December 21, 2017 by Amy
Just my type
I pulled out my grandmother’s typewriter today, which I have been more or less using as a decoration on the bookshelves in the great room because I love typewriters. I love how they look, how they sound, and that incredible works have been created on them. I learned how to type on an IBM Selectric nearly 30 years ago. My school had a computer lab filled with boxy DOS machines and giant monitors with tiny displays, but the typing class still had Selectrics. To this day I don’t know why I signed up for a typing class, except that maybe my subconscious knew that I’d go on to bail out of engineering school after three terms and move to journalism. My subconscious, then, is way smarter than the rest of my brain. This is not surprising.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. I can’t count how many times I typed that. I was the fastest typist in the class by the end of the term. (I was also the best table tennis player in my rec sports gym class, but I think that had more to do with the fact that I was the only student who actually cared about playing.) (This strategy may also have had something to do with being the fastest typist.)
My grandmother’s typewriter, which is now my typewriter, is a Royal Quiet De Luxe portable. It has a beautiful gray crinkle finish, and the keys are tiny works of art, perfectly sized for my fingertips. My mother gave it to me years ago, after I graduated with that journalism degree, and I loved it from the beginning. I have lugged it through our marriage, and for the first 15 years it sat in its handy carrying case in a closet. When we moved into our new home, I busted it out, unsnapped it from the base, and artfully arranged it on a shelf. I found myself looking at it again and again. To me, it’s beautiful. I’ve photographed it a few times. Its keys adorn the top of my Facebook author page, and the type bars currently banner the top of my personal Facebook page.
I dusted it off today, stole some paper from the laser printer (unsightly modern tech, it’s tucked away in a cabinet in the mudroom), and fed it through the platen. Turns out, it takes a lot of force to hammer those keys down. The ribbon, which I estimate to be at least six decades old, still works. It’s not very dark, but it’s legible. So I typed. I typed stream of consciousness thoughts right onto the page, and before I knew I had filled 10 inches. Then I stopped and consulted with my friend Google to learn more about the newest love in my life.
According to the serial number, my inherited Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter was built in 1949, which means my grandmother purchased it when she was 25 years old. Henry Dreyfuss designed these machines in the mid-1940s. America was still in its post-war boom. The Royal’s boxy frame was due for a remodel the following year, taking on the rounded curves and pastel colors popular in the early 50s. It’s hard for me to imagine my Gran at 25, but I like to think about it. I like to imagine her petite frame lugging this portable typewriter around. What did she type? She worked in a bank…but did she write on the side? Was this for letters to friends and family? Did she have to finance it? $70-$80 was a lot of money in 1949. I can’t ask her these questions. The dementia is too bad now. Then again, the last time I saw her she called me Beatrice, her best friend when she was younger, so maybe she’d remember the typewriter.
The Royal has no 1 key. After my research, I went back to the typewriter and typed furiously for awhile and then when I went to type “1949” I discovered the number row starts with 2. What the…what? Turns out that the lowercase L pulls double-duty. This will seriously hamper my touch type speed. It also took me awhile to find the apostrophe. The period and comma keys are periods and commas whether you shift or don’t shift, I guess for speed. I had to hunt around to find the apostrophe, which is hanging out above the 8, where the asterisk is on today’s newfangled keyboards. Holy mother…I’m going to have to completely re-learn how to type. Didn’t people use contractions in the 40s? Going up to Shift 8 is a pain the ass every time I want to type don’t, can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, I’m, isn’t, they’re, and Steak ‘n Shake. The asterisk is on its own key, with the dash, after the zero. Other changes include double quotes above the 2, which moves the @ sign to another key with a…wait for it…cents symbol. To get a ¢ on my computer, I have to hit Option 4, and I had to Google that to find it as this is the first time I have ever typed ¢. The Royal also a dedicated fraction key that has ½ and, when you shift, ¼. My mind is blown.
In addition to the wonderful clack of the letters physically striking the ink ribbon and paper, there’s a satisfying ding at the end of each line. It’s like a pithy “Congratulations! You’ve written a whole line!” celebration. This is in stark comparison to my real-life writing machine, a MacBook Air that comes with beeps to tell me an e-mail or text message has arrived, or Facebook has a notification for me, or someone wants to connect on Linked In. All things that pull me away from my work and take me down the rabbit hole of cat videos, dinosaur jokes, and Dorothy Parker quotes. It doesn’t say boo when I finish typing a line, though. The Royal has no backlit screen, no password, no booting up, no remembering to hit “save” every so often. It weighs 12 pounds, versus my MacBook Air’s measly 2.96 pounds. My best guess at tiny Gran’s weight is around 85 or 90, and that was on a heavy day. Her portable typewriter was almost 15% of her weight. (No, I’m not going to tell you what percentage of my weight is the MacBook.)
I gradually picked up speed on the Royal, although I soon learned that I can’t go too fast because I’ll clog up the type bars. There’s definitely a rhythm to typing on it, and it’s beautiful. It’s a great speed…fast enough to get your thoughts down quickly but slow enough that you have to concentrate on what you want to say, which is good because there’s no delete key. Oh sure, there’s a backspace, but then you have to crank the paper up and erase the erroneous letter, and then position it back down and type the correct letter. When I explained this process to Zoe, she was aghast. “Wait…no…no delete key?” She looked horrified. This did not stop her from spending 15 minute typing away with glee. I had to laugh when she cracked herself up. “I made a smiley face…and it’s so cute!” An original emoji, made with a colon and a close parenthesis.
And then we discovered something incredible: there is no exclamation point. What in the hell is going on here? We both pored over the keyboard. I’ll be damned…I guess people in 1949 were not excited. Ever. I had a journalism professor, Henry Hager, who was as old-school as they come. He was a Madison Avenue ad man who reached his zenith in the 50s, a straight-shooter who believed in working hard and playing hard while you work. He ordered me my first martini at a J-school awards event, and I loved being his TA. I saw a manuscript he had been working on for some time in his office one day. A Hemingwayesque bodice-ripper that nearly made me giggle. Henry hated exclamation points, or “slams” as he called them. I was young and excited about damn near everything, and he’d take his red pen to my work with a gentle ferocity, noting, “Slam” in the margins every time I erred on the side of exuberance. He’d have loved this machine. No damn slams to be found anywhere.
My research shows that Ernest Hemingway wrote most of his books on a Royal Quiet De Luxe portable. I am in awe. The man was a prolific writer…he must have developed great guns banging away on these keys. Years ago, I read somewhere that he did a lot of his writing while standing up, and I get it now. Typing on the Royal is way more comfortable while standing. I can get much more force to the fingertips when I’ve got the weight of my whole body behind them. Hemingway kept his Royal on a bookshelf, standing and working in the Havana humidity. I’m trying to relate, standing at the kitchen island in my conditioned home. I nearly ditched the typewriter on the floor because I didn’t realize that it creeps along the counter as I type. One of its feet went off the edge and scared the hell out of me. Hemingway I am not.
I’m ordering new ribbons. I want to see what this baby can really do. It works perfectly, except for the backspace key, which needs about four good pounds before it grudgingly takes the carriage back one space. I found a typewriter repair shop here in St. Louis, and will call them tomorrow to get a quote on fixing the backspace and cleaning the whole thing up. There’s years of accumulated gunk in there. What amazes me is that the iPhone I bought a little over two years ago is showing signs of advancing age, while this nearly 70 year old typewriter still, by and large, functions exactly as it was designed to do. Thank you, Mr. Dreyfuss.
I have to laugh at its name, though. If this thing is quiet, what the hell do the regular, non-quiet Royal De Luxe’s sound like?