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MILWAUKEE — Long consigned to the dust heap of no-longer-useful devices, typewriters are surprisingly hip again.
Some may argue they never were hip, but the quaint, archaic tools of writers, journalists and secretarial pools apparently are now cool, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (http://bit.ly/17wXBDy).
The current typewriter renaissance is fueled by the nostalgia of older folks who actually used them and by younger people fascinated by the clacking, bell-ringing machines as if they were archaeological artifacts.
Members of the typewriterati gather for type-ins across the country, bringing their typewriters to a tavern, library or bookstore to hang out, talk typewriters and compete in speed typing contests.
Prices for old typewriters have shot up as more folks snap them up at garage sales, flea markets, eBay and Goodwill stores.
Some use them to type messages, which they scan with their smart phones and post to their Tumblr accounts.
What in the name of Christopher Latham Sholes is going on?
"I think it's partly a reaction to modern technology. People want to feel their words," said Judith Jablonski, who has 25 typewriters at her Milwaukee home that she uses to type letters and create artwork. "As an artist, I feel these machines matter to how I make my words."
They were the original laptops, at least the portable ones. No power source or Wi-Fi needed, millions were manufactured and lived out their mechanical lives harnessing words flowing from their users' brains — from Hemingway's novels and World War II journalists' front-line dispatches to love notes, Dear John letters and business correspondence.
While computers are great for connecting people, finding information, playing games and watching videos, typewriters only do one thing: type.
"The computer in many ways is an enemy of writing," said Michael McGettigan, a Philadelphia bicycle store owner who runs phillytyper.com and organized the first type-in two years ago.
"You might write, but you can also watch a kitten taking a bath in a teacup or a guy hurting himself on a skateboard, or you might think, 'Hey, I need an inflatable pair of sneakers or I need to fight a guy in a battle for fake coins,'" McGettigan said.
So in contrast, the typewriter seems like a faithful object — all it can do is help someone put their words on paper. It also works nicely as a paperweight.
And it's private.
"The number of NSA or CIA agents or Chinese hackers trying to break into the letter I wrote on my typewriter and threw into a mailbox is probably zero," McGettigan said.
Sure, iPads and iPhones may be the Olivettis and Smith-Coronas of the 21st century, but there are still plenty of people, whose ranks are growing, who love typewriters. Some buy them to decorate their homes, some set them up at wedding receptions for guests to type in retro guestbooks, and steampunk fans buy them because they're into vintage metal machines.
And there are typospherians like Jablonski, who picked up much of her collection from Goodwill stores. Aside from the $80 she forked over for a 1931 portable Underwood she found in a Wausau antique store, she hasn't paid more than 50 bucks for her typewriters, with some costing only $5. She's currently looking for an Oliver 5, not because she needs another typewriter — she doesn't — but because she thinks that particular black and chrome machine is beautiful.
Each of Jablonski's typewriters has its own personality: certain keys that stick or type lighter than others, varying amounts of pressure required to pound out letters and different mechanics to perform functions like shifting. She often thinks of the people who used them and the words that were tapped out on the keys.
Last year on the summer solstice she organized a type-in, setting up several of her typewriters in a Madison park. The response from passersby was enthusiastic — youths searching for the "on" button and not knowing what to do when the bell rang, their parents fondly remembering using typewriters many years ago.
Jablonski, who features a section on typewriters on her website —danteswardrobe.blogspot.com — tried to organize a type-in at Boswell Book Co. on Milwaukee's east side last fall when the documentary "The Typewriter (in the 21st Century)" was submitted for the Milwaukee Film Festival. But type-in plans fell through when the movie wasn't accepted at the festival.
Milwaukee is the cradle of typewriter civilization. While many inventors were working on typing machines in the 1800s, Christopher Latham Sholes is credited with inventing the first practical and commercially successful typewriter as well as coming up with the still ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard. National Typewriter Day is celebrated each year on June 23, the day Sholes received his patent in 1868.
The first typing machine created by Sholes, a Wisconsin state legislator and editor at the Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1860s, was wooden with piano-like keys. He continued to work on the invention, refining the typewriters manufactured at Kleinstubers machine shop, one block north of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel building.
"The real rationale for doing this was business," said Al Muchka, curator of the Milwaukee Public Museum's highly esteemed typewriter collection. "It was taking all those handwritten documents and making it fast and readable."
The Carl P. Dietz Typewriter and Business Machine Collection at the museum is the largest of its kind in the world and includes around 900 typewriters.
With Milwaukee's typewriter pedigree, it's no surprise the International Typewriter Collectors convention will be held here in August 2014 featuring a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum's typewriter collection, speakers and forums, and a visit to Sholes' grave at Forest Home Cemetery.
Gabe Burbano, a New Jersey collector who is organizing the Milwaukee convention, said typewriter fanciers fall into two camps — those who use them and those who don't, content to displaying them without actually rolling a piece of paper into the machine. Burbano has 150 typewriters that he loves for their mechanical design, not for typing.
Greg Fudacz runs The Antikey Chop in Connecticut refurbishing, repairing and selling typewriters across the country. Business among collectors has always been steady for Fudacz, but he's noticed a surge in teenage and twentysomething customers buying manual typewriters in the last two years. Olympias and Olivettis are the most sought after, followed by Royals and Smith-Coronas.
"Every generation tends to fight the establishment, and the establishment right now is social media and the Internet. Typewriters are the exact opposite," Fudacz said.
As with any group of enthusiasts, there are subsets of typewriter people. Like those who only use old cotton typewriter ribbons because they like the way the ink bleeds into the paper, looking more vintage than newer ribbons. And within the National Novel Writing Month effort — nanowrimo.org — featuring people who pledge to write a 50,000-word novel between Nov. 1 and 30, a small cohort write their novels only on manual typewriters.
Tom Hall, a Racine collector who has about 20 typewriters and is searching for a Hermes Ambassador, got started two decades ago when he came across a Royal Arrow portable at a rummage sale for $4. The 53-year-old attorney loves typewriters for their craftsmanship and ingenuity as well as the mystery.
"I still don't know how the heck a manual typewriter works. You press a key and all these bars and levers work and it strikes the paper," Hall said.
Will computer users feel nostalgic for their Apples, IBMs and Dells decades from now? Possibly. But more likely, will they still work?
For typewriter lovers like Hall, there's no romance or nostalgia with computers.
"Sometimes when I'm using one of my typewriters, I like to think of myself as Snoopy on his doghouse typing away," Hall said.
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel