The Iconic Typewriter

If you have ever watched Madam Secretary on CBS and stayed tuned through the closing credits to the very end, you may have noticed the logo for the show’s production company. It appears for about a second and shows the name of the company, Barbara Hall Productions, in typescript within a pen and ink drawing of a vintage typewriter. I find it interesting that a contemporary company would use the image of a typewriter, particularly a vintage model, to represent it. But it’s not unusual. Many writers’ organizations use the image of a vintage typewriter and typescript in their promotional materials and publications. Even the Professional Organization of English Majors, one of the mythical sponsors of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, has as its logo the acronym “POEM” spelled out in round 1930’s era typewriter keys.

You may wonder, as I have, why the typewriter and typescript have remained a recognizable symbol of the writer in a time when the majority of writers do not use them. But even with the wide availability of word processors, the internet and voice recognition software, the public still sees the typewriter as the writer’s insignia.mccullough typewriter

But this is not to say that typewriter technology is completely obsolete. It is true that the typewriter is a one-purpose machine in a world where multi-purpose machines are the norm. But the typewriter’s limitations can work to a writer’s advantage, especially in an age of constant distractions. While word processing and voice recognition software are state of the art, the older, slower technology of the typewriter can work for a writer. Historian David McCullough (pictured above), for example, has said he prefers to work with a typewriter precisely because it slows him down. Likewise, John Updike used a typewriter throughout his career, even after word processors became available.

It is easy to see why these authors stayed with the typewriter. They began their careers during its heyday and their work habits were undoubtedly set by the time the first word processors came on the market. The technology of the typewriter worked for them and there was simply nothing to be gained by changing.

But in recent years, there has been an increasing number of young people taking an interest in the typewriter. I recently visited the American Writers Museum where a few high school students were fascinated by its interactive display of vintage typewriters. It occurred to me that those typewriters represented new technology to them. They were as enthralled by it as people of my generation were once enthralled by the first personal computers.

Story of the Day

At age 30, novelist Monica Corwin is in many ways representative of her generation of writers. She uses on-line tools to publish her own novels. She uses social media to market her work and keep in touch with her fan base. But she writes her novels on a typewriter even though she has had access to word processors all her life. She began using a typewriter as a way to overcome writer’s block and found the technology had unexpected advantages. “I love that my typewriters give me a disconnect from distraction,” she told me recently. “But above that, they offer a tactile response to my writing.”

That tactile response is often lost with modern technology and Ms. Corwin is not alone among writers who value it. It has been said that John Steinbeck liked the feel of the pen on paper. And it is widely believed that the poems of William Carlos Williams owe their look and perhaps their rhythm to having been created on a typewriter.

And then there is Jack Kerouac. He wrote his classic novel On The Road on one continuous scroll of paper on a typewriter. That scroll will be on exhibit at the American Writers Museum through November 4. It’s a fascinating thing to see. In its dense script and apparent jumble of words, you can not only read the story (with some effort) but also glimpse the man while he tells it.

Kerouac scroll straight

If you are in Chicago and have a chance to see the scroll, I recommend that you do so. And while you are looking at it, ask yourself if this story could have been written any other way. To what extent was the story shaped by the physical act of typing it? And how much of what we all say and write today is shaped by the technology we choose?

-Paul Holler

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