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A Brief History of the Typewriter

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Think Stock

A new episode of Mad Men or a rare airing of Murder, She Wrote isn’t the only time to stare longingly at a beautiful, sleek typewriter. There are 28 (sometimes 29) days every year dedicated to the once ubiquitous, now ancient device: February is International Typewriter Appreciation Month.

When it became technologically possible to turn the long-standing idea for a writing machine into a reality, prototypes were abundant. But it wasn’t until 1867 that Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee invented the first typewriter, later sold and turned into the successful Remington typewriter. An improved prototype by Sholes still sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. After its creation, Sholes continued to modify and improve his product, but it took years and careful strategy for him and others to find a market. No one knew who would want to use mechanical writing, and whether the public could be convinced that it was faster than writing by hand. (A sluggish economy in the 1870s was partially to blame for the slow beginnings.) Finally, in the 1880s—right before the Progressive Era began—industrialization helped the product find an audience in need: specialized employees who were used for correspondence and keeping accounts began to rely on the technology to efficiently do their jobs.

Up until the 1930s, the typewriter wasn’t a very vibrant piece of machinery to look at. It was your typical, durable typewriter in black enamel paint. They were eventually streamlined and offered in color to appeal to a wider audience—homeowners and secretaries who wanted something a little less oppressive looking. They've come a long way.

Here’s a look at a few versions of the magnificent typewriter, many from typewriter collector Alan Seaver's site, Machines of Loving Grace.
Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

The Royal Portable (2nd model) in green, which was produced in 1930 with white-background keys.

Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

Royal produced the Signet from 1932 until 1933 and promoted it as a low-cost alternative for “children, housewives and letter writers.” Without a shift key, it’s a caps-only device equipped with a sans-serif italic font meant for easy reading. Even though it was extremely popular, production on the Signet ceased in under a year because dealers weren’t making a large profit from the low-cost item.

Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

Remington’s Monarch was the revised effort of its Remie Scout family of typewriters, using much of the same basic designs but tweaking it slightly. In this yellow, refurbished model, users still had to push the carriage to the right and manually advance the paper one line.

Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

Around 1959, the Smith-Corona brand began exploring color and introduced white keys to their products. The Sterling, with its “Super 5” body style, lasted only a few years after its unveiling, but capped the end of an era for Smith-Corona before they began producing more modern-looking machines.

Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

The fan reaction to the Olympia brand and the Smith-Corona brand has been compared with that of Coke versus Pepsi people. Classified as a medium-size typewriter, Olympia's SM4 differs from the rest of the brand because of keys on either side of the spacebar used for tabbing and clearing tabs.

Courtesy of Malling-Hansen Society

No, this one isn't a prop from Dr. Who. The Hansen Writing Ball required typists to hover over the keyboard and peck the letters onto the paper that is stretched on an arched frame below. The first commercially produced typewriter, this machine was invented in 1865 by Danish minister and teacher Rasmus Malling-Hansen. 

Courtesy of Machines of Loving Grace

This blood-red Olivetti specimen, named the "Valentine," was designed more for aesthetics than for practical reasons. In the 1960s, it was meant as an escape from the office, but failed to meet sales expectations because of its mediocre output. Regardless, it's a design classic. The machine's designer, Ettore Sottsass, said the Valentine "was invented for use any place except in an office, as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly coloured object on a table in a studio apartment." Sottsass knew how to give some personality to an ordinary piece of office equipment.

Courtesy of I dream lo-tech

The Olivetti Studio 45 came about during a buy-out when Olivetti was taking over the Underwood brand. Underwood actually had a similar version called the Oliver 450, but the Olivetti version had the creative backing from Sottsass, the Valentine's designer.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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