That Gray Underwood 5

The very first typewriter I acquired – almost 20 years ago – that I could be absolutely certain was rebuilt was the machine you see below.  At the time, I knew something was wrong with this thing, and I recall my late father telling me it looked more like the color of office machines you’d see in the post-Second World War years than a 1920’s machine.

Square Underwood 5 Rebuilt Resized

This machine was built originally in 1922, when typewriters were black with pinstriping and gold decals.  We know that because – like many rebuilt machines – it retains its original serial number.  However, it was rebuilt post-war and given gray crackle paint, and just a simple “Underwood” decal in red.

I have wondered for years just when this was sold and by whom.  One thing for sure is that the time period for any open-sided machine to still be considered modern enough to factory rebuild ended in the 1950’s, although it must be remembered that the war did lead to an enormous shortage of typewriters which took a while to recover from.  Well, in terms of the search, we’re a step closer.

Tower 1955 catalog SEARS

Here we see the front cover of a 1955 Sears Business Equipment and Supply Catalog.  Sears was known, as was Montgomery-Ward, for selling largely brand new portable typewriters and rebuilt standard machines (although certainly both did at times sell brand new standards.)  On page 21 we see the following machines, among others:

Tower 1955 Underwoods Rebuilt

As we can see, on the left is an older No. 6 model which was out of production before the start of the war, but which is here offered rebuilt in 1955.  Both it and the “S” model beside it are found, if we read, in gray crackle paint.  Neither would have looked like this new; they’d have been black.  Although we didn’t get the right date to find a No. 5 like my gray one shown earlier we did find a fairly obsolete model, more open than most, for sale rebuilt in the mid-1950’s.

What did the No. 5 look like new?  Well, like this…


..except of course for the fact that the typewriter you see here was also rebuilt!  In the early days of rebuilding, up through the post-war period, the rebuilders worked very carefully to ensure that the machines retained the original appearance.  Contests were even held to see if dealers could tell rebuilt from new machines of the same model.  Many could not.  Here’s another ad, showing a rebuilt-to-original Underwood 5:

ITE Underwood No 5

International Typewriter Exchange promised this Underwood No. 5 to be “completely renewed and refinished to operate and look like brand new.”

There’s an important point here.  It’s really clear that the gray Underwood No. 5 has been rebuilt.  It would have been very unclear to anyone that the Underwood No. 5 shown in the ITE ad had been rebuilt – and many of these, and others, that “look original” are actually REBUILT to “original”.  And there were tens of thousands of these rebuilt Underwood machines out there.  I’ve even seen a Wagner Underwood rebuilt and carrying later “Underwood Typewriter Company” decals, likely because no Wagner decals were still available.  No one would have called anyone out on that back then.

It was only really in the 1920’s that rebuilders began doing things like adding decals onto machines or using an advertising shift key insert to let the user know that a machine was rebuilt and who did it.  And again, later, identification of the rebuilders went away as they shifted their sales to mail and catalog outlets under the name of others, like Sears, Ward’s, and others.

Because it’s extremely important for the value proposition, let’s look at what Sears promised for the rebuilt machines it was selling in 1955.

Tower 1955 rebuilding points

We see a subtle change here – look at the third point.  Now, by 1955, brand new typewriters were not all black any more and black typewriters LOOKED old.  Thus, the “factory-new” appearance Sears mentions here is really the attempt to get machines so old that they were built black and pinstriped to APPEAR new(ish) by painting them the same color that brand new machines were painted.

Rebuilt Underwood 5 side

The problem of course is that it’s very hard to get an open-sided, open-backed typewriter to look new just by painting it another color.  And of course, it probably fooled no one.  What it DID do however was give many machines perhaps a third, fourth or fifth life in the build-service-trade in-rebuild-repeat cycle.  Any useful standard machine, as a working tool, could have multiple lifetimes; witness some rebuilders offering upstrike or “blind writer” machines into the middle 1920’s for $15 to $20 prices when brand new machines cost over $100.  In that context, it’s not perhaps too shocking that a bunch of old open sided Underwoods stayed in the forefront of business long enough to get to wear gray paint and simple decals.  Perhaps it’s fitting to think of this as the machine’s final, “out to pasture” uniform at the end of a life of hard work.

AWMCo Rebuilt – Union Enters the Fray

An interesting ink blotter recalls the days of the giant Union Typewriter Company – really, a trust company that would eventually be made illegal – and its move to enter the rebuilt typewriter market.

American Factory Rebuilt blotter

This clever ad piece asks us to “blot out those old prejudices against rebuilt typewriters” by availing ourselves of the details of American Writing Machine Company’s offerings.  This is slightly ironic considering the fact that the companies involved in Union had resisted and even counter-advertised against rebuilt (and against visible) typewriters for some time before swinging over to where the cash was to be had.

The presence of an upstrike Remington machine on the blotter hints that the date of this piece is early – early that is, in relation to the time AWMCo halted manufacture of its own line of machines (Caligraph / Century) and turned to rebuilding all makes of machines in 1906-1907.

The changeover of AWMCo was just one piece of the ponderous transition of the Union affair into something more modern and competitive.  Formed in 1893, Union was a trust that held control over the patents and factories of Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict (makers of the Remington typewriter), Smith Premier, Densmore, Yost, and American Writing Machine.  The trust kept prices of its machines high and set standards for quality and service.  However, while such trusts were at least in part meant to eliminate competition (by ensuring all profits of all makers went into a common fund, thus being able to support weaker members and so maintaining apparent competition) others from the outside with new ideas and capital charged to the fore with new machines and forced Union to change its principles.

Union had to do two things; it had to replace its upstrike machines of all makes, and it had to enter the rebuilt business.  If it did neither, either could kill it or help to.  But the giant conglomerate couldn’t just write off all of its present assets overnight.  So it took a few years to set up production of a wholly new machine (the Monarch) by 1904, and then moved to halt production of the AWMCo New Century machine and convert that plant to rebuilding in 1906-7.  In 1908 the new “visible” machines of Remington, Smith Premier, and Yost appeared and at about this time Union also absorbed Pittsburg Writing Machine Co., maker of a less-than-$100 four bank frontstrike.  (Densmore was dropped in 1910 without converting.)

With these moves – namely, converting big $100 brands to front strike “visibles,” buying and integrating a lower-price standard machine, and changing a capable plant to become a rebuilder / retailer / wholesaler, Union had made great strides to meet the competitive situation.  It knew, as did all others sooner or later, that the rebuilt market would exist whether it moved to enter it or not – and by not entering, it could only be hurt by it.  Considering that AWMCo remained in business well into the 1930’s rebuilding machines (and, handling the new-old-stock parts of L. R. Roberts after Remington used its Remington-Noiseless subsidiary to buy that firm out at auction in 1927) it made the right call!

American Writing Machine Letterhead

American Writing Machine Co. letterhead, 1930. This letter was sent as the result of an inquiry into Blickensderfer keys, which AWMCo was handling as a result of the 1927 buyout of Blick’s descendant company, L. R. Roberts.  AWMCo. advised the gentleman that all key buttons were totally sold out, and suggested the purchase of a new Rem-Blick.

Miller Closes Out – Or Does It?

In December 1927, an interested party received a letter from the Miller Typewriter Sales Company of Wichita, Kansas, almost surely in answer to a request for information.  That letter was a flyer advertising the company’s offerings of rebuilt typewriters.  However, this flyer had been altered before being sent, as can be seen below.

Miller Typ Sales Co Letter Dec 1927

This now-fragile sheet advertised “Rebuilt Standard Visible Typewriters” and included the description “$10.00 to $30.00 Less.”  As we can see, a variety of models was offered.

What’s interesting is the typed additions at the top of the sheet.  These read as follows:

“Dear Sir:  We are closing out what we have left, all makes at $25.00 each.  These are real bargains.  Fine nickel plating and good enamel and all have two-color switch and backspacer, etc.  Also have one Rex Visible not shown on this sheet at only $10.00.  No Royals or L. C. Smiths left, or Olivers.  No more at these prices as soon as disposed of present supply.  Better get busy.”

Now, that message to to the prospective buyer makes it sound as if a fire sale were in progress – that is to say, a total closeout.  And that’s certainly the impression it was meant to convey.  “Better get busy” means that if you don’t act now, others will get these machines at these low prices (and twenty-five’s a pretty good price for a Monarch, Remington, Woodstock, Underwood or Corona machine in that year.)  But read it again and notice that nowhere does the company directly state that it’s going out of business, that this is the end, or that it’s all over.  It just says “no more at these prices.”

So what we have here in all probability is a sales tool – the creation of the impression of a coming shortage.  In this case, that’s shortage of supply of inexpensive rebuilt typewriters.  But nothing could have been further from the truth in that year, because the business overall was doing quite well nationwide.  More than likely Miller Typewriter Sales (which oddly has included an envelope addressed directly to most likely the owner / manager, C. W. Miller) was doing all right and was simply using a good sales tactic to motivate the buyer.  Because this was an extremely obscure company, we can’t say for sure, for now – but the tactic is clear as day on the second reading.

Miller Typ Sales Co Envelope

Harry A. Smith: Personal Care

Among seasoned typewriter collectors, the name “Harry A. Smith” has almost always been well known.  His machines are the most-discussed rebuilds because of his occasional habit of replacing the original maker’s name with his own, and even his own emblem – and these relabeled machines are prized among collectors.  Yet, he sold far more machines faithfully rebuilt and originally labeled.

Smith launched his company in 1911 after years of sales work in the office business, and quickly became a successful seller of rebuilt machines – largely by mail.  He shed control of his original firm to focus on an attempt to build brand new typewriters at the start of the 1920’s, but when that company failed he soon found himself in the employ of L. C. Smith & Bros. in the Exchanged Machines department.  It was not long after this employment that Smith took back control of his old firm, now the Smith Typewriter Sales Co., and put it in the employ of his new bosses to become an exclusive rebuilder of L. C. Smith machines alone.

No one could have remained in this business as long as Smith did without doing many things right, and now, thanks to a remarkable late 1924 brochure, we can read some of his philosophy.  What’s more, the photo contained therein may be among the last published of Smith, who died January 11, 1925; the brochure has hand written on it “Rec’d 12/26/24.”  By that date, Smith was already in the hospital (according to information provided by Alan Seaver.)  He was 50 years old.

Harry A Smith 1924

Above, Harry A. Smith is seen in his office at Smith Typewriter Sales.  On the wall behind Smith is an illustration of the L. C. Smith & Bros. factory in Syracuse, New York; outside the window of his office can be seen the Chicago River.

The following is printed below the photo and attributed to Smith:

“SUCCESS in this business, as I see it, can only come in proportion to the amount of personal care and interest that is put into it.  I personally open each letter that we receive.  Your order or inquiry has my personal attention first, before going to the other departments; any order or inquiry that has anything out of the ordinary in it must be reported back to me for my personal assurance of proper attention.  I have spent most of my business lifetime in the typewriter industry.  I thoroughly understand the work and enjoy it.

The typewriter expert is necessarily a highly developed type of keenly sensitive mechanic.  The nature of his work requires great concentration of his senses of sight, touch and sound.  He works for hours under severe tension with every faculty alert, and it requires full understanding of such a man and his work to keep things running smoothly.

Smith Typewriter Sales LCSmith 8

Above, a Smithtype Rebuilt L. C. Smith & Bros. No. 8 machine.

I know and fully appreciate the accuracy and precision required of my men and ‘ease things up’ by giving each man the work he likes and performs the best.  In many cases I have made it more pleasant for the men, and more conducive to better work, by placing them in groups of four, each doing a specialized portion of assembling.

Our large, unusually well lighted workrooms are appreciated.  The men have a real love for the perfect mechanism of the L. C. Smith, which enables them to do more and better work than on other makes.

I know good work and exact a definite but reasonable output per man.  On the other hand, I know the worth of personal encouragement.  Our practice is to give our men full praise and good pay for doing unusually good work.  My men believe they are handling the best typewriter that is built.  Their belief in, and respect for, the L. C. Smith comes from their intimate knowledge of the quality of the machine and the service it gives our customers.

Our care and interest continues after we have shipped your typewriter to you because it is our desire that every customer shall be more than satisfied in every respect.”

Smith Typ Sales 1924 Smith Sig

Galbreath Typewriter Co.

Were it not for a cache of letters recently discovered, history might have forgotten the still-obscure Galbreath Typewriter Co. business – surely one of the smaller, regional operations but one which did advertise off and on for over a decade.

Galbreath Aug 1926 A

This August 1926 letter advises the recipient that two ranges of machines were advertised on the enclosed flyer (which we’ll see in a moment) – “cheap” machines, which for rebuilders were older variants of established makes or else obsolete sorts, and “late up to date machines” which were either still in production or at least very recent.  There’s no record which if any Mr. Mason ordered.

The letter above is signed by A. A. Galbreath, President of the Galbreath Typewriter Company.  This operation’s roots go back as far as 1913 when the mail-order Carnegie College, of Rogers, Ohio began to advertise rebuilt machines through its Typewriter Department.  Galbreath was President of this Carnegie College as well, which offered learn-by-mail courses in a wide variety of topics including but not limited to English, Engineering, Domestic Science, Poultry, Drawing, Real Estate and, probably unsurprisingly, “Type-writing.”

Asher A. Galbreath himself was born in Columbiana County Ohio in 1864, and among other things was at one time Mayor of the city of Rogers (from which the Carnegie College operated) and an Ohio Senator.  Eventually one or more of his sons became involved in the college and typewriter operations.

A 1917 ad for rebuilt typewriters in Progressive Teacher and Southwestern School Journal gives the curious address of “Everette Galbreath, Rogers Ohio.”  A 1918 ad has the orders sent to “Senator A. A. Galbreath, Carnegie College, Rogers Ohio.”  Sometime after this, certainly by December 1919 the name Galbreath Typewriter Company came into use.

Galbreath Aug 1926 B

Above and below, advertising flyer in 1926 Galbreath Typewriter Co. letter.

Galbreath Aug 1926 C

The advertisement for Galbreath shows the usual spread of prices for machines, but it should be noted that the actual prices for the machines are slightly higher than the norm even at this time, although not by any means extravagant.  There is clear evidence that Galbreath was rebuilding these machines it offered and not just distributing machines rebuilt by a larger national firm – the description of the company in its letterhead states “rebuilders, wholesalers and distributors.”  The factory was located in Rogers, while General Offices were in Columbus.

In this case Galbreath Typewriter Co. did not offer any “store front” services that we know of, and did not repair or service machines.  It appears as if Galbreath’s machines were mail order, just like the courses offered by the family run, affiliated college.  The parallel between this operation and Victor, which made new typewriters and which was for most of its life owned by International Correspondence Schools, is interesting.

Obsolete machines are often a focus of the bargain basement class of rebuilt machines, and in this case the old Royal No. 5, the Oliver No. 5, the full keyboard Smith Premier No. 10 (a front strike) and the Hammond No. 12 stand out.

Galbreath disappears from the record before the time of the Great Depression, and it’s safe to say so did many other operations we might never know about.  That said, we do have records and even brochures from a few other small operations throughout the years and you’ll see those all here on this site, eventually – so stay tuned for that.  For now however it’s enough that we can add another name to the pantheon of rebuilt typewriter companies, which at this late date is something of an event in itself.

Still Standing

W. H. Young launched the Young Typewriter Company in Chicago in 1911 – a period in which several companies that would become significant rebuilders were launched.  According to a 1926 trade catalog issued by his company, Young had previously achieved success both as “an expert mechanic and a successful salesman.”

The company moved more than once in its lifetime, but its final factory location was 652-654 West Randolph Street, Chicago.  Here we see a photo of the factory in operation from the 1926 Young Process Remanufactured Typewriters trade catalog.

Young Typewriter 652 W Randolph

As with other plants of the day, the Young plant operated on the newer design wherein a single machine did not stay in one spot during its rebuilding by a single expert, but rather was broken down with parts traveling through the plant in streams to later be assembled by a bank of experts.  Below, we see an early phase of the rebuilding operation; a power washing machine was employed to completely clean sections of the machines, already disassembled; they were then dried after this by compressed air.  Although not advertised in the catalog, there is at least one Smith Premier No. 10 and at least one Oliver machine in the cleaning room seen here.

Young Power Washing Machine

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the Young plant and the machines it turned out in future installments; we’ll also meet Mr. Young himself.  What may be surprising is that the building that housed the Young Typewriter Company (which appears to have ended business during the Great Depression) is still standing today.  The photo below, from Google Maps, shows the Young building as the right-most of the two taller buildings at the center of the photo.

652 w randolph chi google maps Young Typewriter

Direct Competition

As we have seen, rebuilt and second-hand typewriters were being sold over the period from the early 1890’s through the 1960’s at prices anywhere from roughly 3/4 the price of brand new standard machines all the way down, in some cases, to just over 1/10 the price.  That price incentive alone was a serious inducement to buy – but yet there were those who did not wish to buy what they still perceived as an old or used machine.  And they did have something to buy, too – because there were always brand-new machines available priced well below the industry average prices for high grade, new machines.  This adds yet another angle to our narrative on rebuilt typewriters, and it’s a significant one.

The brand new machines of this “new but less than full price” bracket were most frequently sold by mail order only (which held down overall costs) but a few examples were sold through major catalogues.  One of the best was the Harris Visible, sold for a number of years by Sears, Roebuck & Co.


The Harris was first sold at just $39.80 in 1912, but quickly moved up to $44.50; no matter which price though, this definitely was direct competition for rebuilt machines as the Harris was brand new, “shipped direct from the manufacturer” and had a strong warranty.

Perhaps the most significant fact for us today in terms of rebuilt machine history is that Sears was well aware that its machine was in direct competition against rebuilt machines; it proved this by including a long passage about rebuilt machines in its 1913-1914 trade catalog for the Harris.  That passage, while heavily biased against second hand and rebuilt typewriters does include many grains of truth and as such is a valuable contemporary official record for us to consider historically.   The italics are in the original.

• • • •  From the Harris Visible Typewriters trade catalog, page 23:

“A Few Words About Second Hand and ‘Rebuilt’ Typewriters

Before it was possible to secure an efficient new typewriter at a reasonable price, it may have been economy to purchase a second hand or ‘rebuilt’ machine.

But now that the Harris Visible Typewriter is offered at $44.50, we do not believe you will care to purchase any used machine.

The so-called ‘standard’ typewriters, selling for almost $100.00, are usually sold second hand for $25.00 to $60.00.  ‘Rebuilt’ machines net $30.00 to $75.00.  The price depends entirely on the length of service and the condition of the machine.

While it is much better to have any typewriter than none, it is still better to have a new machine than one that is second hand or ‘rebuilt.’

Really good typewriters are rarely traded in.  In nearly every case when a typewriter is traded in, its greatest usefulness has been pounded out.  If it were still efficient, it would not be traded; or if traded and really rebuilt, would command almost the price of a new machine.

Regarding ‘rebuilt’ typewriters – the name is misleading.  Very few are actually rebuilt and these sell for $50.00 to $75.00.  The others, which sell for $30.00 to $50.00 are old machines, which have been cleaned, polished and ‘tuned up a bit.’  Very few, if any, of the worn parts are replaced with new parts, and even such replacements do not add strength to the parts that remain and which are all more or less worn.

When considering the purchase of any second hand or ‘rebuilt’ machine, remember that you can secure a brand new Harris Visible Typewriter for $44.50.

If you are offered a used machine for even as low as $25.00, remember you can secure a new Harris of the latest type with up to date improvements for only $20.00 more.  And remember that the Harris is guaranteed and backed by Sears, Roebuck and Co., one of the largest merchandising institutions in the world.  You take no risk; you are guaranteed perfect satisfaction.

Surely, a feeling of confidence in the firm you buy from is worth considering.

Do not buy any second hand machine unless you know its entire history and are satisfied that it has not been unduly worn or abused.  It is possible to make temporary repairs in a worn out typewriter which will cause it to do fairly good work for a short time, but it will not last.

We have endeavored to convince you that there is no economy in paying more than our price for any new standard typewriter on the market.  How much less economical is it then to pay more than our price for a ‘rebuilt’ machine, or even a slightly used second hand machine!

Our price, $44.50, is a revelation in the typewriter industry.  The Harris is good enough for our use and good enough for anybody.  We venture to say that there isn’t $5.00 difference in manufacturing cost between the Harris and any of the most expensive typewriters made.  Yet there is a difference of about $50.00 in the price the purchaser is asked to pay.

Where does this difference come in?  What causes it?  You should answer this question before buying.

• • •

The passage above has a number of central themes which I have explored, and will continue to explore, identify and reference on this blog.  These themes – things such as trust in the seller, faith in the choice of age and quality versus price – are central to the proposition of both the off-price new machine business and, importantly to us, the rebuilt and second-hand business.  Look for much more on these themes in coming posts.

Field Report #1: Tan Tank

This series of “Field Reports” will detail rebuilt typewriters found in the wild and on collectors’ shelves, with details important to properly identifying and categorizing the machines.

Tan LC Smith A

The typewriter seen here is pretty clearly rebuilt; for starters, this machine was originally an L. C. Smith Silent standard machine, serial 1198309B 14.  As built this machine was black.  As we see the machine now, it carries two features that more or less point to its having been rebuilt in the 1950’s; the tan crinkle paint (originally it was smooth black enamel) and the green keytop covers.

What’s not so obvious about this machine is that it isn’t a factory rebuilt machine.  While the machine was very well disassembled and repainted, it’s clear in a few places that it was not totally, completely disassembled.  Factory machines (that is to say, machines rebuilt in a true factory setting whether the original maker’s or not) would have been totally disassembled down to the last part before repainting.

Further, the only decal on this machine on the front says SMITH, but the letter spacing on that decal isn’t what one would expect from a major rebuilding factory.

Tan LC Smith B

What we have here, then, is a pretty good and thorough dealer-rebuilt / professionally rebuilt machine.  Oddly, the dealer has even painted the key levers – but nowhere has any paint been applied that would interfere with any operation of the machine.  There are no decals anywhere other than the SMITH name on the front; only the serial number remains of the original labeling to designate the machine’s origin (which, it must be said, is not any sort of a mystery.)

The details may be subtle, and if this machine were seen in an auction it might be difficult for inexperienced collectors to tell that this wasn’t rebuilt in a factory setting.  Of course, in the years since the ending of factory rebuilding of machines, dealer level rebuilding has been all that’s available – and pretty high quality machines are usually the result, although often (as here) not with the absolutely minute attention to detail that the big rebuilders once gave.

The First Step

After any machine was received and properly filed by a major rebuilder, the first step in the actual rebuilding process was to tear the machine down.

Smith Typewriter Sales disassembly

Above, we see part of the disassembly area of the Smith Typewriter Sales Company in 1924.  Several technicians seated at a bench are in the process of tearing down machines; the technicians standing at the rear are brush cleaning parts, which appear to be the frames of the machines devoid of operative parts.

Right here, it should be made clear that the specific parts original to one machine – say, its particular type bars or key levers – didn’t follow that machine through the process, in large factory rebuilding operations such as this.  Instead, at the time the machines were torn down, badly worn or even broken parts were discarded right away.  New ones would be put into the pipeline as available and/or needed so that, obviously, complete machines again came out the back end of the process, but the working parts had thoroughly been mixed up by that time.

What this means is that the technicians disassembling the machines weren’t just “shredders” taking the machines apart; they were able to examine the parts removed well enough to know if they should continue in the pipeline or not.

New Type for Best Print

Shipman Ward type soldering

It’s obvious that no matter how good a typewriter might be – that is to say, no matter how good the design, the condition, the maintenance – it’s really no better than its printing.  No one wanted any correspondence coming out of an office to look sloppy, and bad or dirty type on a machine could easily lead to that appearance if allowed.

This is exactly why we see the 1924 image above; in the plant of the Shipman-Ward Manufacturing Company, we see founder E. W. S. Shipman inspecting the work of one of his craftsmen who is soldering new type onto the type bars of Underwood machines deep in the process of being completely rebuilt.  The technician has a torch in his right hand, supplied by lines visible on the wall (with cutoff valves); a type bar is being held in a fixture or jig on his bench while a new type slug is being applied.  More type bars are hanging on pegs at his station, on the wall board.  Shipman himself, having been in the industry for many years, truly knew that the print work of his machines was perhaps the final aspect a buyer could or would analyze and knew it had to be perfect.

Of course, such an operation wasn’t always due to damage; many rebuilders offered special keyboards (such as mathematical) or foreign language keyboards, and these might often have required the operation seen here (as well as the application of the appropriate ‘keyboard’, or set of keytop legends to match the type slugs.)