Journalist Jo Rodgers asks why people are increasingly keen to revive an earlier form of correspondence.
The episode of Desert Island Discs that I’ve listened to more than any other is from 2016, when Kirsty Young interviews the actor Tom Hanks. You probably know the one. After describing his first date with Rita Wilson (they went – where else – to the movies), Hanks mentions, like somebody setting a hunk of Gouda on a mousetrap, that he’s an authority on ‘root beer and typewriters.’ Young leaps in to say she isn’t going to ask about that, presumably because the interview is going pretty great and she would rather not spend the remaining seconds talking about spools. Hanks would.
He is, of course, the world’s best-known collector of typewriters, and owns over a hundred machines. He taps out shopping lists, thank-you notes, newsletters. ‘Here’s what I get from a typewriter – if I am sending a note, or a letter, or a thank-you or a memo, or even writing a shopping list, the ink is not applied to the paper. A hammer with a letter on it hits a wet damp rag of ink, a ribbon, and imprints that letter, and that word, and that sentence, that paragraph, that thought, gets into the actual fibres, the rag content of the paper. So it’s not on the paper, it’s in the paper, and in that state, provided you don’t burn it or set it out into the sun or crumple it and throw it away, it will last as long as the stones of Stonehenge.’ Tom Hanks, Uncommon Type.
It’s no surprise to Tom Lucas, who, like Hanks, bought his first typewriter in his late teens and didn’t look back. Lucas now runs The Typewriter Man in Luton, a business that restores vintage typewriters and sells refurbished models. ‘Contrary to popular belief,’ says Lucas, ‘most of my customers are not over 70 and unable to use a computer. In fact, the majority are under 30 and discovering the pleasures of an “analogue” manual typewriter for the first time!’ Walid and Joujou Saad, who own Mr and Mrs Vintage Typewriter in Milton Keynes, note the same trend. ‘There’s an amazing surge in the demand for typewriters for young people from age five up to age 18,’ says Walid. ‘Christmastime is always a busy period for preparing light and smooth typewriters for them.’
So what ails a vintage typewriter? ‘Rubber parts – every time!’ says Lucas ‘Rubber deteriorates in a way that metal does not, so often platens and feedrolls need to be re-rubbered and new feet made or obtained. Traditional cat-gut drawcords on portables deteriorate over time (50 to 60 years) and break. I replace these with a nylon monofilament which should last as long, if not longer.’ Since new typewriter parts aren’t being produced, repairs are often foraged, or subtly upgraded with modern materials, like the nylon monofilament. ‘For missing parts, we tend to replace them from what we call a “donor machine”, a machine that unfortunately has no chance of surviving. We use its parts to save others,’ says Walid. ‘On other occasions, we try to recreate or replace a part by using 3D printing technology.’
But where to start, if you’ve only ever composed on a MacBook? ‘It really depends what the user is wanting to do with the typewriter,’ says Lucas. ‘If they want to write a book or thesis for example, they would need a heavy-duty portable at the very least. If it’s to write poetry or the occasional letter, a lightweight “flat portable” would do.’
Lucas also has a warning for first-time buyers: ‘Avoid online auction sites. They’re a minefield. You get machines advertised as fully working that have been sat in a damp loft for decades and are seized up with rust; machines with major faults being sold by people who genuinely think that they must work because the bell rings.’ If you’re the one with the damp loft, wondering whether the machine you have is worth restoring, Walid’s favourite models are from Olympia (‘well built to be heavily used and survive’) and the Hermes 3000 (‘the smoothest typewriters to type on’), while Joujou’s is the sleek black Imperial Good Companion Model 1 from the 1930s. Lucas favours a 1960’s German Olympia SF DeLuxe Portable (‘one of the best designs of flat portable typewriter ever made’). Once you’ve found your match, who can say how far that snowball will roll?
By the way – ‘Tom Hanks hasn’t tried any of our typewriters yet,’ says Walid, a mind reader, ‘but we guarantee if he tries us he’ll never go anywhere else!’
Jo Rodgers is a journalist who lives in London with her husband and two children. She is a contributing writer at Vogue, Conde Nast Traveller, House & Garden and Country Life.
The typewriter you’ll spot here in these images is a meticulously restored Olympia SM3, kindly lent to us by Walid and Joujou. To find the machine for you, head to mrmrsvintagetypewriters.com or thetypewriterman.co.uk