By Kathleen Rooney
The rules and copy for the “Fastest Typewriting Contest” at the International Typewriter Collectors Convention, which took place August 7-10, 2014, are the same as those used at the International Typewriting Contest held in New York City on October 20, 1924. The text, a short story titled “Lizzie,” by one J.N. Kimball, possesses an eerie resonance with the reasons why anyone is gathered here at the Brookfield Suites outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to participate in such an anachronistic competition in the 21st century. “Of course I may be wrong,” the tale begins:
but I hold to the opinion that there is no human being who has not, at one time or another in his career, been kept awake at night by the torment of some tremendous desire, either to do the thing which he knows somebody else has been able to do, or to become the owner of a thing the like of which he has seen someone else possess.
What does it mean to be a collector? Why do some people feel the impulse to hunt and acquire a certain kind of object, whereas others experience this compulsion not at all? Why is it, as the long-dead Kimball tediously continues, that a certain person may covet “a thing which is plainly out of his reach, but that […] may only serve to make the longing more acute,” as opposed to “when the object wished for can be readily obtained, in which case the ease with which it may be had causes it to lose much of its value”?
The 1924 contest enjoyed aggressive sponsorship by the typewriter manufacturer Underwood. Today’s contest is part of a two-day convention sponsored only by the 68 or so self-identified collector-attendees, each of whom knows some version of that acute longing. In the competition itself there are only eight contestants, including me, and I stand no chance. These people are serious.
Martin “Marty” Rice, a ten-year collector and Oliver aficionado, is setting up the folding table he transported from Pennsylvania because the ones provided by the hotel are too high to facilitate optimal typing. He’s not unlike a pool shark toting around his own cue, though he is far more affable than the term “shark” connotes. Next to me, at the same round and wobbly linen-covered table, my friend and fellow conventioneer Eric Plattner, who gave me my first typewriter back in the fall of 2011, readies for battle the Remington Monarch he brought with us from Chicago. Behind him Richard Polt, humble and bespectacled celebrity of the Typosphere, places his fingers on the keys of the Royal KMM he drove up from Ohio.If we were being purists in our adherence to the standards of 1924, the rules should include a ten-word deduction for each mistake, but Gabriel Burbano, the contest judge and convention organizer, has mercy and lowers it to five. When Burbano tells us to start, each contestant disappears into a halo of silent concentration that’s broken only by the clack of keys and the dings of carriages, as all around us, spectators shoot photos and videos. We work like this for five minutes before Burbano collects the results to score later. The 1924 championship would have labored at their machines for an entire hour.
Do not let the low number of contestants mislead you — these collectors are an inherently competitive lot. The swap meet and flea market preceding the contest, though genial and communitarian, was not without its winners and losers. From the Hammond 1 that went for $1,500, to the Brother portable that went for $20 to Eric (who ended up with four new — to him — machines in total), to the Caligraph with an alphabet soup of letters awash on its non-QWERTY keyboard that went for $500, each machine sold made at least one person feel unmitigated happiness at their acquisition. Perhaps the seller, too, felt some contentment at the transfer of a machine to a friendly home, although that exchange might just as well be bittersweet, for it’s not always easy to say goodbye even to a less-treasured item, and he or she may have been parting with it under pressures of money or constraints of space. And untold attendees may have been vocally or quietly regretful that the device of their dreams could not be had, either because they couldn’t justify the purchase or simply hadn’t gotten there first.Not 24 hours earlier, I experienced the rush of competitive acquisition myself. Mike Brown, a 30-year collector, sales- and repairman from Pennsylvania — who also edits the publication Typewriter Exchange, aka TypeX — had placed a shiny orange Adler Contessa on the welcome table in the hotel lobby. All 70s style and gold-nameplated chic, it sat there gleaming, magnetizing the fingers of passing little kids and adults alike. It’s hard to walk by a typewriter and not type something on it. I desired the Contessa from the moment I saw it. I kept the urge to myself until the following day. Then, on the advice of Eric, who warned me not to wait, I approached Mike as the afternoon’s presentations concluded. I agreed to pay the asking price of $150 in cash when we got back to the hotel, a perfectly open arrangement that nevertheless had a pleasing clandestine feel. “Consider it yours,” he replied.
I was elated then, but the collecting frisson really zapped me on the way back to the Brookfield Suites when, on the hotel-bound bus, Carol Thomas, a one-year collector from the Chicago suburbs, asked Mike how much he wanted for the orange Contessa. I tensed up, but tried to keep a poker face. I liked Carol. Earlier, when I asked how she got into collecting typewriters, I liked, too, her reply: “They have a way of collecting you.” Her enthusiasm was made manifest in adorable and labor-intensive ways — she’d brought fabric typewriter nametags for anyone who wanted them and was wearing a typewriter necklace. (To be clear: a typewriter pendant, not a piece of the much-despised key-chopper variety, rightly loathed among the conventioneers because to create it, its purveyors had to hack up the machines from which they got the parts). She was even wearing a reversible typewriter-print smock that could be worn, she had shown me, in four distinct ways.When Mike replied that he was sorry, but it was already sold, Eric and I locked eyes. Carol had missed her chance. I felt bad for her disappointment, but thrilled that the orange Contessa was truly mine. Secretly, I was convinced that I would love the orange Contessa more than anyone else could, although of course that was ridiculous; lots of people love, and in lots of different ways.
Me, I loved it when, the next morning, just before the typing contest began — and after, on a whim, I decided to enter myself and the Contessa — Richard Polt came over and told me that one of the world’s first typewriters was made in 1801 by an Italian inventor. Pellegrino Turri built it for the Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivvizano, his friend who had gone blind. This story, which so charmed me, might have left others present unmoved, their interest being neither romantic nor poetic, but in another vein — mechanical, historical — altogether. And many of those assembled would have found it anathema, or at least unnecessary, to type something on their machines. As I stared at the blank paper in the orange Contessa, waiting for Gabe Burbano to say “go,” I admired the stylized crown over the C in her name and thought, “Who could resist?” even as I answered myself: “Plenty of people.”
Because that’s the surprising truth of a collectors’ convention. This hyperspecific gathering that should bring together a group of like-minded individuals actually brings together a batch of people with a base level of similarity and camaraderie, sure, but whose shared single interest is fast fragmented into incalculable pieces and channeled into multitudinous tracks.
For instance, the nametag I was given at check-in identified me as a “2-Year Collector/User.” But I came to learn later, from a slide shown by Peter Kirwan, CEO of Collexion, a community-based website dedicated to assisting collectors in online curation and sales, that in the taxonomy of collecting, on a scale from “Hardcore” to “Decorator,” I am an “Enthusiast.”Back home Eric and I use our machines for a project called “Poems While You Wait,” creating commissioned typewritten poetry on demand. We favor portables: visually appealing and easy to carry — snappy typers that we can use at public events, and that we can loan or give to the dozen or so other poets who work with us. Thus, we are, as the slide explains, “very passionate about a specific category and spend a lot of time looking and learning.” Our concerns are not necessarily shared by true collectors.
One of Collexion’s aims is to make collecting of all kinds easy to do: anytime, anywhere. But few in attendance would deny the value of getting together in person – though it may not happen with tremendous frequency. The keynote calling the first day of ITCC 2014 to order is delivered by Tony Casillo, who organized the last convention in Philadelphia in 2000. Standing at the lectern in the Garden Gallery Room of the Milwaukee Public Museum, he speaks of how inspired he felt after attending the 1993 convention in Overland Park, Kansas. “I couldn’t wait for the next one,” he said. But before he knew it, “Six years had passed […] and in 1999 I was still waiting. One quickly learns to be patient when you’re collecting typewriters.” At last, he decided to put it together himself. Fourteen more years passed until Gabe Burbano called him up for advice on assembling another one.
Much of this year’s convention is taking place in conference rooms that could be just about anywhere. But these rooms are in or near Milwaukee, a pivotal city in the history of the typewriter. A presentation prepared by Thomas Fehring and delivered by Professor Jeff Vanevenhoven of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater discusses the city’s heritage under the title: “Why Was the Sholes and Glidden Type Writer Invented in Milwaukee?” To appreciate the answer, one must begin by appreciating the question.The Sholes and Glidden is significant for being the first commercially successful typewriter — plenty of machines preceded it, but they were largely impractical, and this device ended up becoming the industry standard. The Sholes of Sholes and Glidden is Christopher Latham Sholes, a newspaper publisher, politician (instrumental in abolishing the death penalty in Wisconsin), and inventor who labored for years to perfect the design, ultimately pioneering the QWERTY keyboard still used in America today. He conducted his work in the mid-to-late 1800s in a city that benefited from both the Milwaukee River and an ambitious — slated to go to the Mississippi! — but failed — went one mile before the railroad rendered it obsolete! — canal, which created a source of hydroelectric power and fostered a neighborhood, Walker’s Point, with a vibrant “industrial common.” All sorts of machine shops and manufacturers cropped up around the canal, attracting talent and ideas, spawning what today might be called, as Vanevenhoven puts it, “a strong and robust ecosystem before strong and robust ecosystems were cool.” Vanevenhoven delivers his presentation to an attentive crowd, many of whom likely already know a great deal about Milwaukee’s significance in typewriter evolution. Many of them wear the history on their convention T-shirts, cream-colored and emblazoned with aqua typewriters and a black and white image of the Carl P. Dietz Collection.
Dietz, a Socialist Party member, insurance agent, and 10th Ward Milwaukee Alderman, began collecting typewriters in 1934, donating 113 machines to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1936, and working with them until his death in 1957 to build a collection that presently numbers around 1,200 business machines, 900 of which are typewriters.The purpose of a museum is to preserve things for public viewing, but sometimes it’s hard to get in to actually see those things. The Dietz machines constitute one such difficult collection, as there are far more of them than can ever be displayed. Piling off our tour bus, we enter the MPM through a large hall, beneath a skeleton cast suspended from the ceiling. Her name, the plaque tells us, is Heidi and she is a Plesiosaur, a 42-foot marine reptile of the late Mesozoic Era, 65 to 100 million years ago. We are there to look at more recent fossils, the kind that can be kept alive through use. We are told that we can only go in groups of 10 to 12 at a time to view the handful of machines that have been pulled from storage for our perusal.
To my delight, Eric and I are in the first group. To my chagrin — although not surprise — we cannot reanimate these specimens through typing. Please Do Not Touch says the sign on the table. There are 110 covered carts of similar machines in the museum’s storage, says Al Muchka, the curator assigned to be our guide. They are hard to get at, with almost no aisle space to sort them, catalogued, but sadly inaccessible.Still, just reading their names and descriptions is compelling, evocative like the models of cars or nail polish or paint shades: A Nickerson with a vertical platen circa 1909. A Sholes Experimental Piano Key circa 1868. A Saturn Index circa 1899.
Many are hard to comprehend fully as typewriters, so strongly do they resemble other contraptions. The Cooper Revolving Disk Indexing Handprinting Machine from 1856 looks like a bell or a watering can or a coffee grinder. The Crary, with its circular keyboard (though that word doesn’t suffice — it is not a board at all), looks as much like a pincushion as it does a typing machine. The Jones Mechanical has a metal ring like a sundial or a ship’s wheel and a tiny tympan like you might see on a letterpress, which still has the poem on it that its long-lost user had been typing. A 19th-century mediocrity by Thomas Campbell called “Hohenlinden,” the piece is kitschy and forgettable, but rendered beautiful by its bizarre presentation.Muchka tells me that he personally is a collector, yes. Not of typewriters, though; of firearms. But he admires the typing machines. “What intrigues me about typewriters and Milwaukee,” he says, “is that this city still has old pattern makers and tool and die workers who used to do this kind of thing, who know how to work with these machines. It’s that old Rust Belt thing. And these machines don’t have the disposability of modern machines. There’s a way to fix them. They have a durability and a human contact. A computer has no such mechanisms. You just get a new one and throw the old one away. A typewriter you keep.”
I look at these devices and appreciate their aesthetics more than I do their mechanics. My fellow conventioneers do the reverse or the same in differing percentages: some collect out of nostalgia, others out of a search for a sense of completion, others for a legitimacy provided by ownership, others out of a desire to repair and refurbish, and still others for their love of specifics and history.
I learn a lot about their motivations during the informal roundtables that happen as each small group takes its turn to commune with the Dietz Collection. Many of these guys — and the majority of attendees are men—know each other from way back, if not from the 2000 convention and before, then almost that long. They spend the time catching up and swapping tips and stories. But the tables are also adorned with “Suggested Topics,” and we touch on many of them.As the conversation winds along, people reveal their motives for coming to Milwaukee. Rob Blickensderfer of Oregon is the closest living relative of George Canfield Blickensderfer, who in 1892 invented the typewriter that bears his name. Jay Williams of Georgia is a blind trombonist, a musician and collector who has performed the Leroy Anderson composition “The Typewriter” with the Port Angeles, Washington, Symphony Orchestra. Gigi Clark of California has come here with her hearing dog, the unfailingly companionable Luna, because Gigi is giving a presentation on rare teaching typewriters for children with animal images on the keys. Herman Price — aka “Professor Typewriter,” crafter of a diabolical quiz attendees spend two days puzzling over—hosts informal gatherings of collectors at his home in West Virginia. And ITCC 2014 organizer Burbano, who’s from New Jersey, says his work in the architectural salvage business led him to typewriters. We’ll learn the next day that he has gone to the trouble of hauling, all the way from the East Coast, a behemoth of an electric Remington that types in a 6-point Gothic typeface, just so he can personalize the award certificates of the Fastest Typing Contest winners. Just how international is the International Typewriter Collectors Convention? Pretty international, with attendees hailing from Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Germany in addition to the United States. Lars Borrmann is a primary school teacher and 20-year collector from Gunzenhausen, a small town south of Nuremberg. These are his summer holidays, and while he would normally go somewhere more exotic like Asia, he has an uncle in Chicago he can visit after the convention, so he decided to come to Milwaukee. He tells me, between bites of breakfast Cocoa Puffs, of how as young boys he and a friend would go around town on their motorbikes on junk days. They’d gather the things they deemed repairable — TVs, radios, typewriters, and so forth. He “stuck with the typewriters” because of their “interesting mechanics and shapes,” gradually hoarding more and more from flea markets and elsewhere. “I’m not the only one who is mad enough to collect typewriters — there are lots of us in Germany,” he says, recounting how he has come to own about 160 machines. His favorite is the Adler 7, “not because it’s very nice,” but because it’s the one he first rescued from the heap when he was 15 or 16. He brings his noncollectible ones to the classroom for his students. His first graders in particular love them — the clack of the keys and the mark that is left on the paper, because “it will be there and won’t vanish.” When I ask him why some people become collectors, he says it’s “like an addiction and once you start you can’t stop,” especially because “the only limits are space and money.”
Most collectors worry about the same things: “If I acquire this object, do I have a place to put it? If I decide to buy it, is it worth the price?” Collector and convention presenter Peter Weil, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, wonders, too, as we ride the tour bus from the MPM to the final stop of day one: “What is the appropriate ritual gesture for when a typewriter convention approaches the grave of inventor Christopher Latham Sholes?”
The afternoon is sunny, defrosting us after the air-conditioned conference room. We clamber out at Forest Home Cemetery to pay our collective respects at Sholes’ sun-dappled and serene monument. Jay Williams goes first, touching the marker, reading it with his fingers with help from Gabe Burbano. A family from Germany helps to locate the fourth of the square stones labeled Sholes that delineate the plot, grown over with grass and buried by dirt. Dozens take selfies. Gigi Clark pretends to type. We do a group photo, all of us creating a strange contemporary context.As an anthropologist, Weil concerns himself not merely with typewriters, but with all the materials — postcards, ads, trade catalogs, magazines, and so forth — that once surrounded them. When I ask him later how he came to amass his over 4,500 pieces of typewriter ephemera, he explains that in cultural anthropology, “the basic principle is context gives meaning,” so naturally he’s curious about the contexts in which these machines were produced and used. “It’s not individual things that make things meaningful; it’s combinations of things that relate to each other,” he says. This propensity shapes his approach to collecting.
For instance, once, he and his collector wife Cornelia, happened upon a set of brass candlesticks in a junk shop in Baltimore, stamped with the year 1909. They were from the Oliver Typewriter Company. He was drawn to them because they “made a perfect altar with the Oliver 5. They had all the symbols of the company on them, including the type-bar mechanisms. But they also had a carnation on them. It took another decade before I found out why. At first I thought it was because maybe the salespeople, who were usually men, wore a carnation in their lapels as a way to mark them. And that was partially true — they did. But it came from an ad series they did that said that the Oliver was ‘the incarnation of the perfect typewriter.’ It’s a beautiful ad, with colored carnations running down the side. I wasn’t going to buy ‘em because the guy wanted $225 for ‘em or something, and I thought that was a lot of money that could go to a typewriter. But Corny said ‘You’re never going to see these again, buy them now.’ So we kind of became our own enablers.”This general vibe of quasi-competitive enabling may be the best part of the whole convention. The atmosphere we breathe for these two days is a rare composition that could only be created when this many molecules of related but highly specialized knowledge get mixed together in the historically significant Upper Midwest. Its distinctive smell permeates the swap meet on day two — that of countless old typewriters taken from their boxes at once. Some people seek to eradicate Typewriter Smell, but others, including me, adore it. The scent is caused by a number of sources — attics, dust, basements, lubricants, felt, rubber, and general schmutz. But the unifying base note of all typewriter smells is the horse glue used to make the cases. Morbid, romantic, and infinitesimally precise, this fact — relayed to me by a fellow attendee — encapsulates why spending time with collectors is enchanting and edifying.
At the end of the convention, I make a point of speaking one-on-one with Richard Polt, a typewriter collector and promoter who for roughly 20 years has been contributing to what calls “the Typosphere.” As his blog Welcome to the Typosphere explains, that’s the “term for bloggers who collect, use, and otherwise obsess over typewriters and other ‘obsolete’ technologies, including, but not limited to, handwriting, pens and ink, paper mail and mail art, knitting and fiber arts, film photography, chip-less combustion engines, and related ephemera.” Typospherians mix the digital and the analog, cognizant of the contradictions, aware that there is logic inherent in using the tools of the present to celebrate the past.
At the convention Polt, introducing himself as “a philosophy professor by day and a typewriter collector by day and night,” presented some of the ideas in his forthcoming book, The Typewriter Insurgency: A Field Manual for the Typewritten Revolution. He began by sharing his “Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto,” a document whose tongue is firmly in its cheek, while at the same time being fairly serious.
Calm and convincing, he argued that those who use typewriters today are often skeptical of the domination of the digital in our lives for reasons ranging from concerns over the loss of privacy to scattered attention. When the Museum’s loudspeaker interrupted him to say that “The 2:30 p.m. showing of Dinosaurs Alive is about to begin in the Dome Theater,” the room rippled with knowing laughter. The paradox of living dinosaurs could scarcely hope for a more apt embodiment than ITCC 2014.
If you send someone something typed or handwritten, he said, “even before they open the envelope, they’re charmed.” Typewriters encourage those who use them, both children and adults, to “pay attention to the process and not just the product and to rediscover our own bodies and minds and the physical world.”Polt teaches at Xavier University, and when I ask him how his expertise on the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his affinity for typewriters inform one another, he says that at first these two interests started off as coincidence, but “certain connections have developed. There is a lecture course by Heidegger where he says that the typewriter is destroying the essence of writing. So for him the essence of writing is handwriting, and the only legitimate role for the typewriter is to later transcribe the hand-written text — as his brother did for him, by the way. So some people see that as a very Luddite, retro, unenlightened attitude. But I think he actually has a point. I mean, I think you know handwriting does have certain qualities. I like to handwrite certain things […] Typewriting also has its virtues. So the larger point that he’s making is the way you do something affects what it is exactly that you’re doing, and that I think is true.”
Polt started seriously collecting typewriters in 1994 and in 1995 he became aware of the internet, starting his own blog that December. It would be almost impossible to overstate either how significant Polt’s contributions to the Typosphere have consistently been over the past two decades, or how modest he is regarding these contributions.
As for why some people become collectors and others don’t, he says, “There’s maybe always going to be some mystery to it. If we knew exactly why we did this in every way, it would lose some of the charm. In a sense, with every new object a collector gets, he or she is also discovering something about him or herself. It speaks to some desire they didn’t totally know yet. So the collection becomes a physical extension of you, and it’s a way for you to look at yourself. Sometimes it’s a displacement or a fetish of something else. Like I have always thought that writing fiction is a very romantic, exciting thing, and the typewriter is, of course, a symbol of that. But it took me a long time before I actually managed to write some fiction with my typewriters. I think that was a lot of the spirit of the interest to begin with.”
Albert Tangora won the International Typewriting Contest in New York City in 1924. At the farewell dinner at this year’s convention it’s announced that Polt has won the 2014 contest. It’s a pleasing Typospherian twist, that a person so committed to the slow communication movement should be, certifiably, the speediest one in attendance.
During the Q & A following Polt’s presentation, Mike Brown observed that the typewriter had “to die a full death before it could be reborn.” And at the convention swap meet, a reproduction of a Royal Bar-Lock advertising brochure was hawked for sale with a hand-written sign: Remember the Past—It Was Once the Future. Time and our human relationship to it are ever-present elements in the life of the collector.
Kathleen Rooney is a Chicago-based writer. Follow her @kathleenMrooney and visit her at kathleenrooney.com
Eric Plattner is a Chicago-based writer and photographer and a member of Poems While You Wait http://poemswhileyouwait.
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