Story and Photos by C.L. Shoemaker
When I think back to my first encounter with a typewriter, I remember the curiosity and intrigue as I pulled it from the back of my mother’s closet. I had been poking around her closet, looking through old boxes to examine the treasures she had tucked away from her younger years. My inquisitiveness was rewarded. A vintage purse with delicate beading designs and floral embroidery, a pair of high heels with soft black leather, a velvet shawl with fringe and an old blue perfume bottle with an atomizer were a few of the highlights. My mother had always enjoyed simple yet classically beautiful things, and the rare treasures she kept were always worth finding.
At the back of the closet, behind the shoes and a box was a textured, black plastic item with two square buttons. It was not quite a rectangle as it curved at the front. It sported a handle between two buttons and clearly was meant to be carried. When I reached for it, I was surprised by its weight and dragged it out. After examining it, I figured out how to open the lid and lifted it to reveal a shiny light blue typewriter. A few experimental pushes of the keys resulted in a resounding “click, clack, click” and the sharp “ding” of the bell. A smile pulled at my lips and just like that I fell in love.
There was something beautiful about the smooth black keys and the mechanical movement of the machine. I was fascinated at how the roller worked, the different features and how pushing a button could result in print on a page. It was the 1990s, the era of the computer and our home had a large PC that sported all the new required windows programs, but something about this portable sleek typewriter intrigued me. It was simple. It was classy and elegant. Why on earth was it in the back of a closet?
I rescued it from the fate of being shoved behind shoe boxes and brought it out much to my mother’s surprise. I then learned it had been her main device during nursing school. She had written up all her projects and papers on the faithful machine during her years of medical training. She used it up until her graduation, the day she swore (post multiple exams) that if she ever saw another book again she would scream. And, thus, I suppose, it was relocated to its closet location. Marriage happened. Children happened and the little machine was quite forgotten until now. I later learned the device even made a trip to the hospital where my mom, sick and admitted during nursing school, had to type up her essay from a hospital bed. It was a faithful little machine and I adored it.
I started using it to write letters and stories. I learned how to change the spacing and the lettering from upper to lower case. I taught myself how to indent, create an exclamation mark, and switch between numbers and punctuation. There was no delete button on a typewriter and my terrible spelling became apparent quite quickly. I had to stop and think before I wrote, double and triple check my spelling, and make sure the phrasing was just right. I was quite happy with my little typewriter and adopted it until we moved and it wasn’t unpacked for a while. Years passed and one day I was reminded of my typewriter. I returned to my mother’s closet, but it wasn’t there. I inquired with her and to my horror learned that the typewriter had been donated along with clothing and other items before the move. I was heartbroken. In my mother’s defence, she didn’t realize I was still using the little machine. I sighed and accepted the typewriter’s fate, hoping it had found a new, loving home.
Years later, having graduated from university and living in a new province in Canada, I stumbled upon a small typewriter shop in Hamilton, Ontario. Out of curiosity, I poked my nose into Sigma Typewriters and met a lovely European gentleman who had been repairing typewriters for years. He knew everything and willingly shared his vast knowledge about all the different typewriters in his store. They were all lovely and in excellent condition, but my heart still yearned for the little blue portable I fell in love with years ago. I had no idea what brand it had been. I had vague memories of the plastic cover, the push buttons, the sound of a bell, and the scent of my mother’s closet. Happy memories but foggy at best.
And then out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a familiar textured cover. Black on top with a bit of blue underneath. The shape looked the same. I held my breath. Could it be? I inquired and was passed the machine. It was portable. It popped open easily with the two press buttons. The keyboard was the same glossy black and the sound brought me back immediately. Was it the same design? I was informed I was using a Brother Portable Charger from 1984. The date was too early. I had been born in 1984 so there was no way it was the same typewriter my mother had purchased. But Brother had made a number of machines and perhaps she had had an earlier model. I held my breath and asked after the price. It was not only reasonable it was something I could afford. The machine was the same age as me and it worked like a dream. With an infectious grin I immediately paid for it, thanked the owner and went on my way.
At home I eagerly, even excitedly, opened the case and, like a kid on Christmas morning, nearly vibrated with excitement at using the new to me, vintage piece. I rolled the paper into place and started typing a letter. It felt the same, sounded the same, took me right back to those days when I sat cross legged in my mother’s closet typing out letters to my 8 year old pen pal and writing up stories. I was thrilled. It felt like I was home. I wondered who had owned the machine before me and how it had thankfully ended up in a typewriter shop and not in a scrap heap. I’ll never know who originally bought the machine and what letters or essays had been typed on its keys before I picked it up. I hoped my mother’s original Brother Portable found a home with someone who appreciated it as it had been in pristine condition. And in return, I would love and cherish my little blue Brother Portable Charger. We make a good pair, and hopefully we will grow old together. I named my typewriter Nancy after my mother and our favourite literary character Nancy Drew.
A few months later I picked up a 1939 Remington Rand Noiseless typewriter that would have been used during WWII. She was an online find, originally sourced from an estate sale. She needed a good clean, so I returned to Sigma Typewriters and had her pampered. I’ve named her Peggy after the Marvel SHIELD character, Agent Peggy Carter. I think it’s only fitting for a typewriter that came into existence during the war years to be named after a WWII agent. She too is used with much love and affection. Although, I will admit Peggy’s much smoother than Nancy, my 1984 Brother, but don’t tell Nancy that. I love all my typewriters equally.
I think I may have caught the typewriter bug, or perhaps just re-awakened my childhood love for the machines. My mother would be proud that I’m writing with them and still mailing off letters to pen pals. I know my grandfather, who was an antiques collector, would be right in there with me looking for new typewriters and examining the internal mechanisms of these beautiful machines.
Have you come across any lovely typewriters in your antique and thrift shopping travels? If so, did you pick them up? I fear that we’ve lost the art of letter writing and the love of typing. Perhaps the current resurgence of the typewriter will change that. Take time to search out and appreciate these lovely machines. You never know what treasures you may find even in the back of your mother’s closet!
Corrie Shoemaker is a lecturer and author (historical fiction, mystery, children’s lit and poetry) with a love for all things mystery. She was thrilled to work with the Stratford Festival of Canada and Bard on the Beach (Vancouver) when researching Canadian identity on the Shakespeare stage for her PhD. Corrie has written articles for The Stratford Festival Reviews, Vocamus Press, Guelph Mercury Tribune and Marjorie Magazine. Her children’s fairy tale “Penelope Aurora and the Enchanted Map of Parma” was published with MacroMicrocosm (2014) and her sci-fi story “Operation Reflection” received honours mentioned with the Writers of The Future Contest (2018). Her poetry has been showcased on Canadian radio. Her upcoming novel “The Frenchman’s Daughter” is a historical mystery set in 1890s France and England. You can follow all Corrie’s writing adventures at her website The Write Stuff: Literature with Charm or on Facebook at C.L.Shoemaker.