Looking Back


Type Your Way Back in Time

Onoway Museum has a fascinating collection of typewriters. Set your iPad or tablet aside and type your way back to the last century.

Today it is so easy to type a letter, a contract, an invoice and run off a clean copy (or as many as you might want) on the printer. Think back to the days when all business and personal communication was hand-written using a pen and ink. Then, back in the mid-1800s, to increase the speed of business communication, mechanization of the process resulted in a machine that became known as the "typewriter". The first typewriters had only capital letters then creativity set in and both upper and lower case letters appeared as two separate sets of keys. That evolved into development of the shift key so both upper and lower case letters were on the same key a big saving in production costs and physical space.

As the processes and physical characteristics of the machines became more refined over the years, electric versions appeared in the 1930s. It wasn't until after WWII that portable electric typewriters came on the scene and by the 1970s, the quiet IBM Selectic was commonly found in offices. Gone was the clack-clack-clacking of the good old manual typewriter.

The typewriter market began wasting away in the decades preceding 2000 as personal computers started to take over the world. So ... visit Onoway Museum and look at some of the old typewriters. Did you take a typewriting course in high school? Did you have a portable when you went off to college? And don't forget about changing the ribbons on the typewriter, using carbon paper to make copies or correcting typing errors with typewriter erasers or Wite-out. Take yourself back to the days of banging on those keys, hearing the ding of the bell warning you that the end of the line was near, then slapping the carriage across to be able the type the next line. What fun!

                                Premier 1906
Underwood Portable

Smith Premier 1906 model

This 1906 "portable" typewriter was attached to a thick piece of wood and would be securely held in place under the metal cover as it was carried around. The three bottom rows of white keys are the lower case alphabet; the upper rows are upper case letters. On the left and right sides are numbers and some punctuation marks.

Underwood portable

The Underwood De Luxe Portable of 1940s vintage came with a hard case. There is no number 1 key (use the letter 'l') that's the home of the backspace key.

Textbooks 1954 - 65
Underwood Office


Any of these look familiar? Pitman's New Course in Typewriting (copyright 1954), 20th Century Typewriting (1957), Gregg Typing (1965). Textbooks contained not only exercises but showed the student how to sit properly, how to arrange the typewriter/book/paper on the desk, how to curve your fingers differently if using a manual vs. electric machine. Typewriting 10, 20 and 30 disappeared in the 90s to be replaced by Keyboarding 10, etc. as we moved to the computer-driven world.

Underwood office model

The Underwood Touchmaster Five (1962) manual typewriter was easy to use, enabled you to use a black or red ribbon and introduced the exclamation mark as the shift of number 1 key. Previously you had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe. This typewriter was common in offices and schools.

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Last updated: October 12, 2020