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Memoir of a “Typewriter”

We received the following memoir by e-mail but labeled as “a comment that’s a bit too long.” Long it was, but your Editors decided that it should be put more centrally as a very welcome addition to the current theme on typefaces and fonts. Herewith, therefore, a look backward to a time when choice of fonts was not, you might say, a subject that produced a frown…

*  *  *

As a “woman of a certain age,” and reading your recent post, I was reminded that “fun with fonts” was unknown to me when I became a self-described “typewriter” around the early 1960s in the Old Country, in Germany.

The typewriters then in use, on which I learned the skill, had a single font or typeface.  Mine was a manual machine and required quite a punch to produce a printed page, especially when using carbon paper to get more than one copy of the text. And I am also sure that few of the current generation have even heard the words “cut a stencil,” which was done on the typewriter but without the use of the inked ribbon. My colleagues of a “certain age” will also remember that correcting an error on a stencil was done with a blue correcting fluid that, once dried, created a new surface that could be cut again. From these stencils hundreds of copies of the “Daily Bulletin” I composed for my Ramstein Air Base employer could then be reproduced.

That manual typewriter had evolved into an electric machine by the time I returned to work in this country in the 1970s. A “ball” had replaced the metal characters affixed to the tips of tiny mechanical arms, and changing balls you could change the font that appeared upon the paper. We still have one of those old Selectrics in the basement but have begun to consider releasing it from its useless existence.

The silicon chip era and the first computers arrived in the late ‘70s or ‘80s. With its dawn typing, using the ten-finger touch-typing method, was quietly dropped as a course in high schools. Typing had turned into keying and required an ever-so-much-lighter touch by the keyer. No longer did students have to work at learning to hit letters hard but carefully in order to avoid making mistakes. Whiteout was no longer needed. A rapid succession of strokes on Backspace could erase many or few errors. And editing became quite easy.

Numerous typefaces, font sizes, bold face, italics, etc.—borders and background colors—etc., etc., are now at the keyer’s beck and call. Babies are already fascinated—and peck at their very own toy laptops where they learn this new skill by osmosis.

Yes, we’ve come a very long way indeed from the days of those ancient monks—who lovingly and laboriously “scribed,” elaborated, and decorated those illuminated texts we now find in museums and monasteries—to the age of the half-grown and one-quarter educated texting on I-phones with their thumbs, using curious abbreviations, with an abstracted look of rare concentration on their faces.

—Brigitte Darnay

*  *  *

Herewith some illustrations that fell into our hands as we shook the Google tree on the subject of typewriters, stencils, and the like:

Typewriter keys: Here’s lookin’ at you!

The IBM Selectric–and the versatile ball you could change to change fonts.

The most popular brand of stencil. These waxed sheets received keystrokes from the typewriter, without using a ribbon. The hard punch produced hollows in the surface, in fact a negative. The hard backing of these sheets was then removed, and the waxy, blue sheet carefully wound around the disk of a Mimeograph machine. These were present in virtually every office. An image of one will conclude this tour…

The Mimeograph machine!

Picture credits:

Typewriter keys, Wikipedia here.
IBM Selectric, Rutgers University projects site here.
The Stencil, Charles Richard, here.
And the Mimeograph machine, courtesy of Answers.com here.


2 Responses

  1. Wonderful story of how things have changed in the world of actually get those letters on paper.

    From cutting stencils to thumbing a text message, my… but we are certainly are a species that likes to communicate!


  2. Great post! I love to hear about “you guys” from way back when and your thoughts about now and then. Great pictures, too. That technique has changed so, so much also. The idea of not having to be careful because all you have to do is backspace or delete. Good point. Now that is a big and serious change. And the image of kids texting with their thumbs and mostly in highly abrieviated forms that look like code to adults, where correct spelling is actually shunned, very good! (As far as correct spelling is concerned, if I can see a mistake then I figure it must be HUGE.) Makes me think of cashiers at the grocery store : I remember being amazed when Theresa Green’s mother went to work at the grocery store in Lake Braddock, how quickly she learned to punch in the numbers. A skill. Now all they have to do is swipe bar codes. If the bar code doesn’t work then the whole process slows down while the cashier in excruciatingly SLOW fashion types the series of numbers into the machine… She’s not deliberately trying to irritate, she just doesn’t know how to do it faster!

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