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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.