Five-year-old Siobhan Hall seems to have won plenty of praise after my previous post, which included a video shot by Siobhan’s dad, Aaron Hall, showing Siobhan’s typing skills on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
But the young lady I have always admired the most in all of typewriterdom is May Estella Munson.
Miss Munson was the 17-year-old typist employed by George Canfield Blickensderfer to demonstrate his typewriters upon their launch at the 1893 Chicago World’s (Fair) Columbian Exposition.
Miss Munson, a salesman called John Morrell Cutter, and the great Mr Blickensderfer himself between them pulled off the typewriter coup of the Chicago exposition. But, aside from the red-haired Miss Munson, it was the Blickensderfer typewriters which were the centre of attention.
Thanks to May Estella’s efforts, the Blickensderfer won the Endorsement Award for typewriters for “an extraordinary advancement in the art, scope, speed, operation and manufacture of typewriting machines”.
The Blickensderfer team, complete upstarts in the typewriter-making world, went up against 18 established competitors and, in all, 135 other exhibitors in the typewriter pavilion - Department H, Group 89, Class 564, in Gallery F in the massive Manufactures and Liberal Art Hall.
The other typewriter-making or marketing companies represented were: The American Writing Machine Co, the Book Typewriter Co (of Rochester), Crandall, Columbia (Bar-Lock), Densmore, A.B.Dick, Essex (of New York), Franklin, Hammond, Munson, Philadelphia, Remington (the World’s Fair official “writing machine”), Smith Premier, Williams, Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict and Yost. Blickensderfer was smack bang in the middle, in office No 5.
This diagram, originally drawn by May Estella Munson in one of her letters, was copied by Bob Aupert by tracing the original.
The Munson typewriter, by the way, has no connection with May Estella Munson. Contrary to a very common misconception in modern typewriter histories, the Munson was invented alone by Samuel John Seifried in 1888 and assigned to Frederick Woodbury Munson and his brother Louis Lee Munson, who later set up the Munson Typewriter Co (Louis died before the machine went into production).
James Eugene Munson, like May Estella Munson, had nothing to do with any of this. James Eugene Munson was a New York court stenographer who invented the “Munson System” of shorthand, a machine for operating the typewriter by telegraph and a type-setting machine.
The Munsons who were involved in typewriter making would no doubt have been surprised to see the Blickensderfer demonstrated at the World's Fair - and by all people, a Munson! The Munson Typewriter Company had advertised its exhibit at the Chicago Exposition as “the only machine with interchangeable steel typewheels”. Little did it know, obviously, what George Canfield Blickensderfer had in store for it.
So back to May Estella Munson.
The 1893 World’s Fair is notable for introducing to Americans such enduring treats as neon lights, the zipper, ragtime music, hula dancing, the Ferris wheel, spray painting, the hamburger, Juicy Fruit gum and Quaker Oats. As far as 21st century typewriter collectors are concerned, however, the exposition’s place in social and cultural history revolves around the little Blick 5.
Blickensderfer’s much-vaunted No 3 never made it off the drawingboard, the No 1 was demonstrated and gained some attention, but at a time of worldwide austerity, it was the cheap, eye-catching yet highly practical No 5 which won instant international appeal. As a result of orders taken by the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company during the Chicago Exposition, branch offices and agents were soon set up in places as far afield as England (two, one in London and one in Newcastle), France (Paris), Germany (Cologne), Canada (Georgetown, Ontario), Australia (Brisbane) and New Zealand (Auckland and Dunedin).
Robert Messenger Collection
May Estella Munson was born in Salisbury, Maryland, on January 27, 1876. The family later lived in Delaware when May was a small child and then settled in Greenwich, a township a little west of the Blickensderfer typewriter’s hometown of Stamford, Connecticut.
Stamford Historical Society
Miss Munson attended the Merrill Business College, run by a Harriett Mills Merrill (the college is still in existence, on Summer Street, Stamford). Back at the turn of the century, it also had branches on either side of Stamford, at Port Chester and South Norwalk. Miss Munson trained as a stenographer and as a “typewriter”, and after graduation was hired to work for the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company in Stamford.
So impressed was George Blickensderfer by Miss Munson’s work that he was to convince her Ohio-born parents, Arthur Munson, a sign painter, and his wife Flora, to allow the 17-year-old May Estella to travel to the World’s Fair to work for him. Miss Munson was paid $9 a week plus expenses, which covered her $10 a week board.
Almost all we know about the stunning success of the Blickensderfer 5 typewriter at the Chicago Exposition comes from a collection of 13 lengthy, pencil-written letters that May Estella wrote home to her family and friends in Connecticut. A summary of these was many years later written by one of May Estella’s two daughters, Margaret Ferris.
And we are aware of some of the content of these letters thanks to Robert Blickensderfer, Amsterdam photojournalist and typewriter collector-historian Paul Robert, and US typewriter collector-historian P. Robert Aubert.
Bob Aubert wrote a detailed article about Miss Munson, “The Summer of ‘93”, in the September 1993 issue of ETCetera (No 24), marking the centenary of the events in Chicago. Robert Blickensderfer and Paul Robert also touched on May Estella in their 2003 book The Five-Pound Secretary: An Illustrated History of the Blickensderfer Typewriter (published by the Virtual Typewriter Museum).
Robert Messenger Collection
Bob Aubert wrote of the 1893 World's Fair: “The event couldn't have come at a better time for the Blickensderfer company. The Colombian Exposition provided a perfect opportunity to introduce the new typewriter [the Blick 5], take orders on the spot, and become known in the trade.”
The World’s Fair opened on May 1, 1893, and it appears that George Blickensderfer soon found he needed someone to demonstrate his machine to its fullest effect. May Estella Munson did not arrive in Chicago, by train, until July 18, and was met by George Blickensderfer and his salesman John Morrell Cutter.
Born in South Londonderry, Vermont, on November 4, 1852, John Morrell Cutter was by 1893 the Chicago agent for the Elgin National Watch Company. But as Elgin was not exhibiting in the exhibition, he was free to work with the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company. After all, he had an extra mouth to feed, as he had had a son (Lewis Morrell Cutter) born just two months earlier, in March, with his 21-year-old wife, Margie Emma. May Estella Munson referred to Cutter was a “business teacher”.
On the “overhead train” trip to Miss Munson’s accommodation on the afternoon of her arrival in Chicago, Cutter, just two years Blickensderfer’s junior, felt sufficiently at ease with his employer to jest that the photo on Blickensderfer’s fair pass made him look like a “bunko steerer” (confidence trickster).
The Blick 5, however, was no confidence trick. It was the Real McCoy, in reality the world's first portable full keyboard typewriter.
Four days after starting her duties at the World’s Fair, Miss Munson was able to report, on July 23, “It's fun to show the typewriter, and I’m getting so I can explain almost anything about it that people ask. Everybody is tickled with it, and sometimes the crowd is two or three deep around a machine that is being demonstrated by Mr Blickensderfer, Mr Cutter, or myself. None of the 22 other typewriter exhibitors [Miss Munson is exaggerating slightly here; there were 19 in all] have so much company as we, and Mr B is proud of the fact.”
On August 1, Miss Munson wrote, “Our exhibit is more and more crowded every day, and business is brisk. All the other typewriter exhibitors close earlier than we do, for our machines seem to attract most of the interest now, I must tell you, our competitors don’t like it a bit.”
On August 13, Miss Munson wrote, “I started writing very fast on my typewriter and was not looking at the keys [a month later, May Estella was reaching speeds of 80 words a minute with the Blick]. A gentleman was watching me intently and seemed astonished by my dexterity. In fact, the whole demonstration amazed him. He came all the way from the Argentine Republic, just for the Exposition, and I got the distinct impression they don’t have typewriters in his country!”
Among the people May Estella got to know during her work in Chicago was Albert Blake Dick, then just 37, but who 10 years earlier had turned a lumber business into a major American copier and office supply company through Edison’s Mimeograph.
In May Estella’s last letter from Chicago, on October 1, she told her parents of the funny things people said as they watched her. “One thing is often heard is, ‘Why, it’s just like playing on the piano!‘ … ‘Does it sew good?’” The Columbian Exposition ended on October 30 and George Blickensderfer and May Estella Munson returned home to Connecticut.
May Estella married Isaac Ferris and had four children. She died on January 9, 1917, in Stamford, two weeks short of her 41st birthday.