Typewriters: Low-tech passion in a high-tech world

Author Tony Casillo stumbled into a mom-and-pop typewriter repair store in Midtown Manhattan back in the late 1970s. He bumped into an old, decrepit-looking typewriter. And his world would never be the same.
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The Crandall New Model, 1887, was invented by Lucien S. Crandall and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful typewriters ever manufactured. It is highly prized by collectors.

The Crandall New Model, 1887, was invented by Lucien S. Crandall and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful typewriters ever manufactured. It is highly prized by collectors.

By Paul Kennedy

It’s the sound.

That’s what first attracts most people. Percussive bursts of unmistakable rat-a-tat-tats given pause only by the sound of a warning bell. A WARNING bell! Think about it. You are making such a racket that the machine is compelled to warn you to stop. Right now! Before you run out of space. Before it’s too late. With a BELL.

And then, with a quick flick of the carriage return lever, the clatter continues. A relentless attack of keys striking paper, exploding like raindrops on a tin roof. There’s a reason that old newspaper reporters were said to “bang” out a story. Sound was as much a part of their jobs as cigarettes, lousy coffee and deadlines.

Yup, typewriters, to hear them is to love them.

Of course, not all love stories start out with a bang. Sometimes they simply start out with confused wonderment, as was the case when a young Tony Casillo stumbled into a mom-and-pop typewriter repair store in Midtown Manhattan back in the late 1970s.

With its quirky design and limited production, the Fitch, 1888, is a favorite among typewriter collectors.

With its quirky design and limited production, the Fitch, 1888, is a favorite among typewriter collectors.

Casillo was no stranger to typewriters. Far from it. He was a young man with his eyes set on a career in typewriter repair, having completed a yearlong International Business Machines (IBM) course learning how to service the nearly 3,000-part IBM Selectric, a modern marvel in its own right. The new machines he understood. But the old ones, the vintage typewriters scattered among the parts and pieces stashed in the back room of that small typewriter shop, they were something altogether different.

Casillo gazed at the green monster on the shelf, stumped. It was an Oliver Model 5 built around 1908. The typewriter, covered with decades of dirt and dust, looked more brown than green. Years of abuse and neglect left it destined for the junk pile. The Oliver was mass-produced and readily available if you wanted one, but few did. Casillo had no clue of any of this. It was his first brush with a past he had never contemplated. Something had come before and Casillo needed to know more, even if he didn’t understand why.

The shop owner was only too happy to give it to him when he asked. Casillo lugged the 30-pound Oliver home that night on the subway, standing, barely keeping his balance while bumping into fellow commuters with his future in his arms.

“Seeing this Oliver was a defining moment for me,” says Casillo, a leading authority on the history and repair of vintage typewriters. “The design was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was so different. Something came before what I was working on at the time, something I had never seen or given any thought to. This Oliver typewriter was evidence of that.

“I latched onto that right away. I needed to explore it. I needed to know more.”

Today, Casillo has hundreds of typewriters in his personal collection. Some are on display in his repair shop in Garden City, N.Y. Others are showcased at home. As for that green monster, his first love? Well, it’s complicated. When a few thousands typewriters pass through your hands, it’s difficult to say for sure what happened to some – even the one that started this quixotic journey. What he can say is that he eventually found the earliest Oliver No. 1 to be unearthed, serial No. 284. Built in 1896, there are less than 10 known survivors.

Much of what else Casillo discovered during his four-decade odyssey can be found in his book, Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing, a visually impressive coffee table book the Wall Street Journal calls “a love letter to vintage typewriters.”

Typewriters: Iconic Machines From The Golden Age of Mechanical Writing by Anthony "Tony" Casillo

Typewriters: Iconic Machines From The Golden Age of Mechanical Writing by Anthony "Tony" Casillo.

“My main attraction is the mechanics, the design,” Casillo, 64, says. “I came up in the industry as a repairman, so I’m fascinated by the design. Right alongside it is the history. We went through a period of almost unparalleled innovation. There were no standards in place. Everyone who was designing was hoping their design would rise to the top because it was almost a guarantee of fortune at that time. Everybody was trying anything they could to make it.

“That whole era, that whole story fascinates me,” Casillo says. “When you couple that with the kooky mechanical designs they came up with, I’m hooked.”

Just about the time Casillo was turning his attention to vintage typewriters, the world was turning its attention to word processors and personal computers.

For more than a century, the typewriter dominated desktops in businesses, schools and homes around the world. It began life as a relatively simple instrument powered by human force and ingenuity. Typewriter history is filled with innovation, daring design and mechanical beauty.

The National typewriter, 1889, was invented by Henry Harmon Unz of Philadelphia and features a three-row, gracefully curved keyboard.

The National typewriter, 1889, was invented by Henry Harmon Unz of Philadelphia and features a three-row, gracefully curved keyboard.

In the years since the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, the first commercially successful typewriter, was introduced in 1874, more than 300 different makes and models of writing machines were invented, patented, or manufactured in North America. The typewriter revolutionized nearly all aspects of written communications. In its heyday, a global industry grew to support typewriter manufacturing, sales and service. The typewriter was indispensable.

And then it wasn’t.

Seemingly overnight – and with little regard for its worldwide contributions – the typewriter was obsolete. In the 1980s, new technology, promising even more productivity, silenced the wonderful noise.

Almost.

The obituary for the typewriter has been written many times over the past several decades, Casillo says, but for many reasons it will not go quietly into that good night.

“Old typewriters, relegated to an attic or garage, have a talent for survival,” Casillo says. “Writing machines 100 years old still turn up. People find it difficult to throw away a typewriter, even when it no longer works. This makes collecting typewriters a hobby where the earliest examples are still available and waiting to be found.”

But there’s more at work here than simply availability. After all, we are not a society that struggles to toss aside antiquated technology when newer and better is available. No one hungers for their old black-and-white TV in the age of high-definition.

The Olivetti Graphika, 1957, is spectacular to look at but operating difficulties and mechanical problems kept it from finding a place in most offices. It was retired after three years with only 8,000 units manufactured.

The Olivetti Graphika, 1957, is spectacular to look at but operating difficulties and mechanical problems kept it from finding a place in most offices. It was retired after three years with only 8,000 units manufactured.

And yet, there is a small but very real typewriter renaissance going on that is almost inexplicable. The allure of the typewriter is different. It’s personal. There is something so basic, so satisfying, so human in this mechanical dinosaur. It’s like trying to explain love.

“I talk to a lot of people in my store,” Casillo says. “I’ll have a 20-something walk into the door, a person who works on Wall Street, and he wants a typewriter. And I ask what do you want one for? And he’ll say, just to type something, just to type a note. They want to connect with something.

“So there’s that human quality that yearns for something like this. Technology is good, don’t get me wrong. Technology offers us a lot of things, a lot of conveniences. But we’re still human inside. We’re still basically mechanical creatures. We still desire a tactile experience.”

With its sassy avant-garde appearance, the Olivetti Valentine, 1969, featuring a bright red modern body design created by noted Italian designer Ettore Sottsass and British designer Perry King, is a favorite with typewriter collectors and commands a premium price when sold.

With its sassy avant-garde appearance, the Olivetti Valentine, 1969, featuring a bright red modern body design created by noted Italian designer Ettore Sottsass and British designer Perry King, is a favorite with typewriter collectors and commands a premium price when sold.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe it all comes down to a tactile experience. When you write anything on a typewriter – from a love letter to a shopping list – it is most definitely a physically engaging practice. Maybe that’s what we secretly crave in this high-tech, virtual-reality world.

“You certainly have sweat equity with a typewriter,” Casillo says. “Nothing is being changed automatically for you. There is no auto correct. Or spell check. It’s harder to type. It isn’t as pretty. Your mistakes are right there on the page for everyone to see. The typewriter makes the process more human. That changes everything. There is a different vibe about the whole process. You can sense it.

“Like Tom Hanks said in my book, he never throws out a typewritten letter. They’re permanent.”

Tom Hanks. Yes. That Tom Hanks. Big. Forrest Gump. Saving Private Ryan. Philadelphia.Cast Away. Apollo 13. Sleepless in Seattle. The voice of Woody in Toy Story, for crying out loud. That guy. He’s now The Patron Saint of Typewriters.

The soft cream-colored keyboard along with its bright pastel color options made the Royal Quiet DeLuxe, 1955, one of the more remarkable looking typewriters of its time.

The soft cream-colored keyboard along with its bright pastel color options made the Royal Quiet DeLuxe, 1955, one of the more remarkable looking typewriters of its time.

In 1978, just as his career was about to take off, Hanks owned a cheap plastic model typewriter that needed repair. The shop owner laughed at the thought. He convinced Hanks he needed a “real” typewriter. The shop owner talked Hanks into buying a Hermes 2000, a lightweight and very dependable portable typewriter. Hanks was hooked. The actor now has more than 100 vintage typewriters. Hanks can be found almost anywhere talking about the joys of typewriters, including Casillo’s book.

In addition to being a customer, Hanks wrote a playful salute to typewriters for Casillo. In the book’s Foreword, Hanks suggests there are only 11 reasons to use a typewriter. Among them, No. 6:

“You take a great pleasure in the tactile experience of typing – the sound, the physical quality of touch, the report and action of type-bell-return, the carriage, and the satisfaction of pulling a completed page out of the machine, raaappp!”

That satisfaction is found by people of all ages. Casillo’s wife, Linda, is a second-grade teacher at Old Mill Road Elementary School in North Merrick, N.Y. Tony has been known to bring a typewriter into her classroom. The response is universal.

“Kids love typewriters. They go wild. They are thrilled with action-reaction. They press a key and a letter appears on paper immediately. They’ve never seen that. That tactile experience is something they’ve never experienced before. A lot of those students have never stood in front of a typewriter.

“There is a certain personal satisfaction using a typewriter that you don’t get with a computer,” Casillo says. “My personal satisfaction is restoring the machine. Finding one. Bringing one back to life. I’ve crisscrossed the country. I’ve traveled to Europe to pick up a typewriter. I’ve driven thousands of miles to rescue a typewriter.”

It’s odd. A man driven so in his pursuit of old typewriters doesn’t particularly enjoy the act of typing. Oh, he’ll type out the occasional note but that’s the extent of it. He’s not a fan. On a good day maybe he can type 25 words a minute. He’s no poet at the keyboard. But put a tool in his hand and he’ll make that old tired typewriter sing again. His thrill is rescuing them, bringing them back to life.

Tony Casillo has been collecting and working on vintage typewriters since the 1970s. His collection is among the finest in the country.

Tony Casillo has been collecting and working on vintage typewriters since the 1970s. His collection is among the finest in the country.

But even that he does slowly. Casillo often lets a typewriter sit on a shelf, looking at it for a year or two before putting a screwdriver to it. He moves slowly, building a relationship with the typewriter, careful not to rush into a mistake. If this all seems like a dating ritual, well, it is.

“I want to become familiar with it before I do anything,” Casillo says. “I want it to feel like we’re friends before I start and that’s pretty much the rule. I never, ever, touch a machine the first couple of months that I own it. It’s just foolish. You’re just learning. You’re just getting acquainted with it.”

He also has strong feelings about what you do and what you don’t do to a typewriter.

“I restore mid-century machines for people. I’ve even restored machines from the 1920s for people. Family heirlooms, or things like that. But those typewriters are relatively common machines. On the historic side, I don’t believe in restoration. I believe in preservation.

The Golden Royal Portable, 1949, was an 18-kara gold and black beauty. It was a luxury item available to anyone willing to pay a premium price for its exotic finish. Author Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, is said to have paid $174,000 for one in 1952.

The Golden Royal Portable, 1949, was an 18-kara gold and black beauty. It was a luxury item available to anyone willing to pay a premium price for its exotic finish. Author Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, is said to have paid $174,000 for one in 1952.

“If you can neutralize the rust so it doesn’t advance anymore, you do that. If a part is missing and you can put an appropriate replicate part in there, that’s fine. I consider that preservation. If you can make the machine functional I believe in that.

“I don’t believe in stripping it down and re-paining it, putting new decals on it. What happens then is when you look at the typewriter you don’t see it anymore – you see the restoration. I like it to show its natural age. It’s part of the story. You want to see how this thing aged. You want to see the wear on certain keys that the person who was using it wore out. That’s part of the story of the machine. It’s a valuable part of every machine.

“To have a 120-year-old object glow like it was made yesterday is wrong. It loses its appeal. It took 100 years or more to get that patina and you want to undo that? It’s criminal. I’ve seen people do it and they’ve come to regret it because you can’t undo it.”

Casillo has made mistakes when it comes to typewriters. Plenty of them. But where he’s at now, what he knows and understands, what he can share, it all comes from those mistakes – the patina of his 40-year love affair with typewriters.

“I’ve got a passion for them and it’s just evolved over the years,” Casillo says. “When given the opportunity to present itself, the typewriter has a great deal of charm.”

And sound. Don’t forget that undeniable sound. Ever since he stumbled into that mom-and-pop shop in Midtown Manhattan decades ago, that joyful clatter has been in Tony Casillo’s head. And in his heart.

WHY YOU SHOULD OWN A TYPEWRITER

Tom Hanks, typewriter lover

Tom Hanks thinks you really need a typewriter. 

Actor and typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks is known to wear his heart on his sleeve when expressing the simple joy found in the typed word. In his Foreword to Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing, Hanks says sitting down with a typewriter is akin to an artist seated in front of a blank canvas, paint brush in hand.

Hanks writes:

“You are an artist, equal to Picasso, and everything you type is one-of-a-kind work. The combination of paper quality, the age of the ribbon, the minute quirks of your machine, the occasional misuse of the space bar, and the options of the margins and tabs all add up to make anything you type as varied and unique as the thoughts in your head and the ridges of your fingerprints. Everything you type is a snowflake all its own.”

OK, so maybe Picasso is a stretch. We’re not sure Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, ever resorted to using white-out. Still, Hanks does have a point about the beauty and staying power of the typed letter.

“It’s a fact,” Hanks writes, “no one chucks anything typewritten in the trash after just one reading. E-mails? I delete most before I see the electronic signature.”

Hanks concludes with one very solid tongue-in-cheek reason you should own a typewriter: “Typewriter = Chick Magnet.”

This is a man President Obama described as “America’s dad” while awarding Hanks the Medal of Freedom, so we’re pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about.

Smith-Corona Electric Portable typewriter, 1957, featured light touch and rapid speed, distinguishing it from its manual counterparts. It was a hit with users and came in blue, beige, pink and green models.

Smith-Corona Electric Portable typewriter, 1957, featured light touch and rapid speed, distinguishing it from its manual counterparts. It was a hit with users and came in blue, beige, pink and green models.

Like more vintage technology? Check out our story on vintage phones.

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