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.)

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.

A Wide Variety

Typewriter Emporium Cat Frt

Typewriter Emporium was founded in 1892 by E. W. S. Shipman, who prior to that time had worked as a typewriter salesman.  The catalog whose front cover you see here was published by his company immediately after the turn of the century.  We can infer this because none of the ‘modern’ visible machines of any make appears in this catalog except the Underwood; to be clear, all the Remington, Smith Premier and other makes in the catalog are upstrike or “blind writer” machines while the Monarch and L. C. Smith machines do not appear at all.  A date range of 1900 to 1904 or so thus seems sensible.

The company stated in the catalog that discounts from 45% to 75% off the original makers’ prices were available – this then means, more or less, that what had been $100 machines were being offered from $55 all the way down to $25.

Typewriter Emporium Cat Yost Jewett

What is interesting today is the huge variety of machines available through Typewriter Emporium as either “second hand” (which for this company, at this time, meant ‘thoroughly overhauled, inspected and tested’) or “slightly used” (as well as new, according to the piece.)  Not only are common makes such as Remington, Smith Premier and Underwood included but also, as can be seen above, Yost and Jewett.  In fact, the company’s catalog also featured Hammond, Oliver, Fay-Sho, Caligraph and Densmore machines.  Machines available but for which prices were only quoted upon request appear in the interesting spread shown below from the catalog.

Typewriter Emporium Cat Misc Machines

Starting at the top left and working our way around counter-clockwise (for those who can’t see the photo clearly enough) we see the following makes:  Chicago, Crandall, Blickensderfer, National, Franklin, Williams, Daugherty, Hartford, Duplex, Wellington, Granville Automatic, New Century, Hammond Ideal Key-Board, and Bar-Lock.

How would one decide which to pick?  The catalog gave some guidance:

“There are now so many makes of machines on the market that their prices and points of merit cover a wide range.  In this catalogue you will find that we fully illustrate the machines best known to the public, and give their important features, together with the cardinal points of advantage claimed for each of them.  With this information before you it is possible to reach your own conclusion as to which machine is best adapted to your special requirements.  If you find yourself in doubt upon any point presenting itself, we are always ready to help you with our opinion.”

None of the makes shown on the two-page spread above is normally considered as having been rebuilt at a factory and resold, but we now can assure you that some of these were.  What the catalog does is both offer an interesting look at the very early turn-of-the-century time in typewriters and push ever further the envelope of what machines could or should be considered as having been rebuilt when encountered by today’s enthusiasts.

Fox Factory Rebuilt

By the time of the First World War the existence of the rebuilt typewriter industry was not only fully established but undeniable.  The major typewriter manufacturers all realized this and reacted sooner or later.  Even the minor ones, such as the Fox Typewriter Company, realized this and got into the act.  We’ll look at two May, 1916 advertisements from the company (via Google Books) to show their efforts.

Fox Rebuilt Homiletic Review May 1916

The May 1916 issue of Homiletic Review carried the announcement that the Fox Typewriter Company was launching the factory rebuilding of its machines.  The ad made a very important point as well – according to the company’s claim, no other company could rebuild Fox typewriters.

Fox made it clear that “the same men who originally built the typewriter do this rebuilding” and that the quality was exactly the same as a new machine.  Another ad from the same time period (not shown) made it clear that from 40% to 50% of the machine was brand new when it emerged as a rebuilt machine.  An incredible three year guarantee was offered, and it’s also important to note the mail order time payment plan that most rebuilders were offering (and had for years.)  The price for the rebuilt No. 24 was $42.00.

The company also simultaneously began offering “slightly used” Fox machines.  Here is another ad from the same May 1916 Homiletic Review.

Fox Slightly Used Homiletic Review May 1916

These “slightly used” machines carried the same three year guarantee and were just slightly higher priced than the rebuilts, at $52.50.  As can be seen, time payments were also available.

The Fox Typewriter Company had changed hands in 1915, and it’s interesting to observe that after the buyout the company not only entered actively into the rebuilt typewriter business and the second hand business, but also very shortly launched a portable typewriter.  As we know today the expansion didn’t assure the company’s permanence, and it folded and liquidated in 1922.  But for now, we can certainly add the Fox Typewriter Company to the roster of original equipment manufacturers that also rebuilt machines.

For More Info:  History of the Fox Typewriter Co.

Slightly Used

It’s now time to introduce on this blog another angle of the typewriter business that was often linked (rightly or wrongly) to the rebuilt typewriter business – the sale of “slightly used” or “second-hand” typewriters.

Understanding the semantics here is vital to understanding this aspect of the business and some of the complaints against it.  To be concise, there were typewriters out there which became available for one reason or another (failure to pay on the part of a company, bankruptcy of a company, returns, or perhaps many other ways) after only having been used for a short time.  Some persons, dealers and even companies that shipped machines nationwide or internationally would deal in such machines as direct sale opportunities.

It’s important too to understand that some of the more upstanding companies early on were actually rebuilding machines and calling them “second hand” because this was felt to be the most honest label that the machines could be given since they had indeed been previously owned.  Still others performed only marginal work (“patching up”) to such machines and sold them, and some must have performed little or none.  Let’s take a look at an ad from the 1904-1905 time period (obtained from a batch of ads of this date range) to see an example.

Rockwell Barnes 1904 1905

The Rockwell-Barnes Company of Chicago was offering, through this advertisement, “Slightly Used Typewriters At Less Than Half Price.”  It’s important to spot the “$10 and up” in the upper left corner.  Also very important to catch is that the ad clearly stated that the machines offered were “in use only long enough to insure smooth running adjustment.”  The price range given was $10 to $55.

No attempt was made in this ad to assure the buyer that the machines had been returned to a brand new condition.  We can’t guess whether or not they were, but we know enough from the trade papers of the day that poor machines under the varied “second hand” or “used” or whatever labels had tarnished the entire business of pre-owned machine sales, whether fully and honestly rebuilt or not.

Because this business angle and proposition made no claim whatsoever toward the qualities expected (and later legally required) of rebuilt / refurbished / remanufactured machines it could avoid claims made against it in terms of quality as were faced by rebuilders, and could also operate cheaply.  For these reasons there were always sellers of such machines around, although often not for long.  In later blog posts we will see some actual mail order sales materials from various “second hand” and “slightly used” typewriter distributors and further examine the operations of those who chose to work under this semantic umbrella.

(Aside:  Typewriter historians should also note that somehow Rockwell-Barnes had obtained 2300 Sholes Visible machines that it was selling at $45.)

Rebuilt Remingtons

As the first decade of the last century hit its midpoint, the giant Union Typewriter conglomerate was making moves to keep up with the times.  It created the wholly-owned Monarch Typewriter Company to introduce a visible writing machine (which appeared in 1904) and introduced visible machines of the other makes (Remington, Smith Premier and Yost) in 1908.  Right between these two events, in 1906, the company made another move relevant to our discussions here:  Union ended production of the well known Caligraph line of standard machines at the American Writing Machine Co. and converted that company (and its factory) into the rebuilding arm of Union.  American’s rebuilt machines were on the market by 1907.

Remington Jan 1915

The advertisement above is from a few years later — it appeared in Literary Digest for  January 9, 1915.  It advertises “Factory Rebuilt, Guaranteed” Remington No. 10 machines for $48.75, which was less than half the price of a brand-new Remington standard machine.  The purchaser simply had to send the coupon and a ‘deposit’ of $8.75, at which time the machine would be shipped.  The payments were $5.00 monthly until the balance was paid off.

The rebuilding process was described to the prospective customer as follows:

“All the bright parts are nickeled over copper; the black parts are enameled by the same process as was used originally in enameling the machine.  In reassembling (you understand, of course, that the machine has been entirely dismantled, cleaned, and inspected) every worn and defective part is discarded and new ones substituted.  A new printing cylinder is put in as well and new feed rolls, paper finger rolls, ribbon and other perishable parts.  An entire new keyboard is put on the machine and the striping and the lettering is all new.  Our rigid inspection system permits the passing of none but machines that stand every test.

The guarantee we give with the machines (viz., one year) is the same as is given by the original manufacturer when the machine is brand new, and as we have been in the business of building new machines and rebuilding used ones for over thirty years and are now the largest concern of the kind in the world, you will appreciate the fact that our guarantee is worth something.” 

To make sure the point gets across – the company was offering the No. 10 Remington at roughly half price, in brand new function and appearance and with exactly the same warranty / guarantee that the original machine had.  The sensibility of considering such machines on the part of any office manager would be practically undeniable.

AWMCo. (as the company’s name was often abbreviated back then) was by the time of this 1915 ad doing a very solid business.  The company not only had its original plant in New York engaged wholly in the affair, but also had in late 1911 announced that it would open a plant in Chicago and also open a plant in London, England.  (According to trade reports the machinery for the London plant was manufactured in the United States and shipped over.)  In January 1912 the company opened its plant in Chicago, to serve “Western regions” (think ‘West of the Mississippi’) and also opened a showroom at 437 Dearborn Street.  (The company already had a showroom in New York City.)

Of course, in addition to mail order sales like that described by the ad shown above, the company also sold to dealers and export-import firms.  Truly, the company had come into a place in the typewriter field it had not achieved when making new machines; factories in two major US cities and one overseas!  Rebuilt typewriters were the thing American Writing Machine Co. needed to expand, and although today collectors remember it for the Caligraph they should be just as fast to remember its widely sold and successful rebuilt typewriters.