We used to have neighbours in our old building, a very nice older couple. This was many years ago. The husband was starting to have trouble remembering things and getting around on his own. One day, he had to move to an assisted care facility. A while later, his wife also moved away, maybe to a smaller place, or maybe to be closer to his home. Before she left, she spent some time going around the building, distributing what she wasn’t bringing with her, or leaving it in the recycling area in the garage, if no one wanted it. I took in the old man’s typewriter.
It’s a portable Olivetti Lettera 22, an Italian design from the 1950s, but British-manufactured, as proudly proclaimed in boldface on the first page of its instruction manual. It was only 27X37X8 cm and 3.7 kg, which in those days, made it portable, it seems.
From the serial number, it looks to have been made in 1957. It would have come from the Glasgow factory, which opened up in 1949 and “was sold to Smith-Corona to make daisywheel typewriters in 1981 (the factory closed in 1983 and was demolished in 1989).” At its height, it employed more than 900 people, making typewriters and a decent living. The company, the factory, the people, and the old man are long gone. But some of the typewriters remain.
There are some stickers on the typewriter’s carrying case. The most prominent is the bold-coloured Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA) sticker, white lettering on a barely stylized red maple leaf, both on a sky blue background. Canadian National Railway’s nod to the future, TCA was set up in 1937 and operated under that name in English, and under Air Canada in French, until early 1965, when it became Air Canada in both official languages. Some time between 1957, when the typewriter was made, and 1965 when the airline changed its name, the old man must have taken a TCA flight. Maybe he took many.
The next most prominent sticker is the round, black, red, and gold United Press International News (UPI) logo. The old man was in the newspaper business. I hadn’t known until I got the typewriter, a long while after he had moved out. UPI News emerged under that name from the 1958 merger of United Press and International News Service. I am not sure exactly when that particular logo started being used.
The smallest and most unobtrusive sticker, almost unnoticed, is for the United Press International Television News (UPITN), which after some looking around, I now know was a major part of the old man’s career. From 1948 to 1963, it was United Press Movietone. Then until 1967, it was United Press International News Film. I am guessing the old man started working at UPI News Film, or maybe even for UPI Movietone in the early 60s and transitioned to UPITN in 67, still carrying the portable typewriter he had with him on those TCA flights a few years earlier.
There are faint traces of the old man’s UPI work online, but they are hard to find, even if you know what you’re looking for. He covered motorsports and the Queen’s visit to Canada, among other things. He covered the October 1970 crisis in Québec. It must all have been fascinating. He never breathed a word about any of it.
Inside the case, apart from the typewriter and the instructions, is a bit of a history of the man and his machine. The first receipt for service is disappointingly vague. A faded green paper rectangle from Underwood Limited for an estimate. It doesn’t say an estimate for what. Dated August 10th of an unknown year. No price quoted. Olivetti acquired Underwood in 1959, and absorbed it fully in 1963, the same year that UPI Movietone became UPI News Film.
His address at the time, combined with his name, which I hadn’t known until I saw the receipt, tell me his community of origin. Ethnicity was much more boldly inscribed on the geography of the city back then.
Another faded green receipt from Underwood is more specific and more intriguing. On August 10th 1964, possibly on the same day the other receipt was made, although they look very different, the old man sends his typewriter in for a twelve dollar and nine cents service of some kind. The only remarks on the receipt, neatly typed on three separate lines are “rush Please, estimate, Dog”. Paid on delivery two days later, August 12th. What the dog had to do with it, whether it contributed to the rush, or how it affected the estimate, I don’t think anyone will ever know.
By July 11th 1966, residing at a new address in a more diverse part of town, the old man gets $8.59 worth of maintenance on his typewriter, a dollar fifty labour, seven dollars parts, and nine cents provincial tax. Again, paid punctually two days later on the 13th. Still from Underwood service department.
The next time we know that the typewriter goes in for service, October 26th 1970, the stationery has been updated to pink and now bears the Olivetti Canada brand, although it is in every other respect identical. I guess Underwood must have had a big stack of business paper printed just before the merger with Olivetti. Still at his more working class address, the old man pays $16.89, which include $1.75 for parts, $15.00 for labour, and $0.14 tax, for unspecified repairs on his now thirteen year old machine. Still paid two days later.
If we know nothing else about the old man and his typewriter in the 60s, we know that they worked together a lot. Often enough for the typewriter to need regular service, increasingly expensive as it aged.
The next item is dated 1998. That’s a big gap that will probably never be filled. Now living on the wealthy anglo side of town, the old man sends his typewriter to Beaudry-Kenwood in what was then still a working class neighbourhood. Beaudry-Kenwood is still at that address. The working class isn’t, what’s left of it. If you have a typewriter that needs fixing, maybe you can send it there. Maybe they even still fix them.
This time, the notations are less cryptic. The ribbon reverse doesn’t work, which is forgivable in a forty-one year old machine having seen that much action. I wonder how the old man felt by then. Both were antiques at that point.
The ribbon reverse is adjusted and a casing is changed. A half hour of labour @ $50 an hour, it says. Including provincial sales tax and federal goods and services tax, it comes out to $28.76. The order forms and receipts are bilingual now, which they weren’t before.
There are a couple of other items in the case. There is a made-in-the-USA promotional plastic pen, with a letter opener on the end, combined with a ruler, imperial on one side and metric on the other, branded for the Diplomat Inn, Montgomery, Alabama, situated on US 231 Southern Bypass. I looked for the Inn online. Doesn’t seem like it’s there anymore. The logo is nice and vintage.
The design of the pen and the logo look right for the early 60s. Did the old man cover the civil rights movement in Alabama? Did he keep the pen in his typewriter case all these years because it was tied to significant memories? Maybe he was in Alabama for completely different reasons at a completely different time. Maybe the pen was 20 year old stock when he got it. Maybe he kept the pen for all these years because of its convenient letter opener and ruler. Either way, the pen doesn’t work anymore. I tried it. Of such mysteries is archaeology made.
The last item is a well-worn paper-wrapped eraser. Like the typewriters, you don’t see those around much anymore. They were pen shaped erasers in a paper casing. You pulled on a string to cut the paper and peel it away, gradually revealing the eraser as it got used up. There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere. I don’t know how many of those erasers the old man went through in his time, but I guess that must have been his last one.
4 thoughts on “The old man’s typewriter”
If I remember well when I met your mother she owned such a typewriter. You even used it.
Yes, I learned how to type with it. But if I remember, it isn’t a Lettera 🙂
What a lovely story of a life lived. It’s unfortunate you did not connect with him to hear his stories. Thanks for sharing!