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.)

Bringing Them In

Smith Typewriter Sales receipt 1924

The incredible illustration above, showing a receiving room stacked from floor to nearly the ceiling with crated typewriters, comes to us from a trade catalog issued by the Smith Typewriter Sales Co. in 1924.

It’s quickly obvious that every case contains an L. C. Smith & Bros. machine – the company had in recent times converted to handling only this make, after its original founder, Harry A. Smith, returned and took back control of the company.  In fact, Smith himself had (after a failed venture to construct brand new machines) first become an employee of L. C. Smith & Bros. directly in exchanged machines before re-acquiring control of his old firm.  This company had originally been the Harry A. Smith Typewriter Company, but that name was shifted to the “new typewriter” venture when that started; the rebuilt venture became “Smith Typewriter Sales.”

Smith Typewriter Sales Final Location

The building seen above — now, long gone — housed the final location for the company, which moved a number of times after its founding in 1911.  This building was at 360 East Grand Avenue, Chicago.  Descriptions of the facility lead to the conclusion that the typewriter company did not occupy all of this building.

Getting back to bringing in the machines, it should be noted that the trade catalog stated that the company bought “in large quantities, having bought as many as 4000 typewriters at one time.”  In previous years, before becoming associated with the Smith Bros.’ company (there was no relation between the Smith Brothers and Harry A. Smith, it must be said) Harry A. Smith advertised that he would buy machines “in lots from ten to one hundred,” and he seems to have acquired all manner of machines from all manner of sources.  No matter what the arrangement, the single time purchase of four thousand machines just helps to show the volume that was available in dealing in rebuilt typewriters.

All New Rubber

Shipman Ward new rubber

Here we see E. W. S. Shipman, founder of Shipman-Ward Manufacturing Company, inspecting the work being performed to put all new platen rubber and feed roller rubber into his company’s rebuilt Underwood typewriters.

The company had originally begun as Typewriter Emporium, but the early 1920’s saw a change in name to Shipman-Ward (along with new co-owners) and a move to rebuilding only Underwood machines.  Previously, the company had rebuilt all make and manner of machines; the trend generally in large rebuilders was to steadily reduce the variety of machines taken in.

The open windows of the plant – one of the largest, if not the largest typewriter rebuilding factories ever built – add to the atmosphere of the photo, as of course does the business and work clothing styles of the day.   Unlike some rebuilders’ facilities, this plant was large, roomy and well-lit.