Friday, August 19, 2011

Drive-Thru Book Review: This One's for the Ladies

The Wonderful Writing Machine
by Bruce Bliven, Jr.
no ISBN, search on

I mentioned in a previous post that I met up with the guys filming the typewriter documentary, and that my interview was held in a local bookstore. Well, you have them to thank for this review, since the owner of the bookstore pulled this title off the shelf for me when I went out to talk with him face-to-face about the possibility of using his shop. My copy of this book is pretty beat up: it's a discard from a local library, though it amazingly still has its dust jacket on it. The book was written in 1954, and in the forward, the author thanks Royal Typewriter Company "[f]or complete freedom to explore its offices, factories and files, along with permissions to interrupt its busy personnel with my often foolish questions [...]" That little forward, plus the fact that this was written in 1954, led me to two immediate conclusions:
  • The book will be filled with shameless Royal cheerleading
  • The book will be filled with the pervasive sexism of the time
In other words, a great read. Of course I bought it and brought it home. Color me surprised, then, when I read all the way through it, and found almost none of what I'd expected. Almost. But more on that in a bit.

What I found, much to my surprise and delight, was a well-written, entertaining, and sometimes funny historical journey through the life of the typewriter, from the first crude inventions, to Sholes and the Remington partnership, through the adoption of the typewriter as a necessary tool of business. There's some hints that the manual, mechanical machine's days are numbered -- a brief allusion to advantages of the electric machine, and discussion of the labor-intensive nature of typewriter manufacture and adjustment -- but this book is clearly a product of the peak of the typewriter age. Classic photos and illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, with (I assume) Bliven's captions: several photos of pre-Sholes machines, various period photos of "stylish typists" of the early twentieth century, and at the end -- and only the end -- photos from the Royal factory, which surely seemed high-tech and impressive in their day (hand-grinding the segment, for instance. Ye gods.)

Only in the last quarter of the book does Bliven really show allegiance to Royal, and even then it's a smirking one. The hijinks of one of Royal's more infamous marketing guys and his stunt to drop typewriters on parachutes from a plane, for example: that's good reading, no matter what your brand preference. Chapter 11 ("Adjuster at Work") goes on a bit, but as a contemporary caretaker of a machine or two *cough* it's a window into the level of attention that surely went into the big Royal I have at home. Somebody spent a few hours with it, just making sure the N lined up with the A and the O. Somebody in a big factory wing, seated side-by-side with a few dozen other somebodies.

The only cringe-worthy portion of the book is Bliven referring to "the girls" or "your girl" when referring to the typist, but again, this happens later in the book: late enough that it makes me wonder if it was grafted on. (The forward indicates that portions of the book were previously published in Atlantic Monthly and Collier's magazines.) Through the earlier chapters, Bliven is a good deal more equitable, and sometimes sounds downright progressive, even. But taken as a whole, it's fun book, and worth checking out if you can find a copy.


Duffy Moon said...

With all those illustrations, sounds like fertile ground for a typecaster with a scanner. I love borrowing art from old books for this purpose.

Thanks for the review. Just consider me one of the girls.

mpclemens said...

Don't worry, Duffy. I've considered you that for a long time.

I did scan some of the pictures and plop them up in a Google+ album. Robert Messenger has posted a few in his typewriter history articles over the years, too. I'll have to look up the photo credits: it's possible that the archives from which the old photos came can since been scanned and plunked on the Intertubes.

Ted said...


Yep, excellent book - we should all have a go at finding a copy. :D

Ted said...

oh, poo. it stripped my {kirk} tags :P

Adwoa said...

Great review! I rather like the thought of an adjuster carefully aligning all the letters on my typewriters; it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to know someone cared that much. I think this book would be virtually impossible to find this side of the pond, so I shall "read vicariously" through your and Ted's accounts.