Why everyone from Tom Hanks to Lady Gaga is rediscovering the beauty of vintage manual typewriters, which — like classic cars and ocean liners — attracted the 20th century’s greatest designers in their efforts to make the practical beautiful
In August 1952, Ian Fleming took a break from writing his James Bond adventures to type a short note to his wife Ann. ‘My love,’ he wrote, ‘this is only a tiny letter to try out my new typewriter and to see if it will write golden words since it is made of gold.’
To celebrate finishing Casino Royale, Fleming had ordered a gold-plated Royal Quiet De Luxe at a cost of $174, and to avoid the duty, asked a friend to smuggle it back from America on the Queen Elizabeth. Fleming told him to bundle it up in furs.
Sleek and elite, the Royal suited a man with an eye for an attractive chassis. ‘I’m not sure he wrote any Bonds on it,’ says Fergus Fleming, the author’s nephew and editor of his collected letters, The Man with the Golden Typewriter. ‘I think it appealed to his sense of humour. It was the idea, as much as the reality, that caught his imagination.’
Surveying the curious appeal of these QWERTY machines, I find that Fleming is far from unique. Over the past century, a large cast of writers, artists, collectors and curators have been beguiled by what Kingsley Amis called the ‘alphabet piano’. Amis was himself quite soppy about his Adler Standard.
Manual typewriters, like vintage cars and ocean liners, illustrate the modernist mission to make the practical beautiful. Leading designers worked on them, and mid-century ad men pitched them to the public. ‘As light as a syllable, complete as a sentence,’ declared the bright, bold Olivetti posters.
Like other collectables, typewriters often reflect their origins. American firms — like the gunmaker Remington — made them hardy enough to take out West; the French models were as curvaceous as Citroëns. And the Italians introduced elegance: in the 1960s their game-changing Olivetti Lettera 22 — slimline and pastel-coloured — became as much a symbol of la dolce vita as a Lambretta or a Vespa.
The museum community has long recognised their significance. A Roger Tallon retrospective on view at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris earlier this year showed how the French designer worked on jolly-looking Japy typewriters as well as the nation’s fleet of TGV trains. And the new Design Museum in London recently chose the 1969 Olivetti Valentine as one of its dozen iconic objects. There are typewriters in the collections of the Science Museum in London and the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. MoMA began showing them in New York in the 1950s. And cultural figures from Sam Shepard to Leonard Cohen have praised their simplicity. You can’t hack an Imperial or a Smith Corona. No wonder Lady Gaga gets lyrical on a vintage Underwood.
The film star Tom Hanks caught the bug in 1979 when he bought a Hermes 2000; he has since built up one of the great typewriter collections, and his typewriter-themed collection of fiction, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, is to be published in October. ‘There is no reason to own hundreds of old typewriters other than the sin of misguided avarice,’ he admitted in a New York Times column. Although, he added, ‘the tactile pleasure of typing old-school is incomparable.’
Hanks — together with Sam Shepard, musician John Mayer, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough and others — elaborates on his passion for typewriters in a charming documentary, California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol and released in the US this summer [and in the UK in November].
The thwack, whack and ping of the thing is indeed hard to resist. As is the chic symmetry: a typewriter is as evenly balanced as a butterfly print. Even that dandyish carriage arm accentuates its good looks, like a kiss curl or a duelling scar.
‘The oddest thing about collecting typewriters is how many fellow collectors I have come across, and in how many locales,’ says Marty Cooper, a Californian communications executive who has 40 machines, ranging in date from 1880 to 1930. He has examples from Germany, Israel, Estonia, England, Russia and Belgium. ‘And where there are typewriters,’ he says, ‘there are collectors.’
In 2009 Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti — which had cost him $50 in a Tennessee pawnshop in 1963 — was sold for $254,500
For Cooper, it was an Imperial B from 1915 that sparked his interest 30 years ago. There is, he explains, ‘romance in the long-forgotten names of many of these mechanical marvels.’ Brands such as Erika, Bambino, Frolio, Fox and Blickensderfer conjure up a lost age of wild sentiments hammered home by impassioned authors.
‘We work on our own machines,’ Cooper says. ‘That’s part of the fun. Finding an obscure part through other collectors or online gives one the same feeling of triumph a treasure hunter must enjoy when the spade clunks against a buried chest of pirate gold.’
That alchemical infatuation can come at a price. Fleming’s pimped-up Royal sold for £55,750 at Christie’s in 1995. Jack Kerouac’s last typewriter — a pale-green Hermes — made $22,500 in 2010. And in 2009, Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti — which had cost him $50 in a Tennessee pawnshop in 1963 — achieved a record-breaking $254,500. ‘It has never been serviced or cleaned,’ McCarthy noted, ‘other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose.’
Artists recognised a value of a different kind. Jean Dubuffet created crazy-paving compositions of typewriters in felt-tipped pen; William Kentridge printed monochrome aquatints that turned them into sinister cartoon characters; and a league of photographers embraced them as a modern muse.
‘There are famous photographs of typewriters,’ notes British photography dealer Michael Hoppen. ‘Anton Bruehl did a wonderful picture; and Ilse Bing. And there are lots of pictures of people typing. We had great pictures of Hunter S. Thompson at Big Sur, outside with his little turquoise Remington, typing away at The Rum Diary.’
Hoppen still keeps a couple of typewriters in his gallery. ‘We use them for design,’ he says, handing me an exhibition flyer punctuated with type. ‘They must be 50 years old. They don’t need Wi-Fi. And unlike 99 per cent of the things we buy today, which make huge promises, they actually deliver.’
Hoppen recently sold a small silver gelatin print of letter arms darting over paper that was taken in 1970 by the Bauhaus veteran Horacio Coppola. Six decades earlier, Anton Bragaglia had produced The Typist, a masterpiece of Futurist Photodynamism, which captured a blur of fingers on keys. In the years between, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Weegee, Lee Miller and Tina Modotti shot still lifes — macro, abstracted, distorted — of ribbons, platens and carriages. And in his Royal Road Test of 1967, Ed Ruscha documented dropping a typewriter from a speeding car.
Another fan was Robert Doisneau. While sauntering along the Seine in the summer of 1947, he photographed Emma Smith, a young English writer who was sitting on the embankment tapping away on a portable Royal perched precariously on her thighs. She was hard at work on The Far Cry, a novel based on her trip to India with Laurie Lee.
Over tea at her cottage by the Thames, Smith, now 92 and acclaimed for her recent memoirs, recalls that day with affection. ‘I didn’t even know he had taken it. I was in Calcutta or Assam in my mind,’ she laughs. ‘I went there every day to the end of the Île de la Cité. Doisneau was just wandering around taking heatwave pictures.’ The following day she found herself in Paris Match.
‘I love typewriters,’ she says. ‘At one time I had about three.’ She learnt touch-typing at secretarial college in the 1940s, and typed up messages for MI5 at Blenheim Palace during the war. Sadly, her Royal was lost years ago. It was, Smith explains, more than just a tool. ‘I bought it for £5 in WH Smith in Teignmouth and had it for years,’ she recalls with a smile. ‘I took it everywhere. It was part of me.’