Willoughby: Typewriters and typewriter girls vs. computers
Legends & Legacies
If you live with a teenager, you may find retro products making a comeback in your household. Polaroid instant cameras, vinyl records with their players, and typewriters relegated to grandma’s attic generations ago now take their place in high schoolers’ bedrooms. You can pick up a retro typewriter, even a Royal manual, for around $150. The typewriter trend makes sense because only so much creativity and serious communication can be punched in a smart phone, punctuated by emojis.
Hollywood joined the trend with the documentary “California Typewriter.” The movie focuses on a throwback to a previous era, a typewriter store in Oakland, California, where you can repair a typewriter or buy a refurbished one. A typewriter collector is featured in the film, plus an artist who collects old typewriters for his creations. They trade parts with the Oakland store. The fun movie includes an appearance by John Mayer, who explains that songwriting on a typewriter produces far superior results to those obtained when using a computer.
The development of Aspen coincides chronologically with that of the typewriter. A few years before Aspen’s founding, the Remington Co. bought the rights to the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and introduced it to the public in 1884. This was the typewriter that introduced the QWERTY keyboard. It became the first typewriter with which someone could write faster than by hand. The year before Aspen was settled, the second Remington typewriter introduced the shift-key system to write upper- and lower-case letters.
During the mid-1880s, the typewriter stormed the American business world, with 1885 marking the first-time mention of typewriters in Aspen’s papers. The ad for a typo-writer teased the future. Soon after, in 1887, an inventor added an electrically turned roller. If you wanted to buy a typewriter, a Remington Standard, in 1888, you had to order it from Wychoff, Seamansal and Benedict in Denver. The following year, Carbary and Beard began to stock typewriter ribbons and paper in Aspen.
The turn of the decade featured new roles for women in society, when much was made of women in business. Typing assumed the lead as a new “profession.” Many articles about this phenomenon reveal that men were not quite ready for women to join them in the workplace. My favorite story appeared in Aspen Times of 1889, headlined “The Typewriter Girl.” It rambled on about the merits of having a woman in the office, and used “paragrapher” as a job title. To me, that seemed a demeaning way to avoid calling a woman a writer. The author stretched to come up with an insight when he wrote, “she may chew gum but never dallies with tobacco nor toys with the serpent lurking in the wine-glass.”
Women may have begun to move into a male-dominated workforce. But in Aspen, no women advertised their typing talents. During the 1890s, James B. Knoblock advertised himself as a stenographer, typewriter and agent for Remington. Rex Mollett competed as a typewriter and copyist. And D.O. Mathews opened business in 1891 as a stenographer and typewriter. All three held downtown offices.
By the late 1960s, Aspen High School’s typing class demonstrated the advantages of mechanized writing for those, like me, who did not write legibly by hand. The value of that lesson surpassed the cost: speed drills on old equipment that hundreds of students had struggled to master over the years. Although I feel nostalgic about the amazing invention, I write my columns on a computer. My typewriters did not check spelling.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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