Laptops, before we knew they existed
August 31, 2011
Typewriters were, “a delight to tired eyes and refreshment to the mind of those who are compelled to read much of other people’s work before it is printed,” according to an Aspen Daily Chronicle advertorial of 1892 titled “Mightier Than The Pen.” It reported that typewriter manufacturers were turning out 100 of those delights daily.
The Remington Company, producer of firearms and sewing machines, locked up patents and began producing QWERTY layout typewriters in 1873. By 1888, typists and typewriters were common in Aspen. Research indicates that those who wanted the Remington shown with this column had to order it from a store in Denver. Cooper’s Stationary store in Aspen provided Remington parts and service. Even The Aspen Times got into the business, selling typewriter paper at its Main Street office for $1.25 per ream.
Typists were in demand and, because many were women, the business world took on a different look. An 1895 Aspen Daily Times reported, “New York architects now put bathrooms for typewriter girls in all new office buildings.” The papers also printed stories and jokes themed “typewriter girl marries boss.”
Aspen businesses adapted quickly to the new technology and advertised for typists. For a dollar a month, they could learn to type at St. Mary’s School. Someone went so far as to name a mining claim in the Columbia Mining Lode above Ashcroft, “The Typewriter Girl.”
Those early typewriters were expensive; although better machines replaced them, no one threw the old ones out. I remember playing with them as a kid. They were heavy and it took finger strength to punch a key. Even after a few decades of dust clogged up the workings, they still left an impression – at least most of the keys would. Any word you wanted to use had at least one letter whose key stuck, usually the most common letters, t, a and e. The ribbons were well-worn, but if you pushed hard enough, the key would dent the paper, so you could see what you had attempted to write.
The Royal Company took over the market with its portable typewriter in 1926. I remember learning to type on a Royal at Aspen High, and it seemed that the Royals we used must have been the originals. It would seem silly to today’s twitter thumb-happy youth that one year of typing could be a required class, but it was at Aspen High.
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If you took a typing class, you remember A;SLDKFJGH. Many high schools of the period offered typing as a manual-arts class. Still sexist, typing was for girls and auto mechanics was offered to boys only. Aspen High had an almost entirely college preparatory curriculum then, but it recognized that typing was an indispensable skill for the college-bound. All freshmen boys, as well as girls, were required to exercise their fingers each day.
Those ancient typewriters I played with as a child were a wonder of mechanical invention. I remember trying to take one apart to see how it worked, with little success. I wonder if I have deprived my grandchildren of an equally pleasurable experience when I tossed out the IBM Selectric and the folder of carbon paper that were weighing down a shelf in my shed.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.