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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Just my type

(This is my column for the October 24 issue of the Zion-Benton News. I have it finished a week early!)

Hunting and pecking in 1954
 A recent news item in the Chicago Tribune caught my eye.  “Children are learning to use a keyboard as early as kindergarten. A skill taught for generations in middle or high school – first on manual typewriters, then electric, and finally on computer keyboards – is becoming a staple of elementary classrooms.”  The story went on to say that many children begin school with some computer familiarity, but iPads and other tablet devices have many functions that operate by pressing a button or swiping a finger over the screen rather than by typing.   

The story evoked memories for me.  I love to type.  I think that came from subliminal suggestion before I was born.   

When my parents moved to Chicago in the late 1940’s, Mother wanted a typewriter of her own, and she wanted to buy it herself.   In those days mass mailing companies paid people (mostly women) to type envelopes and mailing labels at home.  R. R. Donnelly, the Chicago printer and publisher, offered to sell typewriters on the installment plan – the home-worker would get the machine in exchange for typing.   On Saturday afternoons Mother went Donnelly’s Lakeside Press (which is still on the near South Side, next to McCormick Place) to pick up the next week’s assignment.  She told me that she remembered thinking how fortunate she was. She did the typing to get the typewriter.  The other women in the queue were typing in order to put food on the table or pay the rent.

That Royal typewriter was as much a household appliance as our hi-fi record player or our black-and-white TV.   It was great for practice when I took typing in junior high summer school.   I can still hear the teacher going through the drills.  “D –E –D space! K-I-K space! J-U-J space!” and the DING! of the bells as the classroom of 20 kids reached the end of the row.  Our family went on vacation the week that they taught the top row – numbers.  To this day I have to double-check when I have to reach for that row.  

I took a Smith-Corona Galaxie Deluxe manual typewriter to college.  It churned out many papers and reports.   When I took cataloging in library school the Galaxie typed dozens of catalog cards, where spacing and punctuation were critically important.    Errors were corrected first with a hard rubber eraser with a stiff little brush, then with Ko-Rec-Type, which came on little tabs to insert over the error and strike over, covering the error with a white patch.   That was followed by correction fluid. (Did anyone ever use up an entire bottle of that stuff, or did the contents always dry up first?)  Correcting carbon copies was a real pain.
I’ve used manual, electric, and electronic typewriters in years that I’ve been a librarian.  Once I had to type the entire budget proposal on a manual typewriter fitted with a library keyboard.  It did not have a dollar sign so I improvised by typing a capital S and superimposed a backslash.    The text on bookplates for memorial books was centered by careful backspacing.   Cataloging rules have changed and now all the data entry is online, but I can still tell at a glance what each element of a typed card means.
Tracing a ransom note or other evidence to a specific typewriter has been key to solving the case in more than one mystery novel.  Romance loses out to efficiency with today’s laser printers and copiers that do not tell such tales.   

While today’s kindergarteners are stretching their fingers to reach the ASDF and JKL keys,  I hear the clack clack clack DING! and the crash of the carriage return. Perhaps you do, too!


  1. I love this post... I have always loved to type... I will always remember the IBM Selectric as my most favorite keyboard of all time... When I took typing in high school (pre-IBM Selectric), I typed on a Royal, too... a big, sturdy machine. I had studied piano for years, so my hand-eye coordination was very good, and I quickly outpaced the class - I had to force myself to type slowly so as not to anger my fellow classmates - so the teacher, very smart lady, finally told me to type like the wind, and that she would not tell anyone how many wpm s I was really typing, and would not use my test score in the class 'curve'.. to this day I am a fabulous keyboardist - and love to type... great post!

  2. Great article. Love the picture. I too missed the numbers and have to look anytime I need numbers. What great memories this evokes.

  3. This brought back fond memories. My Mom typed all the end of the month statements for my Dad's business, and I loved the sound of the typewriter! As soon as I learned to type, that job became mine, and paid a bit extra on my allowance. As soon as we could afford it, DH and I bought a portable in a case. I typed all DH's papers for university, when he attended as a mature student. Both my sons took "keyboarding" in school and used the typewriter too, until we got our first computer and printer.


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