The Long Farewell: Typewriters as Objects of Nostalgia

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Culturally, we are obsessed with firsts, being able to pinpoint the date that a thing came into being. But what about lasts? Are there ever really lasts?

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The sudden popularity of vintage manual typewriters among the stylish has become a cliché.  The design-hate tumblr FYNCT, for example, despises the compulsory, ubiquitous typewriter. As a fad, they seem pretty harmless to me. But are there larger consequences to typewriter nostalgia? 

Typewriters as interior décor are generally not for use (have you bought a ribbon lately?).  They are positioned as nonfunctional, charming tokens of a previous era. But they are simultaneously avatars of the homemade revival.  At any time, the typewriter owner could be typing a personal letter, hearing that refreshing ding on the carriage return, and cycling over to the post office. 

Historians are not immune to nostalgia; in fact, we can be complicit in it. My instinctual reaction to seeing typewriters everywhere has been delight. As a historian who cares about objects, I'm pleased by this new appreciation for typewriter aesthetics, and I'm hoping it will mean a decline in keychopping. Keychopping is the arguably pernicious practice of removing a typewriter's keys to make jewelry or to decorate olde-tyme projects. To typewriter enthusiasts and collectors, keychoppers are the enemy, destroying the integrity of typewriters and rendering them useless scrap. Typewriters are also extremely fiddly to put back together once taken apart. But we cannot save every made thing, and there are beautiful and weird art projects made of typewriter pieces, worthy of sacrificing typewriters for.

But why should we have cultural reverence for individual Royals and Underwoods? They are industrial products, some of the first mass produced personal gadgets. The Remington arms company began producing the first popular QWERTY typewriter in the 1870s, and typewriters were heavily used in businesses and homes for more than a century. There are still typewriter factories (last year's reports of the world's last typewriter factory closing were premature) and there are still offices that use typewriters, at least for specific tasks. There is no world shortage of typewriters. 

Culturally, we are obsessed with firsts, being able to pinpoint the date that an idea became a thing, that a thing became a product, that a product took over the world.  Due to the diffuse, iterative nature of invention, it's difficult, but firsts can often be nailed to the page. But lasts? Are there ever lasts?  Nostalgia obscures the way people actually use technology. People tend to use the things that work for them, for as long as they can, no matter who tells them their tools are obsolete. We can point to disruptive innovations or to factory closings, but individual people's behavior around the tools they use is unpredictable. Things persist.  

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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