual transmissions, lava lamps, even typewriters. Yes, typewriters, the things many people my age and younger have only seen on TV shows and movies.

I recall having played with someone’s typewriter as a child, but I could not begin to tell you how to type on one of the devices.

I grew up in the age of Microsoft Word and computer keyboards, which is why I was surprised to read a report not that long ago about how vintage typewriters are gaining in popularity. Renewed interest began when online communities started forming in the past decade. Speaking of all things online, it was through the web that I found James Bernsen, a writer and typewriter collector in Taylor, Texas.

“They’re great ways to learn to type properly, and what at first seems hard actually is a great way to train your writing and build up your speed,” he told me.

Bernsen compares it to starting out on an acoustic guitar before going electric.

“Doing it the hard way actually makes the latter easier,” he told LifeZette. “I type in the 90-word-a minute range, and I think that is mostly attributable to my typing experience.”

He says he enjoys the feel of the keys going down and springing back up.

“It’s like driving a standard versus an automatic — and every real car fan knows what I’m talking about. You just feel more involved, and it focuses you.”

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Unlike me, Bernsen grew up with typewriters, and he wrote many papers for high school and college on a typewriter.

“Typewriters are very limiting for academic papers. If you’ve ever tried doing footnotes on a typewriter, you can see what I mean.”

“They’re part of our history, and they transformed our world. They had profound effects on our country politically, economically and socially.”

On the other hand, Bernsen says typewriters have a value in creative writing, which he started getting into after college.

“I discovered the quality of my writing was changed when I wrote by hand, typewriter or computer,” he explained. “On a computer, you type much faster and there’s a natural urge to edit as you go, going back and rewriting — but a typewriter is a limiting factor, and it forces you to slow down and be more deliberate about your work.”

As a result, Bernsen says typewriters are great for first drafts or just bringing an idea to paper for development.

“By doing a first draft this way, it forces you to rewrite your second draft on the computer, as opposed to just tweaking it,” he continues. “This makes you a better editor.”

On the big screen. Bernsen is not alone in his beliefs about typewriters and their value. Actor Tom Hanks is featured in the documentary “California Typewriter,” a project that seems ironic given that Hanks starred in a film in which characters develop a relationship through email. Musician John Mayer, 21 years younger than Hanks, is also featured in the documentary. Mayer apparently envisions himself “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” with a typewriter. Or maybe he stopped “Waiting on the World to Change.” Jokes aside, I asked Bernsen why millennials and the generations to follow should care about typewriters.

“They’re part of our history, and they transformed our world,” he answered. “They had profound effects on our country politically, economically and socially.”

Before them, Bernsen says government was conducted by hand.

“They transformed the role of women, by providing many of the early professional jobs for women as typists,” he added. “Like computers would later do, they dramatically increased productivity — which increased wages and created new jobs and opportunity.

Related: 10 Hand-Me-Down Stunners

From a literary standpoint, Bernsen notes that many of our greatest writers owed their success to typewriters.

“Mark Twain wrote most of his novels on the earliest typewriters, and all the great 20th-century writers used them,” he said. “There’s a famous story in which Jack Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road’ not on individual sheets, but on a 120-foot roll of paper that he just fed into his typewriter and typed constantly until he was done.”

Where can people find typewriters these days? The internet is always an option, so enter the phrase “typewriters for sale” into a search engine and see what happens. You might be able to narrow your hunt by including your zip code in your search. Bernsen suggests antique stores or flea markets. If you intend to actually use a typewriter, be sure to test it before you make all transactions final. Apparently there is a simple way to test a typewriter.

“First, check the space bar and the backup, as they are usually the first to go, and if they’re broken, they can be fixed,” he said. “Then, test all the numbers and keys by typing something such as, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.'”

If you cannot find a typewriter ribbon, don’t panic. Try finding one for an adding machine.

“They usually still sell those and they’re basically developed from typewriter ribbons anyway, so you can use that.”

For more information. If you need help, the internet may once again provide you with some assistance. Typewriter repairmen are still in business. In fact, the renewed interest in typewriters has been a boom for people like John Lewis, a typewriter repairman in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lewis told the Associated Press he has not seen business like this in years — and he’s been in business for four decades.

Will typewriters still be around in the next 40 years? If people like Bernsen, Hanks, Mayer and Lewis have anything to do with it, then yes. And by that point, perhaps this writer, among others, will have learned how to type on them.

Chris Woodward is a reporter for American Family News and and is based in Mississippi. 

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