Book Review. The Typewriter.

The TypewriterTHE TYPEWRITER. A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine
Uppercase Publishing, 2015.
336 pages

When I saw the cover, I knew I had to have this book. Uppercase Magazine has a strong following and editor/publisher Janine Vangool, the author, is clearly in love with typewriters, not only as objects of art, but the advertising culture around them.

While the book somewhat chronicles the history of typewriters, where it really shines is showing their advertising and ephemera. If you’re expecting a collection of typewriter makes and models and how they evolved through the decades, then this book is not for you.

The Typewriter is organized by decade. However, she doesn’t follow a strict timeline, but rather explores a variety of topics unrelated to any specific decade. Which is fine, once you realize this is not really a history book, but rather a collection of advertising and the topics and decades are really just organizing folders for storing ad copy.

It’s like Vangool emptied her file cabinet into the book.

But that’s OK! The ads are fabulous and fun!

Just ignore the history and simply flip through through the book and admire the photographs. The book is well designed, printed on nice paper and has a linen wrapped spine with gold foil. It should last as long as that restored 1956 Olympia SM3 of yours.

There are a few editorial hiccups that should’ve been caught, giving the impression that the book was not well edited and rushed to market.

The most glaring example is on page 205, which shows a full page image of a Smith-Corona Silent with a caption that reads: “Hermes Baby made in Switzerland in 1940.” Maybe that’s nitpicking.

But I wanted to see the Hermes Baby! I scoured the pages and couldn’t find it. Did someone kidnap the baby?

And that’s when it hit me.

Vangool pays almost exclusive homage to the American brands. And of those, we primarily see Royal, Smith-Corona and Remington. Missing are many of the most iconic designs in typewriters. The Olivetti promotional literature and their typewriters are some of the best designs of the 20th century. Moreover, great designs in typewriters and advertising were often found in many other European brands. These were not niche players. They were highly visible on the American scene. But there is scant mention of them.

The book should have been called The American Typewriter Century, An Advertising History.

And even then, it could’ve used a strong editorial hand. While the ads are interesting, after awhile there’s a tedious repetition of them. It’s like Vangool tossed every ad she ever found into the book. While there are some visually striking pages, they sometimes get lost in the clutter.

Vangool seems to have a niche audience in mind, one that perhaps doesn’t mind these shortcomings and will get the book as an advertising resource. I would imagine many designers are in the advertising industry and need books like these for inspiration. A blast from the past. They’ll want to see images of Americana to infuse their ad campaigns with a sense of nostalgia.

And finally, my writerly type, The Typewriter utterly ignores the famous authors and their typewriters. We got snubbed! Why, if it weren’t for the writers and their typewriters, who would be left to write their history?

For that, I am happy to say there’s a bright spot on the Typewriter Review horizon.

The Wonderful Writing Machine by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Random House, 1954)

If words are your thing, then Bliven is your man.

I’m reading now and will provide a full report.



    • While Bliven’s book is called The Wonderful Writing Machine, he, like a good storyteller, focuses on the characters rather than the machines. And in these stories I see no bias, other than two chapters. One that tells how Royal came to dominance under the “flamboyant” leadership of George Ed Smith and his colorful line of portables and another chapter of the sweet tale of Horace Stapenell, a Royal adjuster at work.

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