Working with What We’ve Got

As a prospective Filipino typewriter collector, I’ll tell you up front that you are not likely to find mint-condition typewriter specimens. I’m with is FaceBook group see, that has antique typewriters collection as its commonality. The majority of the members of the group seem to be on the U.S. mainland and there’s a small (or quiet, I’m not certain which) number of members from the rest of the world.

A uniqueness the US group is they have ready access to antique typewriters, given that the bulk of typewriters were produced in the United States. American typewriter collectors also have the benefit of a climate that favors the preservation of these machines. In short, they have a lot of machines to choose from and in all likelihood, good machines. I can only laugh and be philosophical when I see the lovely specimens they acquire and how little it cost them.

royal10.jpgThe same cannot be said of typewriters in the Philippines. Or in all Tropical countries, I suspect. Our climate cycles includes a very wet season. Even in the dry season, humidity also remains high. Add to that the last two world wars and annual calamities like floods. Socioeconomic factors also play a role. There being less money to go around, what resources there are that are not immediately useful are quickly recycled. When computers entered the scene in the 80s, the bulk of typewriters that existed were summarily gathered up and rendered for their metal. Kinahoy (cannibalized) at tinunaw (melted down). So for Filipino typewriter collectors, what it all adds up to is few machines and machines that are not in good shape.

So are Filipino collectors doomed to having typewriter specimens that are in bad shape? Not necessarily. There are two possible sources for good machines. One source is a cared-for heirloom, formerly private property, that is finally given up to the market as the younger generation assumes the place of the older. Another source, are machines that “drop” into the Philippine market by chance with an assortment of secondhand household goods that are popularly sold locally in the “Ukay-ukay.” It costs too much to purposely ship in an individual mint-condition machine; there’s no telling what condition it is going to arrive in and what costs it may entail in customs duties.

Besides, should collectors only get mint condition machines? Personally I think there is nothing wrong with having recovered decrepit units built up and restored so that they function properly and, with a bit of luck, look as good as the day they came off the assembly line. Enjoying the hobby of typewriter collecting need not mean having a bottomless pocket.

Picture: Royal 10

Revival of a 1928 Underwood No.5

31 July 2018

Under the craftsman’s hand. My 1928 U No.5 waiting for the decals (where’s that mailman?). The Spaniards ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in Dec 1898 and the US began its colonial rule until 1946. This typewriter, in having a Peso key and an enye key, reflects the nature of that period. 1928 was just 30 years after the Spanish left.


Decals are still enroute from Europe so all we can do is be patient.

How to Rationalize Your Collection

IMG_2806It is understandable if your notion of collecting is getting as many typewriters together as you can. As long as you have the money and the space to do that, you won’t notice any problem with that system. But as time passes, your money dwindles along with your space, you’ll come to the obvious conclusion that no, you can’t have it all. You’ve got to rationalize your collecting.

There are different ways of collecting. You can collect according to brand, to year or decade, to type (portable or standard), to rarity, to design elegance, to nearness to original state, to typeface, or to combinations of the above. I, for instance, prefer late 40s to early 50s machines. But note, I will also collect machines that do not necessarily fit that classification. They become my trading pieces given the fact that workable machines are not always easy to come by in the Philippines. Perhaps I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: collecting is more competitive in the islands and we grab at all opportunities we get until a better one comes along.

I have noticed some collectors go by typeface, which in modern language we understand as the font. As a beginner in the hobby, the first three different typefaces you’ll become familiar with are Elite, Pica, and finally, Script/Cursive. The first two are the most common. Elite has 12 letters per inch of line typed, while Pica has 10. So Pica has bigger letters. Script/Cursive are still typed, but they’re made to appear like handwriting. Machines with such typefaces are uncommon and often demand a higher price than your regular machine. Oh, it doesn’t end there. There are many more, rarer, typefaces about, but the machines they are on are correspondingly more expensive. Unless you get lucky and the seller does not know the fact and you do.

Other collectors have described their system as a “catch and release” method. They’ll collect something that catches their eye, they’ll fix it up, use it for a while, and perhaps depending on mood or the serendipitous appearance of a newer acquisition, the current machine might be retained or be passed along to a friend, sold, or given to a charitable organization. Aside: Despite the hype that typewriters are obsolete technology, the fact that the typewriter is so robust, so low maintenance, so easy to use, and is a single purpose machine, makes it perfect for people in situations where costly computers are not feasible. Examples of such places are public schools out in the provinces and orphanages.

Others will collect for prestige. Naturally they gravitate to the visually appealing, near perfect specimens, those somewhat difficult to acquire, and are usually expensive. You can predict that these pieces will be tastefully displayed and fussed over.

Others, like writers, will collect for function, that is, what they care about is how well the machine will work under extensive used. Appearance will not be of primary importance to them. While standard typewriters (the modern equivalent is the desktop computer) will fit this bill, there are many robust portables that will meet that challenge.

Finally, there are those who collect on the basis of visual appeal of a model they like. I know of people who collect as many of the color variants of a given model for a particular year. How you decide to collect is ultimately your decision. There’s really no rush to come up with a system, and while you’re deciding what yours will be, hang around your interest group and keep on picking up more knowledge.

Good luck on your typewriter hunt!

In the picture: 1947 Smith Corona Silent captured in Mabalacat, Pampanga on a rainy day.

Getting Your First Machine

RDLIf you’re lucky, your first machine will be free. Inherited from your parents or grandparents, or maybe given to you by a friend. Not everyone will be so blessed. For the latter, I do not recommend you go to the nearest bookstore (National?) and see what they have for sale. In all likelihood the machines there will be modern Chinese products that will be made of flimsy metal and a lot of plastic. Worse, they will cost around 11,000 Pesos apiece. That’s a lot of money for what I consider a rather poorly made machine.

rectoA better option is for you to visit the typewriter shops at Quiapo. Where? Okay, let me lay out out for you. You know the LRT2? That’s the LRT line that moves from East to West and vice versa, the one that goes from Cainta, and Cubao to the Recto Station in Manila. That’s the one you want to take. You take that to the Recto station from Cubao. When you get down to the ground floor, you’ll quietly be shocked at the mass of humanity milling about just outside iron-gated premises of the station whose entrances are manned by nearly overwhelmed guards. Yes you have to step out there.

The LRT station is at the corner of two streets, the bigger being Recto Avenue and the smaller which is Evangelista Street. Right across Evangelista Street from the LRT station is the orange Isetann department store. Got your bearings? I hope you’ve dressed down to jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers because this is one part of town where you do not want to be attracting undue attention to yourself. Your wallet or purse should also be securely stashed deep in a sturdy bag. Get on Evangelista and turn right (South) in the direction of Quiapo. A few steps down, you will encounter your first typewriter refurbisher store. You will notice that there is a predominance of Olympia typewriters. Chances are they will be the Olympia SG3, a sturdy machine, and the most common in all of Manila.

OSG3Before you buy, though, allow me to take you on a little side trip.

This first purchase you want to make is something that you ought to reflect on a little. What did you have in mind as your first typewriter. There are, essentially, two kinds of typewriters: the portable and the standard. The former is the kind you can carry around. It was the grandfather of your laptop. Naturally, concepts about portable weight were a little different in that past compared to today. The latter, the standard, corresponds to the modern-day desktop. They are heavyweights. The Olympia SG3 is a standard. Note: Somewhere along the line they decided to make the semi-standards. These are supposed to be portable in that they’re not as heavy as standards although they’re somewhat heavier than the average portable.

RoyalFutura800What is the difference? Portables are aimed at being portable and usually have a carrying case while standard typewriters are aimed at heavy office use and tabular work as well. Personally, I find the standards to be a little more precise and softer in their keystrokes than portables. But  here’s the thing: portables tend to be sexier than the standards. Sexy? Well, yeah. Their design lines are more visually appealing than the boxier standards. Sexy and portable is a powerful combination so portables are more popular acquisitions, even if there is no lack for lovers of the standards. Which do you imagine owning first?

Oh, the store owner is asking what you want. That’s ok. Tell him you’re just canvassing at what typewriters there are at the moment. Average prices as of July 2018 are at 5500 Pesos for a 13 inch carriage standard. The longer the carriage, the higher the price. Oh, and these are not new machines. Their mechanisms have been cleaned up and overhauled, the body repainted, brought back to working order. It is commonplace for these vendors to offer a year’s guarantee for their products as well.

OTravellerThere are more shops down the road, friend, but let’s leave that for another day.

Picture at top: Royal De Luxe portable
Grotty white typewriter: Olympia SG3 standard
Faded Glory: Royal Futura 800 portable (not yet refurbished)
Bottom: Olympia Traveller de Luxe portable

So You Want to Start Collecting Typewriters?

OlympiaSM9Before anything else, this advice is aimed at the Filipino typewriter collector. The Philippines is a collecting environment very different from where the bulk of other collectors and collectable typewriters are, the US mainland. You are vying for relatively few machines with a surprisingly large number of, or aggressive (not sure which) collectors. That said, let us begin.

First, consider your reasons. Why do you want to collect typewriters? People collect for nearly as many reasons as there are people. Nostalgia is a primary reason. Commonly, people collect because sometime in their lives they got in contact with a typewriter. They may have used one or someone in their family did. That contact imprinted and there’s a feel-good that’s locked in with the machines.

Romance is another. Another reason for collecting typewriters has to do with an appreciation for the machine itself. Although obsolete technology compared to the ease of using a word processor, the typewriter was an ingenious device in its own right, requiring no more than the pressure of a human finger to produce a standardised printed word. It worked slowly and it was tedious to correct. Yet this selfsame machine made it possible for a sizeable number of writers to share their innermost thoughts with the rest of the world.

Resistance and escape. In our world of burgeoning technology and data overload, there are those who seek to push back or escape. Or not buy in. A typewriter allows them to do that. It is a single purpose machine that has remained essentially unchanged from the time it was invented to the last machines built. It is a passive machine that will sit there, allowing the user to cogitate and ruminate. It’s not rushing light years ahead w ith so many gigahertz to processing ability while a human stumbles about and orders his or her thoughts.

Faddishness. Retro decor. Hipsterism. Whatever. These and more, or combinations thereof make for the reasons of collecting.

Next, join an enthusiast’s group. Thanks to social media, there are a number of special interest groups out there that you can join. I’m with the Antique Typewriter Collectors group. Joining these groups helps the beginning collector become aware of the different kinds of typewriters there are out there and also gives an idea of how much they are worth. Besides that, the groups also help the beginner with frequently asked questions (FAQs) having to do with the hobby. There are also blogs of typewriter collectors that you might want to follow and peruse. It’s fun to interact with like-minded people and there no little assurance in knowing there are people on this planet who share your affliction and are thriving and normal people otherwise. 

Finally, work with what’s available. Filipino typewriter collectors typically patrol the Facebook market and OLX the way blacktip sharks patrol particular shoals. Unless you happen to be a particularly deep-pocketed collector, you will want to work with reasonably priced specimens, the kinds that usually bubble up on the said trading sites. Mind you, be wary of scams and never agree to meet ups in unlikely places. Meet only in public places and bring company if necessary. Until you have chalked up experience and become familiar with traders on the market, do not agree to transferring money to unknown accounts. A final word of advice: if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

In picture: Olympia SM9 1969


Typewriter Hunter


I hunt down typewriters. Not just any typewriter, but old typewriters. The heavy metal ones and occasionally, the plastics. There are certain brands, certain age requirements, certain kinds like manual typewriters that I look for. I pore over social media and online markets. I put the word out among friends. And I eagerly look forward to the next morning to find, as Tom Hanks observed in Castaway, what the tide has brought in.

I collect typewriters because they bring me satisfaction. Much like the pencils, pens, and computers I own, they are not just the object themselves but everything else they represent, forwards and backwards in time, including the present. Pragmatists fall all over themselves to argue that anything that does the job should suffice, but I dare them to eat the same dish every single meal and see if that does not transform into outright fodder by the third eating. The same with typewriters. They are there. They exist. Perhaps they no longer represent the technological apogee of a writing instrument, but not only do they still do what they were made to do, they are more.

They represent past, present, and future.

The Past. Typewriters were the cutting edge of technology in their day. They had an ingenious, intricate inner machinery that required only the pressure of human fingers to power the printing of a letter, the spelling of a word, the construction of a sentence. They were not cheap and to have a typewriter in the Filipino family signified the presence of education and substance. They were cherished tools of the educated and many countless Filipino professionals had the agency of the typewriter partly to thank for their advancement.

They were built at a time when planned obsolescence had yet to creep into the jargon of manufacturers. As such they were built to last and to be repairable.

They were from a time when architecture and industrial design was shifting from the fancifully ornate prewar art nouveau to the more serious linear and curvilinear modern and postmodern. To this day, it is a visual delight to see typewriter with shapes fully representative of the design developments of their decades within that century.

The Present. For a while, typewriters were lumped in with other technological detritus that had fallen by the wayside. Untold numbers of these machines have been crushed, demolished, and rendered for what metal could be recovered. That time is ending. More people are coming to realize that unlike obsolete electronic devices, typewriters have not failed in what they were designed to do. They are not utterly useless and given the service they have rendered, their beauty and durability, it increasingly smacks of ingratitude and sacrilege to extract and obliterate this machines from an appreciative and grateful public. Hence, typewriters are once again becoming prized possessions for personal collections of the wonders of the past.

The Future. No, I’m not counting on a dystopian future where power will be out and the only things that run all over again will be typewriters and man-powered machines. That’s Hollywood. Instead I see people choosing to slow down and to make things more personal once again. “Too much, too fast,” That’s what technology is accused of these days. And there are some who are rediscovering the singularity of purpose of typewriters. Typewriters are not going to change every half year. They’re not going to get additional terabytes of RAM. It’s a little embarrassing because all the RAM it contains is what is between your two ears. Typewriters do not have internet connections. They cannot cross reference to confirm facts in a few seconds. Using typewriters, one can only plod along steadily, hitting the keys until the article is generally done. There is peace in knowing there is no microprocessor racing light years ahead of you before you even get your next thought. It just sits there, quiescent, waiting for however long it takes you to form an idea. Peace, quiet, detachment. Other people are creating their own little work cocoons, a desk, a chair, a lamp, and a computer without internet connection. Or maybe a typewriter.

I belong to a special tribe of typewriter hunters, isolated in the islands known as the Philippines. The hunt here is different from similar hunters in the United States where the bulk of typewriters come from. Ours is a tropical country, known as one of the most disaster prone countries of the world, replete with monsoonal floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. Besides the two world wars, Filipinos also added to the general confusion with martial law regimes and revolutions. What few typewriters there are to be had tend to be weatherbeaten by the heat, the moisture, and the temperature changes. There is a silver-lining to that, however. We have extraordinarily good typewriter technicians. And we have very keen typewriter hunters.

Perhaps you know of an old typewriter somewhere that’s being terribly neglected? A Royal, an Underwood, a Smith Corona, an Erika, an old Olympia or Hermes? I’d appreciate it very much because I know they’re out there in these islands. And with a little luck, I’ll find them.

1946 Underwood Rhythm Touch (L) 1928 Underwood No.5
Inset picture: ’69 Olympia SM9 portable