#MyrtleMondays: QWERTY

How do you write your term papers? Are you a touch-typist? A proficient thumb-texter? A voice-to-text dictator? Or do you prefer longhand? I’m currently getting used to a new laptop, and it is driving. Me. Crazy. (Grrrrr.) This is a periodic ordeal in the life of a novelist, and it has been going on since Mark Twain became the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript for publication (1883’s Life on the Mississippi). Coming October 4, Myrtle & Co. will be introduced to the joys of typing in In Myrtle PerilLet’s take a look at the advent of this timesaving technology.

Although he looks like a satisfied customer in this serene scene from a 1945 ad for Remington typewriters, Twain would grow to loathe the machine and even beg not to have his name associated with it.

Office essentials for more than a century, typewriters had a rocky start and it took some Victorian ingenuity to turn early writing machines into the workhorses that preceded the digital age.

The “writing ball,” circa 1870. This one didn’t catch on.

Although typewriters became ubiquitous, familiar items of household and office machinery, they are surprisingly complex, and early models came in a variety of designs before settling into a familiar standard.

This image from a trade catalogue of 1891 shows the fascinating round Hammond typing machine, operated by a “typewriter” (as they called themselves.) Note her ergonomic slanted desk. See more about the Hammond’s unique design here.

The quirky QWERTY keyboard, still used on most English keyboards—even virtual ones—is a consequence of the technological challenges to create a device capable of transcribing thoughts as swiftly as the authors composed them. Early designs had issues with keys struck in rapid combination, like S-T, getting tangled up and jamming.

This beautifully decorated Latham-Sholes model, with elaborate decals like those on period sewing machines, would brighten up any Victorian office.

Early typewriters were pricey luxury items, retailing around $125 in the U.S. in the 1870s, roughly equivalent to a top-of-the-line cellphone today. But the increase in workplace efficiency and the opportunities afforded to skilled typists revolutionized office life.

The “Remington Girl, a typist ready to take dictation,” in this 1901 advert represents the ideal typist for your office needs.


…but this partial stereo view from the same year probably comes closer to reality!  (W.F. Rau, The Careless Typist)

The need for inexpensive but skilled typists opened up opportunities for women in business, who would dominate “typing pools” throughout the coming century. Learn more about the role of female typists in the 20th century workforce here.

This image from 1888 shows the era of women in offices was well underway

Although most corporations no longer employ large staffs just for the job of typing, the ability to use a keyboard is as vital a skill as it was over a century ago. In high school in the early 1990s, the only course my parents insisted I take was typing (it was called  “keyboarding” then, and I learned on a computer.). Thanks, folks!

Although largely overtaken by ever more efficient and modern equipment, the vintage typewriter still has enthusiasts worldwide (including, famously, actor Tom Hanks). We keep our family’s 1902 Underwood typewriter in an honored place in our living room, and websites such as The Classic Typewriter Page celebrate the history of one of the devices that transformed the 20th century.

However you do it, happy typing!

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