For a century, the typewriter was king.
It was the essential tool of every aspiring novelist, intrepid journalist, serious secretary and ambitious college student. During its reign, anything worth the paper it was printed on — a historic speech, the great American novel, screenplays, contracts, letters, treaties, declarations of love and war — was likely drafted on a typewriter.
Its brisk, mechanical "clackety-clackety-clackety-clackety, ding!" was an essential part of the 20th-century soundscape. Once made obsolete by the word processor, then the personal computer, the syncopated chatter of the typewriter became as rare as the whir of a rotary phone dial.
But a small band of Minnesota typewriter lovers are keeping the legacy of the once-revolutionary writing machine alive, restoring, collecting and even writing on them. And their numbers are growing.
There's uber collector Alan Seaver, who has more than 350 typewriters, probably the largest typewriter collection in the state.
Whole rooms of his Zumbrota house are devoted to displaying typewriters that date back to the late 19th century and include rarities like a Smith-Corona with a body made of solid sterling silver, a typewriter with a clear plastic body intended for use by prison inmates and a typewriter made in Nazi Germany that can print the insignia of the SS. He has early typewriters made by Remington, the forerunner to the firearm company, and Triumph typewriters, produced by the motorcycle maker.
Minneapolis typewriter fan Charlie Maguire practices what he calls "extreme typing," which involves hauling a vintage portable typewriter to bang out stream of consciousness thoughts while standing in a trout stream, or atop a bluff or bridge or in an outdoor sculpture.
Clarence White has written poetry on his typewriter for passersby with whom he interacts at art venues like Northern Spark and the Soap Factory. He also teaches typewriter poetry workshops.
"The typewriter is really a percussion instrument and the poetry is the music," said White, a St. Paul resident who is also associate director of the East Side Freedom Library.
No wonder that the Wikipedia entry for typewriter notes that "The 21st century has seen a revival of interest in typewriters among certain subcultures, including makers, steampunks, hipsters and street poets."
"It's younger people. They just love to type on them," said Mark Soderbeck, longtime owner of Vale Typewriter Co. in Richfield.
Soderbeck has been fixing typewriters for 46 years. He said when personal computers became affordable in the 1980s, business dropped by 80%. The number of typewriter repair shops in the Twin Cities fell from nearly 30 to two. (Spectrum Business Systems in St. Paul is the other shop besides Vale.) But in recent years, demand for old typewriters — specifically non-electric manual typewriters — has clicked up, according to Soderbeck.
"By Christmas, I won't have a manual typewriter left in my store," he said.
A digital respite
Renewed interest in typewriters is helping Katie Fetterly pay for college. A few years ago, the 36-year-old St. Catherine University student happened to see a beautiful 1938 Corona Standard typewriter on Craigslist for sale for $20.
That started her on a path to collecting typewriters and becoming an antique typewriter broker, finding and selling desirable typewriters that other collectors are seeking.
"I'm connected to every person in the typosphere," Fetterly said. "I know where to look and how to look."
For her own collection, Fetterly has tracked down machines in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Wyoming in search of different versions of the 1955 Royal Quiet Deluxe in yellow, green, baby blue and pink.
"It's like collecting cars without having a garage," Fetterly said.
Soderbeck compares today's interest in manual typewriters to the resurgence of vinyl records and other things analog.
Typewriter fans are rebelling against the digital to embrace text messages that are real and physical, a tactile experience banged out on a decades-old mechanical device preserved on 20-pound cotton bond paper.
"I do think everybody needs some space from digital technology," according to Richard Polt, philosophy professor at Xavier University, author of "The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century" and creator of The Classic Typewriter Page website.
Some typewriter fans say they like using the old manual machines because it forces them to write more slowly and deliberately compared with writing on a computer.
"You don't think as much about word selection, punctuation and sentence construction as you do when you use a typewriter," said David Born, a retired University of Minnesota professor, writer and longtime typewriter user.
It's a bit ironic as typewriters were originally invented and became popular because they enabled people to write faster. And typewriter lovers still rely on digital tools to express their admiration of their writing machines, whether it's a blog site or an Instagram account.
In some ways, the typewriter is still with us. The QWERTY keyboard layout that we're using on our laptops and even our cellphones is a legacy of the system that became the standard on typewriters. The shift key, the caps lock and the backspace originally were typewriter mechanisms.
The Tom Hanks effect
It's hard to deny that typewriters have an aesthetic that you'll rarely see in a personal computer. Over the years, typewriters have been sold in a rainbow of colors: glossy black, Italian race car red, princess phone pink, metallic green, pop art yellow, even imitation wood grain.
Depending on when it was made, typewriters might have an art deco design or sport the hard-edged lines of a 1970s muscle car.
"Computers are really boring," Polt said. "The typewriter, a good one, is an art object itself."
Even the names that typewriter manufacturers also gave their machines conveyed a sense of glamour or personality: the Hermes Baby, the Royal Swinger, the Smith-Corona Enterprise II, the Sears Cutlass, the Blue Bird, the Torpedo, the Everest.
One 1936 machine in Seaver's collection is called the Imperial Good Companion, illustrating how many people formed a sentimental attachment to their typewriters in a way that it's hard to imagine anyone feeling about their laptop.
Prices have gone up for some desirable vintage machines. Part of that may be due to what collectors call "the Tom Hanks effect." The actor is a serious collector, which has inspired other people to take an interest in the old machines.
"He loves typewriters and people love Tom Hanks," Seaver said.
But there were millions of typewriters made between the late 19th century and the late 20th century. There are plenty still out there and lots of examples of 100-year-old machines that still work.
"It's a pretty durable technology," Polt said.
"How many people have a computer even 10 years old that's still functioning properly?" Born said.