“Rebuilt” Defined

In the early years, “second hand” typewriters were sold in a wide variety of conditions.  While many were heavily torn down and reconstructed, a great number were not.  The lower quality, patched-up or in some cases not even patched-up machines gave the whole notion of second-hand machines something of a bad name.

As in any business, there were also unscrupulous persons who offered typewriters that were said to have been reconditioned or refurbished but which were not much more than touched up with new paint.  Some were even sold without telling the buyer that the machine was rebuilt — that is to say, the advertising led the buyer to believe that the machines were new (although it was never specifically stated.)


Detail from an early Harry A. Smith ad which never mentions that these typewriters had been rebuilt. Ad in Will Davis collection.

Finally in 1920 the Federal Trade Commission asked the major typewriter manufacturers to assemble and determine as a standard what should constitute a typewriter described as “rebuilt” or “remanufactured.”  This was defined as follows:

Machines in which all substantial parts have been removed, examined, cleaned and tested; defective parts replaced; type properly aligned; unnecessary lost motion eliminated; tarnished blued and nickeled parts reblued and renickeled; and the parts of which have been reassembled, inspected, and adjusted by competent workmen.

Clearly by the above definition a rebuilt machine legally had to be taken quite apart, and in the cases of most of the factory rebuilders ‘defective parts replaced’ meant that the parts were replaced with new ones.  Another route to obtain this effect was batching, where a batch of perhaps 50 machines might be whittled down to, say, 30 by mixing and matching the best parts among them and coming up with 30 complete machines without having to buy new parts.

The industry took other actions that same day in cooperation with the FTC, and we’ll detail and explain those in future posts.  Also, we’ll look into every aspect of the described process above as well as other practices which allowed legal sale of ‘used’ machines without following the process outlined.

Not in the Books

The vast majority of books written over the years for typewriter enthusiasts sidestep or, most commonly, completely ignore the rebuilt typewriter business, instead focusing on rare, unusual or just good-looking machines.  One of the few books that does mention rebuilt machines is the indispensable “Century of the Typewriter,” by Wilfred Beeching.

Century of the Typewriter Beeching 2nd Ed

“It is also worth pointing out,” Beeching writes (on page 88 of the second or 1990 edition) “that a good reconditioned typewriter is generally a better proposition than a used car.”

Although that reference is in the midst of another topic, on page 188 Beeching specifically elaborates on what he called “reconditioned typewriters” and the business.  He points out (as readers of this blog already know) that it didn’t take long after the mass production of typewriters began for a market in rebuilt machines to start up.  After describing generally the rebuilding process (which we’ll get into in vastly more detail in many later posts on this blog) Beeching interestingly and correctly notes “Before World War II, the demand for used machines led to a large and thriving business both in America and in England and, indeed, all over the world.”  Later, Beeching tells us that at the time of the writing of the book (which originally was 1974) “there is still a thriving business in rebuilt machines.”

“Century of the Typewriter” is one of the few books available to collectors written by someone who actually participated in the industry.  Beeching’s recognition of the rebuilt typewriter business is safely assumed to be a product of first-hand knowledge of the sales opportunities offered, and is just one reason why his book is (or should be) considered one of the most complete looks at the typewriter business on the whole that has ever been made available.

Rebuilt Retail

Today, so long after the fact, we tend to think of rebuilt typewriters as machines that were sold by mail order (to individuals or small offices), by catalogue or else by dealers who wished to either supplant a brand-new high-grade make or else compete with such makes.  It’s been largely forgotten that there were, many years ago, retail showrooms for factory rebuilt typewriters.

Young salesroom 1926 169 N Dearborn St Chicago

Above, we see a view of the inside of the Young Typewriter Company retail showroom in about 1926.  This retail store was located at 169 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago, and offered a complete line of nothing but “Young Process” rebuilt typewriters to the public.  This view comes from a Young trade catalogue in my collection.

Visible on the heavy island display tables in the center of the room are not only standard machines (such as the Underwood No. 3 near the front) but also two Corona No. 3 portables.  In other spaces of the store we can see other well-known standard makes such as L. C. Smith – but we can also see in the bottom of the near display table a Smith Premier No. 10.  Also, on the back wall at the top is a Hammond Multiplex. There appears to be a wide variety of machines in the cases, although it’s hard to identify all of them.  Identification notwithstanding, the view here helps to support the fact that almost any machine made in any real numbers was available somewhere, sometime as a factory rebuilt typewriter – and that you could walk right in off the street and not only see but try out such machines yourself in a long-ago time.

A Chance to Sell

All of the big typewriter makers limited their dealerships (or “franchises,” or “agencies” or whatever term you’d like) so that no two could be close enough to each other so as to cannibalize business.  This meant that once a general area was built up it was hard, after a time, to secure an agency for a reputable make.  How could you get into selling machines yourself, then?  There was a way, and Augustus Perow did it as did many, many others.

Perow Blotter

Although this ink blotter displays an L. C. Smith No. 2 machine, it’s just an image of a typewriter to get your attention; it’s clear that Perow sold “all makes of typewriters,” and from the “Wholesale and Retail” tag line you can be sure he was selling rebuilt machines – and very likely, obtaining them from a large rebuilding firm.

Direct sale of rebuilt machines had the advantage of price as can be seen here, with machines 40% to 75% the original cost (thus, roughly $60 all the way down to $25 on what would originally have been $100 machines when new.)  The opportunity for a thrifty office manager to get machines two, three or four-for-one is an attention-getter.  Although the machines would not be the latest models or styles at the lowest prices, all would have likely had at least some sort of warranty as well.

In this case Perow made out as well as his customers.  Perow, who we know to have been in business in roughly the 1912-1915 time frame, would have bought these machines at a dealer-wholesale price, deriving at least a modest profit on their sale.  Also, the sale of rebuilts gave him the opportunity to offer warrantied machines in numbers in the face of big competition.  It’s no wonder that many dealers got onto the rebuilt concept given the benefits to themselves and the advantages for the customers.

Slightly Anachronistic

Square Underwood 5 Rebuilt Resized

By the time gray crinkle (or, for some in the industry, “crackle” or “wrinkle”) paint was being applied to typewriters both brand new and rebuilt in the early 1950’s, the venerable Underwood No. 5 had been out of production for almost two decades.  However, with millions of these dependable and at one time industry-leading machines around it was inevitable that the No. 5 would play a prominent role in the world of rebuilt typewriters for many years, and this example shows that some even stayed in front line service long enough to be given the gray treatment.

Rebuilt Underwood 5 side

While there’s no indication on this machine as to who rebuilt it or sold it, it’s known that for many years large companies such as International Typewriter Exchange rebuilt machines in this fashion — overall gray, with just a simple decal indicating the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer.)  Such machines were sold through the 1950’s and 1960’s by Montgomery-Ward through its catalog, as just one example of a possible outlet.

Although open-sided machines of any make mostly didn’t stick around in the service loop long enough to “get gray,” this one did – and in reality, most rebuilt Underwoods look like they did when new, or else are all over black crinkle, making this example just a bit more uncommon than its color might hint.

1890 – Already a Surplus

Although there was serious debate among the earliest rebuilders of typewriters as to which was first out of the gate, it’s a safe bet that by the middle 1890’s it was becoming clear that there was at least some sort of opportunity to deal in second hand, “used,” and / or patched up typewriters.

1890 National Typewriter Exchange

The original source of the advertisement seen above, for the “National Type-Writer Exchange,” has been lost but the date is known —  1890.  In the ad, “new or second-hand” machines “of any make” are advertised as bought and sold.  That’s important – not only is this a very early ad presenting second-hand machines for sale, but it’s also letting the public know that the firm was purchasing used machines.

The status of the big makes as $100 machines is also indirectly referenced – note the descriptor “Caligraphs, Hammonds, Remingtons and all cheaper makes.”   The direct implication then of the line “Good machines at half first cost” is that the top end second-hand machines were going for $50.

One might safely assume that this firm was not selling junkers for $50, out of alignment, pounded out, skipping and worn.  However, at this time the general industry terms “rebuilt,” “reconditioned” or “refurbished” had not yet come into wide use.  Later, machines that were complete but unaltered (not fixed up in any way) would be referred to as “in the rough” or just “roughs.”

For now though what we have is a very early glimpse at the industry and widening market that lay ahead – a market that could only expand as generation after generation of brand-new machines reached the end of their service (or contract) lives and had to be replaced.

Introducing “On the Margin”

During the ‘Era of the Manual Typewriter’ (roughly from the 1880’s through to the 1960’s) an enormous number of typewriters was given second and even third lives through the process of factory rebuilding.  This process – which wasn’t always very thorough, and wasn’t always totally reputable – in most cases resulted in a “like new” typewriter.  In the times and places it didn’t, the reputation of rebuilt machines suffered.  However, in the times and places that rebuilding was done right, the effect on the buyer was potentially enormous, allowing two-for-one, three-for-one and even up to four or five-for-one purchasing when compared with brand new typewriters.

Naturally, because the profit obtained on these rebuilt machines was small, the rebuilt typewriter business (from the standpoint of the factory) was always a risk.  Also, not knowing the available volume or even models of machines that would become available meant that rebuilders had to make do with what came their way, unless they were able to secure arrangements that solidified supply.  Because of the limited profit, and limited sales opportunity compared with the mainstream, brand-new products of the major builders I’ve decided to name this blog “On the Margin.”  The typewriter reference is obvious and deliberate, and hopefully, memorable.  The blog address — rebuilttypewriters dot wordpress dot com — hopefully serves as a proper director to the effort.

In the coming months and, perhaps, years, this blog will show the rebuilt typewriter business from what we like to look at at nostalgically as the ‘classic era’ from every conceivable angle.  How the rebuilders worked, how the sales opportunities occurred, how the machines were sold and much more will be shown here through the display of items from my own personal collection which has taken many years and much effort to amass.  You’ll find out that the rebuilt typewriter is much more common, much more interesting and much more desirable than you might previously have thought, and you’ll also get the chance to see unusual artifacts and photos.

One of those photos is the header for this blog.  I will reproduce it here in full (uncropped) form.

Dearborn Typewriter Co. Insp Ship 1917

Here we see the Inspecting and Shipping Department of the Dearborn Typewriter Company as shown in that firm’s 1917 Catalog.  Dearborn was not one of the largest players in the rebuilt typewriter business, and this scene is typical of what might have been found in a smaller rebuilder dealing in volume.  The machines seen here have already been rebuilt, and are being given their final adjustments by the technicians before being crated up (see the right rear area.)  The man wearing the suit and discussing something with an apron-clad technician is Charles E. Gaerte, President of the Dearborn Typewriter Company.

I hope you enjoy the many images, tales and ideas yet to unfold on this, my latest typewriter related effort.  Please let me know if you do!

Will Davis