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Friday, 15 October 2021

A New 'Typewriter' Book


There’s a new “typewriter” book on the market. I put quotation marks around the word typewriter because this is a book primarily about the use of typewriters to write rather about typewriters per se. There is some typewriter history in it, however, and there lies the rub. The book is written by a 75-year-old emeritus professor of history and European studies at the University of New South Wales, Martyn Lyons, who is a specialist in the history of the book. It’s called The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices and is published by the University of Toronto Press. Be warned. Susan Lever, in reviewing the book in the Inside Story section of today’s The Canberra Times, says Lyons’s overview of the typewriter’s development is “fascinating”. It may well be fascinating to Lever, but it’s not actually all that factual. (And I don’t think, as Lever claims, that Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner sold books for a few pence on the railway stands, either.)


The book begins by calling the typewriter “a now extinct species”, which of course is a very long way from the truth. Lyons goes on to say the “typosphere” is how he refers to “the global imagined community of typewriter users”. Are we imagined or are we real? It seems pretty real to me. Lyons adds that this “imagined community” “was also a global market [his italics] of users in manufacturers’ eyes”. Since manufacturing of the typewriters that Typospherians in the main still use had ended before the Typosphere began, I can’t see how this makes any sense. That is unless Lyons has usurped the name of our community to embrace the history of typewriter since the 1870s, which indeed seems to be the case.


The introduction and notes section both start with a quote from me about Hunter S. Thompson taking his IBM Selectric out into the snow and shooting it. This is closely followed by another quote from me about Paul Auster regarding his Olympia SM9 portable as a sentient being. The trouble with this is that both of these quotes come from an article I wrote for Gia Metherell at The Canberra Times 12¾ years ago. Which doesn’t fill me with confidence about the depth of research for Lyons’s work, especially given what I know about typewriters now and what I knew about typewriters back on February 14, 2009. In the 4626 days since then (actually, since February 27, 2011, which is still 3883 days), I have written and published online 2754 blog posts on typewriters and their history, each of which has been very thoroughly researched. In the process of writing these blog posts, my knowledge of typewriters has advanced exponentially. I mean that literally.


There are many other references to my articles in Lyons’s book, including Ettore Sottsass on the Olivetti Valentine, but these aren’t credited. Too bad. This is the sort of book that just picks bits and pieces from wherever it can find them and throws them together like a potpourri. It’s nowhere near as well “constructed”, with original ideas and well-thought-through narrative, as, say, Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution. Lyons has, one assumes, read Richard’s book, because he writes, “Richard Polt elevates this counter-cultural movement to the status of a ‘typewriter insurgency’, which embraces old technology and rejects the contemporary trend to slice all information up into pre-digested 30-second sound bites.” It’s a shame, then, that Lyons slices up his information and presents it in a slightly different form of pre-digested material.

Things get truly worrying when one reads that Lyons has relied “on well-known authorities [my italics] like [Bruce] Bliven and [Darren] Wershler-Henry”. The books by Bliven (The Wonderful Writing Machine, 1954) and Wershler-Henry (The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, 2007) have been shown here to be quite inaccurate, at least in many parts. And certainly Bliven’s book, written under contract to the Royal Typewriter Company and heavily biased toward one manufacturer, was very poorly researched. “Well-known authorities”? I think not. Lyons’s other sources include Will Beeching and Michael Adler, but only Adler’s earlier, 1973 work.  There’s a lot of Friedrich Kittler in there, too. I don’t know so much about Kittler’s 1986 Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, but personally I've come to learn not to entirely rely on Beeching or Adler.

Lyons’s “pre-history” ignores Burt among many others. He has Pratt moving to England in 1864, after the Confederacy had lost the Civil War. He has Remington adopting or stealing Ravizza’s ideas, when Richard N. Current makes it perfectly clear in The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954) that Latham Sholes and James Densmore were completely oblivious to any previous attempts to build a typewriter, certainly until Sholes was made aware of the Pratt machine. Yet other sections on the early development of the typewriter come directly, in huge slices, from Current. Because of this reliance, the Sholes & Glidden being exhibited in Chicago in 1873 is completely overlooked.


Lyons dates the Blickensderfer to 1890, way ahead of when it actually reached the market, and he thinks that in 1909 the electric typewriter “lay well into the future”. He believes female speed typists “soon demonstrated their superiority” when in fact men won every world speed typewriting championship from 1918 to 1938, 19 on end! He thinks Frank McGurrin’s choice of a QWERTY keyboard was “just an accident”. And that Turing was a “star performer” with the computer. He doesn’t seem to realise that Hemingway was far from alone in terming a typewriter “a mill”. Hemingway’s suitcase of manuscripts wasn’t stolen in Paris in 1923, it was lost. Lyons says, “ … the first visible-page typewriter was designed by Underwood in 1897”. He thinks when reading “blind” typing, one had to lift a “cover”, and that Cormac McCarthy could have bought a Lettera 32 in the US in 1963. Like the Mitchell Library in Sydney, he identifies Patrick White’s Optima as an Olivetti (I note the library has finally admitted its mistake). He has George Yöst supervising the typing of a letter from a dead man after Yöst himself had died. Blickensderfer didn’t close down in 1919, nor was it “later taken over by Remington”. The Olivers “made” in England until 1959 were very, very different to the ones made in America, and they weren’t made in England anyway. Imperial was “defeated” way before 1974. This silliness about typewriter history just goes on and on.


When Lyons leaves his botched typewriter background behind and gets into the meat of his matter, he starts to make good points. “ … many literary critics [suffer] from typewriter blindness”, for example. Lyons is at his best when he regurgitates and reassembles passages already written and published elsewhere, about the way in which authors approach their writing with typewriters. This is interesting stuff, but it’s hardly original. What’s more, an awful lot of misinformation about typewriters has gone into print and online in the past 120 years, and what Lyons has done here is indiscriminately assemble and publish it without first checking the veracity of so many vital details. Susan Lever, in today’s review, says the book is based on “wide archival research”. This doesn’t mean the material used is entirely factual, merely that it has been plucked and published to suit a purpose. The purpose is well met, I just wish Lyons had left the history part to the real experts.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Old Typewriter Engravings

I am impressed by the clarity reproduced in print from engravings used for typewriter advertisements in United State university, college and school yearbooks in the latter part of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Here are a few examples:















Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Hunt For Emma Mills: The Joys and Frustrations of Typewriter History Research


The work of a typewriter historian is never ending. And that’s exactly how it should be. It is, indeed, exceedingly rewarding, and long shall it continue to be so, at least for me. The history of everything evolves, and not just in the interpretation of it, but as fresh information is uncovered or otherwise emerges. In the case of typewriters, as it evolves the more delight it brings, and the more positive feedback there is to this blog.

I started down the then darkish tunnel of typewriter history more than 14 years ago, when, after my first visit to the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo in Sydney, in July 2007, I found that nothing was known about the introduction of typewriters to Australia. Back then I was a still relatively energetic 59-year-old, with sufficient free time on my hands. But research resources were comparatively limited. Now I’m an old age pensioner who tires easily, especially when a new research project takes days of trawling through multiple online avenues. Still, we continue to be locked down in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a springtime of mixed climate and fortunes, and typewriter history research is one of the four or five things that bring me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. (Sorry, Typospherians, but caring for my wonderful wife, my grandchildren, and watching the All Blacks play rugby are also at the top of the list.)  


Yesterday, while looking online for something else entirely, I came across a story I posted on this blog almost 6½ years ago. It concerned a student’s PowerPoint presentation in which she declared that “Emma D. Mills invented the typewriter”. I knew, of course, that this was far from the case, but at the time I posted on Emma I was intrigued by what may have led to the claim, and also to find out who Emma D. Mills was. It turned out she was said to have invented a (still) mysterious item related to the typewriter (an attachment is the closest we can get, but no patent has yet been found) and that almost nothing was known about Emma Mills’s life. I’m sorry to say that after a renewed, 48-hour bout of Emma Mills searching, all I can show for my efforts is that the “D” stood for “DeVine” – she was Emma DeVine Mills. This tiny morsel came from a February 1919 record of her renewal of the copyright on her 1895 work, The Mills Book of Typewriting Forms, published by her own company (it was first copyrighted in March 1891). 
But finding this much at least ruled out many of the other theories about her (not mine, I hasten to add), such as that she was Emma DeLong Mills, the philanthropist and activist, Emma Douglas Mills, Emma De Losse Mills (E. Deloss Mills was actually a man), or Emma Mills the socialite. DeVine may well have been Emma D. Mills’s maiden name, but that still can’t be confirmed.


I would love to know a lot more about Emma DeVine Mills. In searching for her, however, I did find out things about many other female typist-stenographers from the last quarter of the 19th Century, pioneers like Mary Foot Seymour (above), the Associated Press telegraphist Ella Maynard Kelley and especially Mary Ann Rotton Saunders (née Percy), who had a long-term close working relationship with George Yöst and once was in charge of selling Yöst typewriters in England. I hadn’t previously encountered these fascinating women.

But let’s get back to Mills. Her typewriter-related business was first publicised in December 1887, when it was stated that he moved to Manhattan Island from Boston in 1885. A newspaper item said, “New York women who have to make their own living may not know what an intelligent, alert spokeswoman they have in Mrs Emma D. Mills. She is a small, active widow [who] is now proprietress of three large writing establishments from which she derives a handsome income, one in Windsor, one in the St James Hotel and the third on lower Broadway. [These branches were later extended to Long Branch and Saratoga.] Mrs Mills’ gray eyes flash with the vigor of youth, but she is old in experience. She began with $50 capital. She stays at the Windsor till 11, at the St James until 1, and at the Broadway office until 5. At each she employs an operating girl, and her income runs up handsomely.” The article goes on to claim that “Forty women are proprietors in New York of typewriting establishments; 2000 women are in the business, and yet the first public typewriter was started just 13 years ago [1874, the year the Sholes & Glidden was launched on the market].”


Stories about Emma’s typewriter “invention” emerged in print the next year, 1888, when she was described as “one of the most energetic advocates in New York of the introduction of women into occupations hitherto monopolized by men”. Her attachment was “on the order of the governor of an engine and stops all action of the machinery”. This was intended “to prevent [the typewriter] being used or interfered with during the absence of the operator”.

A newspaper article by renowned journalist Eliza Putnam Heaton in February 1888 said Emma and Mary Foot Seymour were “stenographers and typewriters whose incomes are in the thousands. There is one at least of the women stenographers in Brooklyn whose figures reach fully $3000.” That year’s New York City Directory placed Emma’s business at 120 Broadway and her home at 236 Fifth Avenue. Heaton’s story also mentioned Emma Bijotal, who was the typist for Joe Howard Jr, a leading reporter for The New York Times, city editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and long-time president of the New York Press Club (Howard in 1886 wrote an item about a George Spaulding song, Beauty Dream, which was dedicated to Bijotal), and two young women called Buttner (Jennie and Tillie, perhaps) who worked for the New York State Democratic Committee.


In March 1890 Emma Mills was described “the mother of typewriting as a profession”, a claim to which Mae E. Orr might have justifiably objected. Still, the fact that we still know so little about Mills’s life remains a blight on typewriter history. She was evasive – she was first called Mrs Mills, a widow, and yet later Miss Mills. Her year of birth varied from 1857 to 1859. Her mother was sometimes English born, sometimes not. Whatever the truth, the mere fact of her being female, and presumably taking a husband’s surname, makes tracking her movements frustratingly difficult, if not impossible.


Mills was certainly not alone in furthering the cause of the typewriter in New York City in the 1880s. Others are mentioned in such works as American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American Women During the Nineteenth Century, but Mills wasn’t. Seymour, on the other hand, received fulsome tributes, and rightly so. In 1870 she started the first women's secretarial school in New York City, an establishment which later became the Union Stenographic and Typewriting Association, and also handled a large proportion of the writing done for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Though Seymour preferred journalistic work, she carried on her stenographic business, as it paid better than correspondence or reporting. She was a member of the Woman's Press Club of New York City.


Born in Aurora, Illinois, in 1846, Seymour suffered two health setbacks before starting to study stenography. She soon had six separate offices and started publishing a magazine devoted to the interest of women, The Business Woman's Journal. In October, 1892, the magazine was enlarged and appeared under the name of the American Woman's Journal and The Business Woman's Journal. Seymour died the following March.


Ella Maynard Kelley (above, 1859-1939) was the first woman to use a typewriter in the telegraphic service,  starting in 1874 in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Her career took her to working for Western Union and in taking charge of the first wire from Associated Press in 1889. Mary Ann Rotton Saunders (below, née Percy, 1849-1925) met George Yöst in New York and quickly achieved 60 words a minute on the Sholes & Glidden to qualify as an exhibitor and salesperson for the first typewriter. In January 1875 she joined the James Densmore-Yöst run Typewriter Company and was one of the first three professional typists. She later became a general agent for the typewriter in St Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit, and in  1891 was appointed by the Yöst Typewriter Company to manage its London office. She returned to a similar position in New York.

It's good that we find more about such women, and their achievements in the typewriter industry, if only on a forlorn quest to track down the still mysterious Mrs Emma DeVine Mills. But you never know – so many descendants of typewriter people have contacted me because family members have been mentioned on this blog that one day Mrs Mills might be finally revealed to us all, in full.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

The Small Town Editor Who Stood Up to the Ku Klux Klan, and Her Bust with the Typewriter Key


On a weekend when two courageous journalists shared the Nobel Peace Prize, it seems timely to salute one of the bravest American journalists ever, Mabel Evelyn Norris. The Nobel Prize went to Philippines journalist and Rapler co-founder Maria Ressa and to Russian Dmitry Muratov for their “courageous” defence of freedom of speech and expression. Australian foreign correspondent Peter Greste paid tribute to Ressa in particular, saying she was “one of the toughest and most courageous people I’ve ever come across. She has taken a sustained kicking for such a long time.” But no more sustained nor more serious than the kicking the Ku Klux Klan and a rotten-to-the-core local sheriff handed out to Florida journalist Norris from 1949 until 1958.


In January last year a bust of Mabel wearing a typewriter key was unveiled in Mount Dora, Lake County, Florida. It was the work of artist Jim McNalis, who said of Mabel, “She is among those people who stand for a principle that they consider more important that their own well-being. Here was a woman standing alone exposing a murderous sheriff in a community that wasn’t necessarily behind her. [The Ku Klux Klan] burned a cross on her front lawn, they bombed her house, they murdered her dog, dumped dead fish on her front porch and she wrote an editorial about that and she said, ‘If the Ku Klux Klan thinks this is gonna drive me off, they’ve got the wrong lady.’ That’s amazing. That’s a person we should know about.”  McNalis described Mabel as a woman who demonstrated courage and integrity.


Norris, perhaps better known by her earlier married name, Mabel Reese, was a civil rights activist and editor and owner of the Mount Dora Topic weekly newspaper. McNalis’s bust incorporates on a brooch the typewriter key, MR, that represents her initials, but is in fact the margin release key from her Royal standard. The terracotta sculpture represents some long-overdue recognition of Mabel’s incredible and gutsy achievements.


Mabel fought for justice on many fronts, but she is especially remembered for her stand on the treatment of the so-called “Groveland Four”, who were not pardoned until January 2019, a year before Mabel’s bust was unveiled. At age 80, Mabel died, as Mabel Norris Chesley, of cancer in Daytona Beach on New Year’s Eve 1994, so these tributes came a quarter of a century too late for her to share in the sense of deserved justification for her efforts. Unlike Ressa and Muratov, her incredible journalistic courage was barely acknowledged during her lifetime. The best that Mabel received was a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her stories about racial discrimination against the Platt family in 1954. That campaign also won Mabel the first Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courage in journalism, presented on July 16, 1956, at Carbondale, Illinois, during the National Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Mabel, second from left, with fellow editors during the 1956 conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Mabel was born on July 2, 1914, at Pomeroy, Meigs County, 21 miles south of Athens in Ohio. She graduated from Doylestown High School in Pennsylvania and as a teenager began her journalism career with the Akron Times-Press. At age 21 she joined the Beacon Journal in Akron and remained there until 1941. In November 1938 she married a Beacon Journal typesetter and printer, Paul Henderson Reese. The couple bought the Mount Dora Topic in 1947, little realising what havoc and hardships lay ahead of them. But Mabel’s total commitment to publishing the truth and nothing but the truth soon put her at odds with racist locals, most especially the evil Lake County Sheriff Willis Virgil McCall (1909-1994), who, to the eternal shame of this community, continued to be elected for seven consecutive terms, from 1944 to 1972, despite being investigated 49 times. But Lake County eventually woke up, and in 2007 the county commission voted unanimously to change a road named in his honour in 1985 because of his history as a “bully lawman whose notorious tenure was marked by charges of racial intolerance, brutality and murder”.

LIFE magazine, November 17, 1972

Mabel found racism rife in Lake County. She had railed against segregation since an experience she had in 1936, while working for the Beacon Journal. She accompanied 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, Akron’s first African-American spelling bee champion, and MacNolia’s mother Albertia, to the national finals in Washington DC. MacNolia was segregated on the rail trip, on elevators, and at a banquet. “This is how bad it used to be,” Mabel recalled in 1971. At the end of 1960, Mabel, as president of the Lake County Press Association, endorsed the words, “seek the truth, print it fearlessly, and you will have lived up to the expectation of the American people”. All, that is, except Willis McCall.

The ruthless, racist ratbag sherrif.

Mabel was initially prepared to unquestioningly accept McCall’s word. But in November 1951, McCall, while transporting two of the “Groveland Four” from Raiford State Prison to the county seat of Tavares for a new trial, shot both prisoners outside Umatilla while they were handcuffed together, without provocation, killing one. After Mabel started to doubt McCall’s claims of self-defence, her dog was poisoned, her house was firebombed twice and a cross was burned on her lawn. Red-neck racists painted “KKK” on the front of her vandalised newspaper office. McCall denounced her as a liar and a communist.

The Platt family

On Christmas night 1951, Harry Tyson Moore, executive director of the Florida branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his wife Harriette were killed when a bomb exploded under their bedroom in Mims in Brevard County. The bomb was planted by Ku Klux Klan officers in the Orange County Klavern. Moore wanted McCall charged with murder and sought his suspension. Harriette was an educator and civil rights worker. In 1954 McCall declared five Platt family children as African-Americans and had them banned from a segregated white public school in Mount Dora. The Platts were Irish-Croatan Native Americans. Mabel set out to right this wrong, and in October 1955, a court ruled the children could attend the public school, but the family had already moved from Florida. Mabel also called for the exoneration of an 18-year-old white youth, Jesse Daniels, who was incarcerated in 1957 for the alleged rape of a white society matron. It was found McCall had locked away for 14 years the mentally disabled Daniels because it was “nicer” for the victim to have been raped by a white man than an African-American!

The entirely innocent Jesse Daniels and his mother.

Mabel left the Topic in 1958 and went to work for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, where she remained for 20 years as a reporter and associate editor. She and Paul Reese divorced in 1962 and Mabel married Harrison Webster Chesley later that same year.


Mabel’s name remains associated with the “Groveland Four” case, the wrongful conviction of four young African-American men and summary execution of two of them by police. On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year-old married white woman in Groveland, Florida, alleged without evidence that she had been raped by four young African-American men. Charles L. Greenlee, 16, the husband of a pregnant wife, and Sam Shepherd, 22, and Walter Lee Irvin, also 22, both ex-servicemen, were arrested. Ernest Thomas, also a married man, fled the county but a sheriff's 1000-man posse shot and killed him while he was asleep, on July 26, about 200 miles north-west, in Madison County. A coroner's inquest was unable to determine who had killed Thomas, as he was shot some 400 times.

All four were posthumously exonerated on April 18, 2017, by a resolution of the Florida House of Representatives. The Florida Senate quickly passed a similar resolution; lawmakers called on Governor Rick Scott to officially pardon the men. On January 11, 2019, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted to pardon the Groveland Four. Newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis subsequently did so.


Mabel once said, “I believe in journalists becoming advocates. If reporters won’t go out and investigate abuses, fight for causes, who will?” A colleague said Mabel was “a very fierce reporter in the face of physical and mental intimidation.” Do they award posthumous Nobels?
 

'The Repair Shop' Tackles an Underwood 5 Typewriter

For those readers of this blog contemplating undertaking a major typewriter restoration job, I thoroughly recommend watching a segment on the British Broadcasting Corporation series The Repair Shop. Episode 11 of series three was screened in Britain on February 23 last year, but is still not available to watch from that source online. However, it can be seen on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s iView at https://iview.abc.net.au/show/repair-shop/series/3 The segment involves the restoration of an Underwood 5 standard typewriter by an experienced British typewriter technician called George Blackman (above, left) based on the Sackville Road at Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex.


George has been in the typewriter business for 66 years now. He successfully applied for an apprenticeship with the typewriter company run by John Stuart Beeching (not related, seemingly, to the typewriter historian Wilf Beeching, although like Wilf he underwent a name change) in Hastings. George was indentured for a six-year term as a typewriter mechanic. He entered National Service in 1960-62, and was in an exclusive Royal Army Ordnance Corps unit supporting field operations by parachute regiments in Europe and Africa. He returned to the Beeching firm as a qualified engineer. The business was taken over by a much larger company and George was promoted to service manager, with 10 engineers working under him. In 1986 George and his son Neil opened their own business, which acquired the main dealerships of Triumph-Adler and Olympia machines for the East Sussex area. Later they opened a larger showroom in nearby Bexhill and became sales and servicing engineers. George serviced and repaired author Winston Graham's Adler electric typewriter, on which all Graham’s Poldark novels were typed.


In The Repair Shop segment, George works on the Underwood 5 upon which a Boer War-World War I veteran - the godson of Queen Victoria - had typed his memoirs. These included his war experiences, his association with Winston Churchill and his time in the British Embassy in Berlin when the Great War broke out. The man’s grand-daughter, Lucy Smith of Exeter, wanted the “family heirloom” restored so it could be handed down in good working order to descendants. Interesting, she said it was headed for Australia, where her son Ben lives. George “breathed new life” into the machine, which he estimated hadn’t been used for 60 or 70 years. Among other things he removed all of the typebars to clean them thoroughly in spirit.


Based on my own experience of working on Underwood standards in the past year, I was pleased to hear George talk about oil congealing and, with what he called “gunge” in the carriage, seizing many parts of the machine. This particular typewriter had been neglected and its condition was “the worst I’ve ever seen”. George lamented that these engineering masterpieces needed to be more appreciated and maintained in good order for future generations.


Removing the gauge to get the carriage off.
Above and below, wriggling the carriage off.

Cleaning the typebars.
Replacing the carriage.
Test typing.
Back with its owners.