1. Where can I find a ribbon for my typewriter?
Typewriter ribbons are still being made and are not too hard to find. Almost all manual typewriters use half-inch-wide ribbons, and most typewriters can use dual-color ribbons (such as red and black), so look for one of those -- they look nice and can be useful. Good ribbons are available from the sources listed below. Your local office supply store may also have ribbons for manual typewriters (ribbons intended for printing calculators may also work, but they tend to be inked too heavily). Ribbon spools (the reels) are slightly more challenging, if your typewriter is missing them. Ribbons are usually sold on plastic spools, and you may have to experiment with a few kinds before you find one that fits your particular machine. Some typewriters use eyelets on either end of the ribbon, which automatically reverse the ribbon; the same effect can usually be produced by typing a knot near the end of the ribbon. PS: never throw away an old metal spool -- rewind a new ribbon onto it!
Baco Ribbons makes ribbons in many sizes, colors, and materials. Baco Ribbon & Supply Co., 2230 Mason Lane, Ballwin, MO 63021, 314-835-9300, fax 314-835-9361, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for Charlene.
Tony Casillo of TTS Business Products in Garden City, NY, carries many varieties of ribbon and can advise you on the correct spool, ribbon material, etc. Call 516-489-8300 or e-mail email@example.com.
Jay Respler of Advanced Business Machines Co. in New Jersey carries ribbons for virtually all typewriters: Phone 732-431-1464 after 11 AM Eastern, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. "I offer nylon, cotton, silk, and all colors. I can get many odd sizes. I stock newer cartridges as well as older spools. I supply pictures of spools to help determine what the customer needs. We ship anywhere in the world."
Earl De Barth, of www.debarth.org, telephone number 215-855-6851, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm ET, e-mail email@example.com, has the material for the 25 mm and wider ribbons. He has no spools, so requests that the purchaser send him a spool on which to wind the "new" ribbon. He can sometimes provide ribbons in colors other than black or black/red. Prices vary according to length, number of ribbons purchased, etc.
Other sources include Ames Supply Co., Scantracker, and FJA Products. In the UK, try Kleen Strike.
2. Can you help me with a mechanical problem?
Often, a problem with a manual typewriter can be fixed at home with a little time, a little ingenuity, and some simple tools such as a screwdriver. For a few tips on mechanical repairs and restoration, see Basic Typewriter Restoration. For Will Davis's more extensive advice, see his Online Typewriter Support. But sometimes an expert's personal help is certainly needed. I cannot give you any expert advice, but I have a list of repair shops around the world that will work on manual typewriters.3. Where is my typewriter's serial number?
It may take time to find it, and you may need a flashlight. You may need to move the carriage all the way to the left or right and look at the area revealed (especially on Royals); lift up the ribbon cover and peer at the inner frame of the machine (especially on Smith-Corona portables and '50s Remington portables); look in a corner of the slotted panel behind the keyboard (earlier Remington portables); or look at the bottom of the typewriter. Once you have found the serial number you can try looking up its date at The Typewriter Database, a site that lists serial numbers for many makes.4. Do you have a user's manual for my typewriter?
5. How old is my typewriter?
Here are some manuals that have been converted to PDF format by myself and other collectors (thanks especially to Ted Munk and the good people at The Portable Typewriter Forum).Adler J2 and J4
Adler J2 and J5
Alpina (another version)
Brother / Webster portable
Hermes Baby Featherweight (1930s)
Imperial Good Companion 4
Imperial Good Companion 5
Imperial Good Companion 7
Olivetti Lettera 22
Olivetti Studio 45
Olympia SG3 (as provided by Olympia International)
Remington portable #2
Remington Victor S and T, 1936 (AKA streamlined model 5 portable)
Remington Quiet-Riter and Letter-Riter
1941 Royal Quiet Deluxe
1950s Royal Quiet Deluxe
Royal Standard (flatbed)
Sears Tower President (rebranded Smith-Corona)
1950s Smith-Corona midsized portables
1963 Smith-Corona Sterling
Underwood Noiseless 77 (identical to Remington Noiseless Portable no. 7)
Ames Service Manual, ca. 1946, for Remington, Underwood, Royal, L.C. Smith, and Woodstock standard typewriters (40 MB)
John E. Simmons' site offers manuals for the Blickensderfer No. 5, Corona 3, Oliver 5, Remington Rand Touch Typing Method, Smith Corona circa 1950 portables, Underwoods, and even a Textbook on Typewriter Repair (vol. 2, illustrations).
Alan Seaver offers several manuals on Machines of Loving Grace (under his descriptions of various models in his collection).
For other user's manuals, visit Office Machine Americana or ask on one of the typewriter e-mail lists.
6. What is my typewriter worth?
If you can find your typewriter's serial number, it may be listed at The Typewriter Database (select your manufacturer from the drop-down menu). Failing that, here are some rules of thumb:
Weird? If your typewriter looks bizarre in some way (strange keyboard, shape, etc.), chances are that it's pre-1920. Let me know what you've got, and I'll try to give you more information.
Have an Underwood? If it says "Wagner Typewriter Co." on the back, it dates from 1895-1900. If it doesn't say "Wagner" but has an open frame (you can easily see the works), it dates from 1900-1930. If it's an open-framed Underwood #5, check my Underwood page for a list of serial numbers that will let you date it with precision. (Look for the serial number on the right top of the frame, under the right end of the carriage.) If it is an office-sized typewriter with an enclosed frame (covered in sheet metal), it's after 1930. Underwood portables with three rows of keys date from 1919-29. Those with four rows of keys are mostly from the thirties and forties.
Have a Remington portable? Check my Remington portables page for a list of pre-war Remington portables, with the dates of each model. If it's not on my list, it dates from after World War II.
Patent dates can tell you that a typewriter was made after a certain date, but sometimes the machine was made quite a few years after the latest patent date. In the case of older (open-frame) Underwoods, the company got so many patents that the last patent date is probably very close to the year of manufacture. (Look on the back of the machine for a big decal listing all the patents.)
If your typewriter has very little plastic, it's probably no later than the mid-1930s.
If it's painted in crinkle paint (with tiny wrinkles), it's usually from the late thirties or the forties.
Postwar typewriters (that's World War II we're talking about) can be recognized by various signs: U.S. patent numbers above 2,400,000; extensive use of plastic; and keys that are not circular, but are rounded-off rectangles.
IBM Selectrics date from 1960 at the earliest. This also goes for other modern electric machines that use a single type element (such as the Selectric "golf ball").
Electronic typewriters with a daisy wheel date from the 1970s at the earliest.
7. I want to use a manual typewriter. What would you recommend?
The monetary value of a typewriter can't be determined precisely, because there are relatively few collectors and the market is always changing. Furthermore, the condition of a typewriter affects its value significantly. To further complicate things, there are literally hundreds of makes of typewriter that are of value to a collector, ranging from $50 machines to $50,000 machines. I won't list them all here -- write to me with the details of your typewriter (make, model, condition). However, you should first check to see whether your typewriter falls into one of the classes below, as 95% of them do. I also recommend searching completed auctions at eBay, where you will find many examples of the common makes of typewriter.
Few large typewriters made after World War II are considered "collectible," because they are mostly look-alikes produced in great quantities -- and they are often ugly, in many people's view. Don't expect the price to go over $50 or so. The exceptions to this rule are typewriters that have a strange or specialized mechanism -- for instance, the Varityper, a "cold typesetting" machine descended from the Hammond which prints from a type shuttle.
Postwar portables have become popular since around 2000 as collectibles and working typewriters. Value largely depends on appearance; bright colors bring a premium. The more eye-catching and colorful '50s portables can bring $200 or more, depending on condition and luck. Common makes in dull colors will probably be worth under $50.
As for prewar typewriters, most belong to the following makes:
This is one of the first portables. The Corona that most collectors like is the model 3, with three banks of keys and a carriage that folds down onto the keyboard. This is a beginner's machine that is frequently found. An informed collector will hold out for one in excellent condition, and will not pay much more than $50 for it. Colored specimens are worth more than black ones.
These machines are collectible and are certainly unusual to the modern eye, with their U-shaped typebars hovering over the platen. However, most are not rare. Expect the value to be in the $50-$200 range, give or take some according to condition. Olivers do have many minor variations, some of which are unusual. The most valuable Oliver is the #1, which can be recognized by its nickel finish and the fact that the tabs sticking out of its sides are flat to the ground.
Remington was always a leader in the typewriter industry -- so many Remington machines are common and worth little. Understroke Remingtons (which type on the underside of the platen) are worth some money; these are full-sized, office typewriters with model numbers under 10. The most common understroke Remingtons are the #6 and #7, worth around $100; other understroke models can be worth more. There are also many models of Remington portables; most of these are frequently found, but are enjoyed by some collectors. They will bring a modest price, say $30, give or take according to condition and luck. As usual, bright colors bring a premium. The rare Remington Electric of 1925 is worth several hundred dollars; this is a boxy machine that has a carriage return lever on the right.
Royals #1, #5, and Standard are office machines with an unusual, low profile and a keyboard that looks like it's emerging from a staircase (collectors call these the "flatbed" models). They are worth around $50-$200 depending on condition (usually they are in poor shape). Many older Royal office typewriters are model 10 (usually not marked as such); the earlier ones have glass windows on the sides. Value depends on condition -- anywhere from zero to $200. Royal portables are fun, but not worth much (about $10-$200 depending on condition, color, and luck, with an average value around $40). The big exception is the gold-plated version of the '50s Royal Quiet Deluxe portable, which is worth $400+. Finally, if your machine says "Royal Grand," you have found a very rare item that's the most valuable model of this make.
These are common, conventional typewriters. The earlier L.C. Smiths have a handsome decal with prancing horses. If you have such a machine in excellent condition, the lower the model number the better, it can bring $100+ on a good day. L.C. Smith merged with Corona to create Smith-Corona in 1926. Smith-Corona portables from the 30s, in excellent condition, can be nice and might be worth $50 or so. Later Smith-Coronas are so common that they are of minor interest to collectors (although they are fine writing machines).
A very successful German make, with a reputation for high quality. It is unlikely that an Olympia will bring more than $50, but a particularly beautiful specimen may go higher.
The earliest Underwoods are considered collectible and will bring roughly $200; these usually say "Wagner Typewriter Co." on the back. Some collectors or people who want one old typewriter will enjoy an ordinary Underwood (which is likely to be a #5) if it's in great condition. Very nice #5's can bring $200 or so, but the average-condition Underwood (any model) is worth little. There are some attractive Underwood portables, particularly the "Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter" of 1919-29, with three rows of keys (the name is bigger than the typewriter). It's worth about $50. For more about Underwoods, click here.
These well-made but conventional typewriters are generally ignored by collectors. The Woodstock Electrite is an early electric typewriter that is not frequently found, but still may bring under $100. A particularly nice Woodstock with great decals can sometimes get up to $200.
It's partly a matter of taste, but some makes have gathered a lot of fans for their sturdiness, their looks, or their feel. Many users prefer a machine that uses "segment shift" (also known as "basket shift") rather than "carriage shift": in other words, when you shift, the carriage does not move up and down but the typebars do. This is easier, particularly for those used to computer keyboards. Size is another consideration: a standard office machine is very heavy, but offers the greatest mechanical sophistication. If you choose an ultra-flat, "laptop" typewriter, the portability will usually come at the cost of a less satisfying feel. For many users, a mid-sized portable made between 1930 and 1970 will do the trick. A few manual portables are still made in China today, but their quality is not great.8. What kind of typewriters have been favored by writers and celebrities?
Here are some possibilities. My list below is linked to current eBay auctions. Be patient and hold out for a machine in good condition, offered by a seller with a good reputation. For a professionally cleaned and reconditioned typewriter from sources other than eBay, I also recommend mytypewriter.com (mostly pre-1940 machines), Mr. Typewriter (mostly postwar machines), and Blue Moon Camera.
- Corona / Smith-Corona portables with segment shift: this well-engineered American design was made for about 50 years in various body styles, with minor mechanical changes. The traditional model names are Standard, Silent, and Sterling. For beauty, look for the glossy 1930s versions, which are sometimes boxy in design, sometimes streamlined. For maximum sturdiness, look for the 1950s versions, typically finished in colored wrinkle paint. For the most features (such as power spacing and interchangeable type), look for 1960s-70s versions (the name Galaxie was introduced at this time).
- Olympia: excellent German engineering made this company great. The portables and office machines are both good. The postwar SG (big) and SM (medium) series are traditional favorites of writers. SM 3 through SM 7 are carriage-shifted; SM 8 and SM 9 are basket-shifted and easier on the pinkies.
- Hermes: a lot of writers swear by their Swiss engineering. The Hermes 3000 is the most popular model. The '60s version of this machine, in green paint with an angular body, is probably the smoothest and best made.
- Remington Noiseless Portable: my personal favorite is the model 7 with glossy black paint. There are also other variants. These are relatively quiet, comfortable 1930s machines with Deco looks. There are differences of opinion about the distinctive feel of this design, which brings the typebar just far enough to "kiss" the platen instead of delivering a loud smack. Click here for more about Remington portables of the twenties and thirties.
- Royal portables: look for pretty ones from the 1920s and 1930s, with shiny paint -- or the postwar Quiet De Luxe model, with a basket shift.
- Underwood portables: prewar ones are good; quality declined after the war, although the styling was interesting.
- Underwood #5: if you want an office (non-portable) machine, you may enjoy this classic. Underwoods have a satisfying clickety-snap. In top condition (which you should insist on) they can sometimes get expensive (up to $150 or so). Click here for more about this model.
- Royal #10: another classic office workhorse of the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1930s this model converted to basket shift.
- L.C. Smith: a well-made office machine that always featured basket shift.
Please see my page on writers and their typewriters.9. Are the Bush documents fakes?
In a word: yes. The details are here.
10. Where did you get that cool typewriter font you use on your site?
From a typewriter. Specifically, my beloved Remington Noiseless Portable Model Seven. I typed the text, then scanned it. This method will always be more convincing than using a simulated typewriter font for computers. However, I have created a number of typewriter fonts that you are welcome to download here. Many more free typewriter fonts are available at dafont.com.
11. How can I get rid of That Old Typewriter Smell?
Hey, some of us like it! But we're perverse ...
Seriously, it's a common problem, especially with portables--and if you're allergic to mold, it can be a real health hazard. Yes, the smell is caused primarily by mold, combined with decades of dust and cigarette smoke. Mold won't grow on metal, but it will grow on typewriter ribbons and on fabric-covered cases. Take your typewriter out of its case and blow the lint and dust out of it (a compressed air canister for cleaning computer and stereo equipment is handy here). Throw away the ribbon. Look carefully for any surfaces that may have mold on them (the typebars usually rest on fabric or felt; some typewriters also have felt elsewhere, to deaden the noise). Clean and polish the machine using the materials I list on my restoration page. The cases can be cleaned with harsher materials, such as Lysol, window cleaner, or ammonia. Then let everything dry thoroughly, preferably in sunlight. Store typewriters and cases in dry environments with moderate temperatures. You may have to clean the cases again every 6 months or so.
Paul Panella writes, "I've found that the musty smell from the old leatherette cases can be removed by first wiping down with a light disinfectant wipe. I use Clorox disinfecting wipes. Then I generously apply Old English lemon oil furniture polish inside and out. The leatherette just soaks it up and it seems to take care of the strong odor with no residue. These old cases are so dry that the lemon oil disappears almost immediately."
12. Why doesn't my typewriter have a numeral 1?
Most manual typewriters did without the numeral 1; you were expected to type a lowercase L instead. Often for a zero you would type an uppercase letter O; for an exclamation mark, you would type period-backspace-apostrophe, or hold down the shift key and spacebar while typing the period and apostrophe (usually you can superimpose characters if you hold down the spacebar). Cyrillic typewriters (for Russian, Ukrainian, etc.) do have a numeral 1, but don't have a numeral 3, because the Cyrillic equivalent to Z looks like a 3! All are ways to save a few parts and make manufacture cheaper.
13. Why write on a typewriter when you can write on a computer?
Why take a country road when you can take the Interstate?
Why ride a bike when you can drive a car?
Why shop at the corner store when you can shop at Wal-Mart?
Why cook from scratch when you can eat fast food?
Why draw a picture of something when you can point your smartphone at it?
Efficiency isn't always the most important consideration. Typewriters are durable, personal, private, single-purpose, independent, and secure. Of course, they are also efficient tools for typing envelopes, labels, forms, checks, and other odd jobs.
For more thoughts on this topic from writers who type, see Typewriter Tributes.