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