Remembering the “typewriter era”

Students in my freshman-level technical communication course were intrigued by our discussion today of document design during the “typewriter era.”

We were examining some memos from the early Microsoft Windows period, right about the time that people were beginning to understand how the new features available in Word (allowing for easy switching among font styles and sizes, for example) could open up document design possibilities far beyond what typewriters could afford, which was basically little more than capital letters, underlining, indentation, and numbered/bulleted lists. What prompted our discussion of the “typewriter era” was an example of supposedly “good” document design, in which a memo’s subject line was a string of all-caps words that were practically unreadable thanks to this “design” element.

The class moved on to other topics related to report structure and document design. Eventually we were looking at first-level, second-level, etc., headings and subheadings. The document we were looking at, I told them, was from a really old business writing textbook. It was clearly typewritten, but I liked the strategies it gave for differentiating among the various levels of headings.

When there was a lull in the conversation, one student raised his hand. How, he wondered, did someone center a heading on the page using a typewriter? In Word, you can just click on the “center” button to position the text in the middle of the page. (Or press Ctrl + E. Remember those shortcuts? Remember how, before the mouse, those “shortcut” codes were your only recourse?) If you were using a typewriter, my student asked, would you have to measure?

Why yes! I realized. You would.

In fact, typewriters came with built-in rulers.

self, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To create a title (or first-level heading) on a page, as I recalled, first you’d have to count how many characters it contained, including spaces. Then you’d position the typewriter carriage to align the space where the keys struck with the center of the paper. You’d backspace half the total number of characters and then type the complete title or heading. Voila! Perfectly centered!

I haven’t used a typewriter in 30+ years, but it was amazing how it all came back in a flash. Like remembering how to ride a bike, I guess. And it occurs to me that typewriters may have all the potential for hipster cachet that vinyl records carry. 🙂

[UPDATE, December 11, 2021: I just learned that Michael Nesmith (of Monkees fame) died yesterday. Link to the Variety article HERE. I’m leaving this update here because in the comments following this post I mentioned that Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper, a paint-based correction fluid used by typists to white-out mistakes. It’s so weird that his name would have come up in my life just a week before he died when I haven’t thought about him at all in years. I guess that’s how it happens sometimes. RIP to a man who made my childhood brighter❤️]

Well, there’s only one way to end a post on typewriters. And so, without further ado, here is the incomparable Liberace (West Allis/metro-Milwaukee native!) performing “The Typewriter Song” on his “other keyboard,” complete with a mini-candelabra 🙂

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Digital society, History, Life, Milwaukee, Popular culture, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Remembering the “typewriter era”

  1. mworfolk says:

    What a great trip down memory lane! I wrote all my high school and undergrad essays on a (first, manual, then electric) typewriter. I had completely forgotten how we would centre titles! Your post reminded me.

    I have my grandmother’s manual typewriter in my office at work. I brought it to class as a prop for a play we were reading, and all my students wanted to type on it. It was a real object of fascination!

    Great version of The Typewriter Song, too. I’ve never heard the Liberace version! The candelabra was adorable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love that your students wanted to type on your grandmother’s manual typewriter! There is something kind of soothing about that rhythmic clack-clack-clack of the mechanical keyboard, isn’t there? And the satisfying “feel” of the keys depressing under your fingers and watching the individual “arms” whipping up to strike each letter of type against the ribbon.


      • mworfolk says:

        Yes, you’ve described it perfectly! I think the tactile pleasures of a typewriter are very satisfying to people who type with touchscreens, as so many of us do now…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    One of the smartest things my parents did was make me take typing early in high school. Considering writing computer code became my career, it turned out to be a huge benefit. I never had to hunt-n-peck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Same, sort of. My high school was closed for two months during the winter of my senior year because of a natural gas shortage. No fuel to heat the building. I could watch only so much television before going stir crazy, so I sought out a how-to-type book from my small town’s public library and spent my time away from school happily keeping company with the quick brown fox and the lazy dog 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rose says:

    I MISS MY TYPEWRITER! Seriously, I really do. To this day I feel I waste more time with the computer erasing what I just typed which results in collecting my train of thought when I notice during my proof reading. AAACK! The typewriter was a more efficient process. You needed math skills to center your heading by counting letters and spaces which equaled two and then dividing in half so you would know how many numbers to backspace from the center mark. The machine was set by hand for margins. The bell would ding when you neared your right hand margin so you would know to hit the carriage return handle. We had no spell check that would pop up. Fortunately, I was good at spelling and could spot out a typo. I was blessed with what they called in the office, “attention to detail”. If we did have a typo which we automatically knew when it happened, out came the wheelie eraser with the brush at the end of it to brush the erasure schnibbles away. For a copy we used carbon paper, which is messy if not handled properly. I never minded using it. When typing a letter you would type cc and the name of the person receiving it under the senders signature. When your words were starting to fade a new ribbon would be installed. The ribbon was half black and half red. I believe you could reink them if you chose to. In high school we learned on the manual typewriters. My all time favorite typewriter was the IBM Selectric. It had a speedball filled with all the fonts verses the keys. It was very touchy but once you got the hang of it your fingers just flew across the keyboard. This I used as a clerk typist at the Time Insurance Company which was located on the corner of 5th and Wells, now a part of the WI Center. This typewriter was hooked up to a machine that programmed what I typed onto a magnetic card which was the size of a data processing card. After all was programmed I would put an insurance policy and carefully line it up to where I needed it to start and then push the button and let it print what I programmed for the group policies. The only time I typed on it was to put the policy holders name on the policy. While the next policy was typing I would proof read to insure the policy holders name was spelled correctly. Fresh out of high school I thought this was ultra modern. The IBM Selectric’s replaced the manual typewriters in a majority of offices which I used at various office jobs up to 2000 for certain things that the office computer program didn’t do. Now it’s totally computerized. Remember those self enclosed cartridge tapes that replaced the typewriter ribbons in various electric typewriters? Same material for cassette and VHS tapes. I feel I wrote a chapter. Thanks for the memories again. 🙂
    PS Liberace live in West Milwaukee I believe. I spotted the family name on a census record living near one my mother’s aunts family back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Rose! This is a beautiful blog post right here! You should write an article for somebody (can’t think which publication would be a good home just now, but I KNOW there’s a home out there for it somewhere!) on this topic. My students were surprisingly interested in typewriters, so there must be a typewriter subculture of young people who would love to learn more. And an older audience who would enjoy the opportunity to reminisce.

      Side note: I’d forgotten all about the wheelie eraser with the brush. Fun to remember it now! 😀


  4. And I remember the carbon paper and white-out!! Oh, the fun!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, and your comment suddenly reminded me that the first white-out product, Liquid Paper, was invented by the mother of Michael Nesmith of Monkees fame! It’s so much fun going down these rabbit holes 😀


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