It’s probably no secret that typewriters in museum collections generally aren’t my favourite kind of object. There are a few reasons for that, all based on principles of good museological practice. Let me explain…
As I travel the regions I come across many typewriters. They seem to be breeding in collection stores and back sheds. At first there is one and then another. And then another couple that turn up after that. Before you know it they have taken over, like the seagulls in Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”. If sparrows or starlings are considered to be the rats of the sky, I wonder what this make the venerable museum typewriter?
A proliferance of typewriters in regional museums isn’t necessarily a reason not to include them in a collection. The problem is that many of the typewriters I come across in collections have little or no known provenance. We don’t know who donated them, if they are associated with any particular event, who used them, or even where they came from. As far as being able to use them to illustrate important or interesting local stories, often they aren’t great examples.
Typical typewriter breeding habitat. Note the typewriters lurking under the card index accompanied by their close relative, the adding machine
Aside from that, they are big and heavy. Even the “compact” versions are more than capable of wrenching a shoulder or breaking a toe should you decide to tangle with them. In terms of both storage and display, they occupy a significant amount of real estate that could be dedicated to more significant objects. If you have any more than two or three typewriters that you know nothing about, and are concerned about your storage space not having room left for the town survey plans or Mayoral chains, I’m sure you know what I would be putting up high on the deacessioning priority list.
There does seem to be a couple of standard justifications that I hear for having a glut of mystery typewriters in the collection. One is that there are plans afoot to develop a display on the development of typewriters through the ages, from past to present. However, few of the museums with such aspirations consider themselves museums of technology. They are museums that aim to tell the stories of their particular community, not a worldwide perspective on technological advances. Such stories are really out of the context and scope of the museum.
Another reason I hear is that children really enjoy using (read: playing with) them. The “a-ha” factor, where the child draws a connection between the typewriter and the computer, or an understanding the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard layout* is often cited as being justification for their inclusion. I’m sure that there are children who make the connection and are enlightened by those facts, but I’m not quite convinced that these are the best lessons we have to offer.
We have been seduced by their quaint branding and maker’s marks, often with those nostalgic golden cursive scripts transferred onto a black wrinkle paint finish. Their open construction and visible mechanisms capture our imagination, and test our cognitive ability to predict what will happen inside when we press the button marked with the letter “a”. They are a far cry from our sleek, ergonomically designed smartphones or tablet computers, and we seem to love them for it. Perhaps a little more than is healthy. Secretly I think there are more than a few others who think these intricate machines might look delightful parted out and turned into artworks, kitsch ornaments or steampunk jewellery. In either case, we seem to find it hard to let them go.
Now, before you lynch me for crucifying this poor, defenceless, much maligned device I need to state that it is possible for me to appreciate the typewriter in a museum context. In fact, it has been one of fantastic typewriter that prompted me to write this blog.
Oliver typewriter at Dayboro Historical Society Museum
Recently I enjoyed a visit to the Dayboro Historical Society, and came across this little green beauty. It is an “Oliver” brand- possibly a model 3- that was manufactured in the USA between the 1890’s to late 1920’s. In this particular configuration, the u-shaped type bars that impress the letters onto paper swing down from above, rather than from the front of the machine to back. It’s certainly not like your average Remington.
But it isn’t just the unusual “down strike” format, the age, or the fact that it wasn’t black with pretty writing that I find this particular typewriter interesting and valuable. It was because it was used by David Edgar Evans, a local resident and newspaper correspondent, during the 1930s’. I’m told that Evans would type up his regional reports on this machine before forwarding it through to the Courier Mail for publishing. Unlike a multitude of unprovenanced typewriters sitting on shelves in our museums, its importance doesn’t necessarily lie in it’s ranking in the evolution of the printed word. The significance of this particular item lies in the way that it illustrates how the Dayboro community stayed connected with the rest of Queensland, and the importance of the region in Queensland daily life. It speaks of the means and importance of communication within our state. Through the documents it helped produce, many years on we know about the issues and events of the time that Queenslanders of the time valued and found important.
This particular typewriter would have played a large part in the recording of many incidents, both great and small: social gatherings, sporting events, births, deaths and marriages. One Dayboro local recalled that “you could barely sneeze around here without it being written up in the paper”. This is one of many typewriters that would have been used to document the very articles that today we use in our research. The Dayboro Historical Society certainly understand the most important aspect of the history of this object.
So perhaps it’s not actually the typewriter that turns my gaze glassy when I encounter them. Maybe I just need to hear more about the unique stories and reasons our communities value them. Do you have a typewriter in your collection with a unique local story? I’d love to hear all about it!
*The QWERTY layout is said to have been designed in order to slow typists words per minute down count down enough so that the machine didn’t jam