Photo: Dake, via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes I like to think about what kind of sounds the people of a hundred or seventy-five years ago might have taken for granted, and those that are new—like the rattle of that stiff cereal bag, or a waking computer, of course—and those that will be extinct in our lifetime. When you play this game, you can catalog all the small elements of the sound track of a moment, and, because our knowledge is historical, place yourself in the larger context of all human existence. Or something. Anyway, it’s fun.
The Pop Chart Lab has just released a new chart, this one titled A Visual Compendium of Typewriters. It features sixty hand-drawn machines, ranging from the 1870 Hammond to ornate Triumphs to the sleek Smith-Coronas of the 1960s. I thought of sending it to my dad, who is a typewriter enthusiast—although he recently lent out the bulk of his collection to the Paris Review offices. He is trying to divest himself of stuff; both my parents are. But there are still a few typewriters here, at their house, and I spent a little while typing on them this morning.
A few years ago, my father gave me a very beautiful typewriter—an olive-hued second-model Royal Portable. At the time, he sent me the following note:
I forgot to ask how you like the typewriter. I thought it was the best in my collection; not just the most attractive, but the one with the crispest action and, hardly to be underestimated, the most satisfying sound. In fact, all of this was confirmed by my just-concluded visit with the gentlemanly proprietor of Gramercy Office Equipment, apparently the last old-time typewriter repair shop in the city. (I went to him with my Olivetti Valentine, a machine so gorgeous it is in MoMA’s permanent collection, but one with a tendency to fall apart even when less harshly treated than was mine.) In any case, he had two Royals like yours on display, only in brown and blue. I told the guy and his son (his only employee) that we had a green one and they were suitably impressed, going on about its merits. I also procured from them a ribbon for the machine, and they said that if you had any difficulty installing it, you should bring it by. You might wish to do so anyway, because the place is the last of a dying breed, and should you be so inclined, they’ll talk old typewriters forever. They’re right across from your old stomping grounds at the Flatiron, at 174 Fifth Ave, between 22nd and 23rd, 4th floor.
If you go to that typewriter repair shop my dad recommended, you will hear a cacophony of typewriter sounds—a living anachronism. It’s not for effect, or to create the illusion of age like the ersatz sepia patina on a highball-slinging new bar, but because the machines are being serviced, and oiled, and tested, and tweaked, and there is nowhere else for them to go. Somehow, those sounds give me a greater chill than they would if the typewriters were being used in some attempt to evoke an earlier time; the functionality and utility of the sound is what is transporting.
“At the typewriter you find out who you are,” said that seriocomic sage of Washington State, Tom Robbins. Maybe; I hope not. But I recommend pecking away as a form of therapy if you are feeling overwhelmed. There is a reason the mechanism of the keys is called “action”—and sometimes taking action, however small, is very comforting. Even if, like me, you cannot really type.