Reframing and simplifying the idea of how to keep a Zettelkasten

Given many of the misconceptions I see online of how to keep a zettelkasten, particularly given the focus on the arcane addressing system used by Niklas Luhmann, perhaps it may be helpful to dramatically reframe the question of how to keep a zettelkasten? One page blog posts from people who’ve only recently seen the idea and are synopsizing it without a year or more practice themselves are highly confusing at best. Can I write something we don’t see enough of in spaces relating to zettelkasten? Perhaps we should briefly consider the intellectual predecessor of the slip box?

(Editor’s note: I’m using content within my own “slip box” to write this.)

Start out by forgetting zettelkasten exist. Instead read about what a commonplace book is and how that (simpler) form of note taking works. This short article outlined as a class assignment is a fascinating way to start and has some illustrative examples: https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_. If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead: https://stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book-639b16c4f3bb

The general idea is to collect interesting passages, quotes, and ideas as you read. Keep them in a notebook and call it your commonplace book. If you like call these your “fleeting notes” as some do.

As you do this, start building an index of subject headings for your ideas, perhaps using John Locke’s method (see this for some history and a synopsis: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685).

Once you’ve got this, you’ve really mastered the majority of what a zettelkasten is and have a powerful tool at your disposal. If you feel it’s useful to you, you can add a few more tools and variations to your set up.

Next instead of keeping the ideas in a notebook, put them on index cards so that they’re easier to sort through, move around, and re-arrange. This particularly useful if you want to use them to create an outline of your ideas for writing something with them. Once you’ve got index cards (slips) with ideas on them in a box, you now literally meet the minimum requirements of a zettelkasten (German for “slip box”, though in practice many will have their ideas in a metaphorical slip box using a digital note taking tool.

Next, maybe keep some index cards that have the references and bibliographies from which your excerpting and note taking comes from. Link these bibliographical cards to the cards with your content.

As you go through your notes, ideas, and excerpts, maybe you want to further refine them? Write them out in your own words. Improve their clarity, so that when you go to re-use them, you can simply “excerpt” material you’ve already written for yourself and you’re not plagiarizing others. You can call these improved notes, as some do either “permanent notes” or “evergreen notes”.

Perhaps you’re looking for more creativity, serendipity, and organic surprise in your system? Next you can link individual notes together. In a paper system you can do this by following one note with another or writing addresses on each card and using that addressing system to link them, but in a digital environment you can link one note to many multiple others that are related. If you’re not sure where to start here, look back to your subject headings and pull out cards related to broad categories. Some things will obviously fit more closely than others, so be more selective and only link ideas that are more intimately connected than just the subject heading you’ve used.

Now when you want to write or create something new on a particular topic, ask your slip box a question and attempt to answer it by consulting your index. Find cards related to the topic, pull out those and place them in a useful order to create an outline perhaps using the cross links that already exist. (You’ve done that linking work as you went, so why not use it to make things easier now?) Copy the contents into a document and begin editing.

Beyond the first few steps, you’re really just creating additional complexity to a system to increase the combinatorial complexity of juxtaposed ideas that you could potentially pull back out of your system for writing more interesting text and generating new ideas. Some people may neither want nor need this sort of complexity in their working lives. If you don’t need it, then just keep a simple commonplace book (or commonplace card file) to remind you of the interesting ideas and inspirations you’ve seen and could potentially reuse throughout your life.

The benefit of this method is that beyond creating your index, you’ll always have something useful even if you abandon things later on and quit refining it. If you do go all the way, concentrate on writing out just two short solid ideas every day (Luhmann averaged about 6 per day and Roland Barthes averaged 1 and change). Do it until you have between 500 and 1000 cards (based on some surveys and anecdotal evidence), and you should begin seeing some serendipitous and intriguing results as you use your system for your writing.

We should acknowledge that that (visual) artists and musicians might also keep commonplaces and zettelkasten. As an example, Eminem keeps a zettelkasten, though he calls his “stacking ammo”, but it is so minimal that it is literally just a box and slips of paper with no apparent organization beyond this. If this fits your style and you don’t get any value out of having cards with locators like 3a4b/65m1, then don’t do that (for you) useless make-work. Make sure your system is working for you and you’re not working for your system.

Sadly, it’s generally difficult to find a single blog post that can accurately define what a zettelkasten is, how it’s structured, how it works, and why one would want one much less what one should expect from it. Sönke Ahrens does a reasonably good job, but his explanation is an entire book. Hopefully this distillation will get you moving in a positive direction for having a useful daily practice, but without an excessive amount of work and perhaps a bit less cognitive dissonance. Once you’ve been at it a while, then start looking at Ahrens and others to refine things for your personal preferences and creative needs.

Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

A fluorescence of note taking tools

Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.

Some of these include:

Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.

Closed sourced projects like: Roam Research, Notion, Knovigator, Amplenote, RemNote, Memex, Nototo, nvUltra, and Are.na.

Some are based on earlier incarnations of note taking and writing tools like OneNote, Evernote, Simple Note, TiddlyWiki, DEVONthink, Scrivener, etc.

This brief list doesn’t take into account a sea of other mobile apps and platforms in addition to a broad array of social media platforms that people use for similar note taking or annotations.

My particular interest in some of this note taking field comes in the growing number of people who are working in public and sharing their notes in online settings with others. This has been happening organically since the rise of the internet and has happened on blogs within the blogosphere and on personal and communal wikis.

As was highlighted (pun intended) at the recent I Annotate 2021 conference, the note taking space seems to have been coming to a new boil. With the expansion of the ideas of keeping a zettelkasten or a digital garden, these versions of notebooks seem to be a significant part of this new note taking craze.

One thing I have noticed, however, is a dramatic lack of continuity in the history of note taking within the longue durée of Western civilization. (Other cultures including oral cultures have similar traditions, but for our purposes here, I won’t go into them except to say that they’re highly valuable, spectacularly rich, and something of which we should all be aware.)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history. I can only presume that modern education is failing us all dramatically. People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency. Perhaps the idea has been so heavily imbued into our culture we’ve honestly forgotten the basic parts and reasoning behind it?

Even Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex as stated in his article As We May Think (The Atlantic, 1945), which many of these note taking applications might point to as an inspiration, ignores this same tradition and background, so perhaps these app creators and users aren’t all to blame?

Delineating Online Forms

I’ve been doing some serious reading and research into these traditions to help uncover our missing shared history. I’ll write something longer and more specific about them at a later date.

In the meanwhile, I want to outline just a bit about the various flavors as they relate to some of the more public online versions that I see in the related internet spaces. I hope to help better delineate what they have in common, how they differ, and what they may still add to the mix to get us to a more robust version of Bush’s dream.

Other’s thoughts and comments about these various incarnations and their forms and functions are both encouraged and appreciated.

Commonplace books

Historically commonplace books are one of the oldest and most influential structures in the note taking, writing, and thinking space. They have generally been physical books written by hand that contain notes which are categorized by headings (or in a modern context categories or tags. Often they’re created with an index to help their creators find and organize their notes.

They originated in ancient Greece and Rome out of the thought of Aristotle and Cicero as a tool for thinking and writing and have generally enjoyed a solid place in history since. A huge variety of commonplaces have been either copied by hand or published in print book form over the centuries.

Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

Many people over the past quarter of a century have used a variety of digital forms to keep digital commonplace books including public versions on blogs, wikis, and other software for either public or private consumption.

Florilegium

Florilegia are a subcategory of commonplace book starting around 900 CE but flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries and primarily kept by theologians and preachers. The first were a series of short excerpted passages often arranged in order of their appearance in a single text, but eventually were arranged systematically under discrete headings. Medieval florilegia where overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, concerned with religious topics from the works of scriptures, the moral dicta of the Doctors of the Church, and—less frequently—the teachings of approved, classical moral philosophers. The idea and form of florilegium generally merged back into the idea of the commonplace book which had renewed interest and wide popularity during the Renaissance.

These didn’t add any new or innovative features over what had come before. Perhaps, if anything, they were a regression because they so heavily focused only on religion as a topic.

Few (if any) examples of florilegia can be found in modern digital contexts. Though I have seen some people talk about using digital note taking tools for religious study, I have yet to see public versions online.

Zettelkästen

Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards. Zettelkasten were made simpler to create and maintain with the introduction of the mass manufacture of index cards (and card boxes and furniture) in the early 20th century. Slips of paper which were moveable within books or files and later on index cards were a significant innovation in terms of storing and organizing a commonplace book.

Generally zettels (or cards) are organized by topics and often contain dates and other taxonomies or serialized numbers as a means of linking them to other cards within the system. The cross linking of these cards (and thus ideas) were certainly a historical physical precursor of the internet we have today, simply in digital form.

Almost all the current references I’ve seen online to Zettelkasten mention Niklas Luhmann as their inspiration, but none of them reference any other well-known historical examples despite the fact the idea has been around and evolving for several centuries now.

This productivity system and sets of digital tools around it came to greater attention in Germany in 2013 with the exhibition “Zettelkästen: Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar and in 2014 with the launch of the zettelkasten.de website. A subsequent boost in the English speaking world occurred following the publication of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes – One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers in February 2017. The recent ability to use platforms like Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion, et al. has helped to fan the flames of their popularization.

More often than not, most of these digital tools (like their card-based predecessors) are geared toward private personal use rather than an open public model. Roam Research and Obsidian Publish have features which allow public publishing. TiddlyWiki is also an excellent tool for this as its so-called Tiddlers have a card-based appearance and can be placed in custom orders as well as transcluded, but again not many are available to the online public.

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)

Wikis

Inspired, in part, by Apple’s HyperCard, Ward Cunningham created the first public wiki on his website on March 25, 1995. Apple had designed a system allowing users to create virtual “card stacks” supporting links among the various cards (sound familiar?). HyperCard was designed as a single user system.

Wikis allowed multiple users to author and edit pages on the web with a basic web browser. They were also able to create meaningful links and associations between pages, whether they existed or not using [[WikiLinks]]. They were meant to allow the average visitor to participate in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration.

Here there is some innovative user interface as well as the ability to collaborate with others in keeping a commonplace book. Transclusion of one page into another is a useful feature here.

Personal wikis have been used (as have many blogs) for information aggregation and dissemination over the years in a manner similar to their historical predecessors.

Second brain

Second brain is a marketing term which stands in for the idea of the original commonplace book. It popped up in the note taking context in early 2017 for promoting the use of commonplace books techniques using Tiago Forte’s expensive online course Building a Second Brain which focused on capturing, organizing, and sharing your knowledge using (digital) notes. It is a platform agnostic method for improving productivity wholly using the commonplace underpinning.

Google searches for this term will be heavily mixed in with results about the gastrointestinal system being the body’s “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, second brain tumors, a debunked theory that dinosaurs had two brains, and other general health-related topics.

Some websites, personal wikis and other online versions will use the phrase second brain, but they generally have no innovative features that are missing from prior efforts. Again, I view the phrase simply as marketing with no additional substance.

Digital Gardens

Informed heavily by their cultural predecessors in commonplace books, zettelkasten, and wikis, digital gardens are digital first note collections which are primarily public by default and encourage the idea of working in public.

Digital Gardens arose more formally in 2019 and 2020 out of the work and influence of Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas, Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (which just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary), Mike Caulfield’s essays including The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral as well as some influence from the broader IndieWeb Community and their focus on design and user interface.

Digital garden design can often use the gardening metaphor to focus attention on an active tending and care of one’s personal knowledge base and building toward new knowledge or creations. The idea of planting a knowledge “seed” (a note), tending it gradually over time with regular watering and feeding in a progression of 🌱 Seedlings → 🌿 Budding → 🌳 Evergreen is a common feature.

There are a growing number of people with personal digital gardens in public. Many are built on pre-existing wiki software like WikiMedia, the Smallest Federated Wiki, or TiddlyWiki, static site generators like Jekyll, note taking platforms like Obsidian Publish and Roam Research, or even out of common blogging software like WordPress. A growing common feature of these platforms is that they not only link out to resources on the open web, but contain bidirectional links within themselves using either custom code (in a wiki-like manner) or using the W3C Webmention specification.

The Future?

With luck, application and platform designers and users will come to know more about the traditions, uses, and workflows of our rich cultural note taking history. Beyond this there are a few innovations, particularly in the public-facing arena which could be useful, but which aren’t broadly seen or available yet.

Still missing from the overall personal knowledge and note taking space is a more tightly integrated version of both a garden and a stream (in Mike Caulfield’s excellent framing) that easily allows interaction between the two arenas. Some of the more blog-based sites with notes, bookmarks, articles and IndieWeb friendly building blocks like Webmention, feeds (RSS, JSON Feed, h-feed), Micropub, and Microsub integrations may come the closest to this ideal.

One of the most fascinating recent entrants on the scene is Flancian’s Anagora which he uses as a personal commonplace book in a wiki-esque style. Over other incarnations it also has the ability to pull in and aggregate the notes of other digital commonplace books to create a larger marketplace of ideas. It also includes collaborative note taking space using Etherpad, which I’ve seen as a standalone tool, but never integrated into a digital commonplace book.

Ultimately, my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.

Niklas Luhmann apparently said:

Ohne zu schreiben, kann man nicht denken; jedenfalls nicht in anspruchsvoller, anschlussfähiger Weise.

(Translation) You cannot think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

I think his conceptualization of “connectable” was much more limited and limiting than he might have guessed. Vannevar Bush, as the academic advisor of Claude Shannon, the godfather of the modern digital age, was more prepared to envision it.

(Luhmann’s “you” in his quote is obviously only a Western cultural referent which erases the existence of oral based cultures which have other ways to do their sophisticated thinking. His ignorant framing on the topic shouldn’t be a shared one.)


This post has grown out of my own personal commonplace book, portions of which are on housed on my blog, in a wiki, and in a private repository of which I hope to make more public soon. Further thoughts, ideas and expansions of it are more than welcome.

I’ve slowly been updating pieces of the history along with examples on shared commonplaces in both the IndieWeb Wiki and Wikipedia under the appropriate headings. Feel free to browse those or contribute to them as you would, at least until our digital commonplace books can communicate with each other.

I’d also invite those who are interested in this topic and who have or want online spaces to do this sort of thing to join us at the proposed upcoming Gardens and Streams II IndieWebCamp Pop up session which is being planned for later this Summer or early Fall. Comment below, stop by the page or chat to indicate your interest in attending.

Certainly Glynn Turman’s portrayal of Chiron, a centaur, in Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2023) is an homage to Moses Gunn’s portrayal of Cairon in The Neverending Story (1983). Though Cairon was a humanoid in the movie, in the original book Michael Ende had the character as a centaur.

Acquisition: 1953 Smith-Corona Silent Typewriter

I’ve been wanting either a 1950s Series 5 Smith-Corona Silent or Silent-Super for a while now to better support some of the regular use of index cards in my daily work. Both models came with standard three roller paper bails as well as two adjustable paper fingers on top of Smith-Corona’s traditional two metal paper card fingers found next to the ribbon vibrator assembly.  This means that I can type not only more easily on index cards, but the process is far quieter and also allows me to use more of the card’s surface area without as much work.

I’ve seen variations of these machines in untested/unknown/poor condition selling at auction for $50-150 dollars recently. (I saw a really filthy/poor condition and not fully functioning Sterling, the Silent’s little brother, with a disintegrating ribbon in a vintage shop last month for $150 as their rock bottom price.) In clean, working condition these can easily be north of $150, especially if they’ve been serviced and had their platens replaced ($300-450 is not unreasonable here.)

I was thus thrilled to see this one listed as a “Vintage Smith-Corona Typewriter” for auction this past month. The fact that GoodWill left off the Silent’s model name in the auction title gave me great hope that it would be overlooked by most hunters. My luck paid out handily when I ultimately won the auction for a paltry $23.00!  Things got even better when the machine showed up on my doorstep incredibly well packaged and in far better condition than I might have hoped. 

It has easily jumped to the top of my collection as my daily use typewriter.

Angled view from the right hand side of a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter in brown crinkle paint with green plastic keys.

Design

Without even cleaning this up, it was almost immediate to see why Tom Hanks gushes over the Smith-Corona Silent.

An index card typed on a Smith-Corona Silent typewriter that contains a quote which reads: 
"If I had to keep only one typewriter, if I had to get rid of them all and only had one left... There is a version of this Smith-Corona which is the Silent Smith-Corona. (...) Somewhere around whenever they started making this, the Smith-Corona Silent and various other models that have the same silhouette. The rise on the keys is just almost perfect---going from an N to a Y requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action. (types) This is a solid, solid piece of machine. That's got beautiful highlights like the stripes here and there. The colors are good. I love the green keys. I would probably say that this with a good case would be the one typewriter I would take. And that's why it's kinda out (on my desk) right now. I rotate this one into use an awful lot (clack, clack) I confess. (clack, clack as he types)" 
---Tom Hanks, in California Typewriter, 2016

Like Mr. Hanks, I’m a fan of the smooth curves, the low-slung body design, and who wouldn’t love the two sets of racing stripes on the hood. I’ve always been a fan of the dark brown body color matched with green plastic keys. The six light green-yellow keys on the sides of the keyboard and the similarly colored Smith-Corona injection molded plastic badging on the hood provide some nice contrast as do the matching numbers and hashmarks on both the margin scale and the carriage front scale. And almost better, this model has a brown plastic spacebar which matches the body color incredibly well compared to some others I’ve seen which seem terribly mis-matched. The slightly cupped key caps have a lovely gleam in contrast to the matte finish of the crinkle paint. The chrome margin stops have red arrows that almost look like exclamation points and were designed to be simple to move and set. 

Close up of the paper table on the back of the Smith-Corona featuring the model name "SILENT" in light green lettering next to a shiny chrome thumb-actuated margin set with a bright red exclamation mark-like pointer arrow.

Overall condition

My particular typewriter, received on 2024-06-01, was in about as great a shape as one could expect a second hand typewriter picked up at a thrift shop to be.

The serial number 5S-409288 places the manufacture between December 1952 and December 1953 based on data from the typewriter database. Assuredly it was made in 1953. Based on my very basic linear manufacturing birthday calculation using data from the Typewriter Database, I’ll celebrate the Silent’s birthday as May 4, 1953. This means that it’s just past 71 years old. The rock hard platen can certainly attest to its age.

The typewriter came with what appear to be its original metal spools and a monochrome black ribbon which seemed to have a bit of life left in it. While the original owner may have manually rewound ribbon onto it, given the generally good condition of the machine, the evidence might suggest that this had only one owner who gave it relatively light use. Since for all intentions this is going to be my primary daily machine, I opted to unspool its original ribbon for use on a monochrome machine later and broke out the brand new reel of bichrome black/red nylon ribbon I just got to have a fresh ribbon ready to go. 

The machine internally was in broadly good shape, but needed some very light cleaning. There was one slightly sticky key, but simply working it for a minute or two got it free and clear without needing to break out the mineral spirits.

The only significant issue the typewriter has out of the box besides some light dust and dirt that needed cleaning was that the shift lock has a tiny bit of play to it which requires adjustment so shifted capitals line up properly with their shift lock capitals.

Keys

This Silent has 49 keys in molded plastic with a small indentation mean to hug the fingertips. It’s a standard QWERTY-based U.S. keyboard for 1950s typewriter. The 42 primary keys are dark green with light green glyphs. On the outsides of the keyboard are lighter green keys including the shift, shift lock, and backspace (labeled with a right pointing arrow) keys on the left and the right shift, margin release (labeled “M-R”), and “TAB” keys on the right hand side. The spacebar at the bottom is in brown plastic to match the typewriter body 

Close up of the U.S. style typewriter keyboard on the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent

Close up of the H, J, and N green plastic keys on the keyboard with the focus on the dirt and dust stuck to the metal just behind them.
Is your keyboard a dirt and dust magnet?

Table level view of the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent  with the light keys focused on in the front.

Other Functionality

It didn’t come with one, so the closest manual I could find online was a 1951 mid-sized portables manual which seems pretty close to the functionality of this Silent. 

While drilled out to accept screws to keep the space locked up and hidden on related models, this Silent is missing those screws and has a fold-down paper table which conveniently hides the tab sets on the back of the machine. The tab sets here aren’t the traditional sliders, but instead are detachable (and thus potentially lose-able) metal clips which slide in and out with some modest friction on a comb-like metal tab bar.

The platen knob on the left hand side has a permanent variable spacing pull knob on the outside which allows the platen to turn freely. For temporary variable spacing of the platen (often done for subscript and superscript characters) there’s a thumb switch on the left just to the right of the carriage return. Once those characters are typed, flip the switch back and the platen re-engages at the same spacing set up as before. Just behind this switch is the sliding switch to control the single, double, or triple spacing mechanism. 

Like Smith-Coronas of the 4 and 5 series, this machine has a platen centering lever on the front right side of the carriage. When pulled up it centers the carriage and disengages the escapement and prevents both spacing or typing. This is useful for quickly storing the typewriter in its case, however it doesn’t prevent the carriage from being manually pushed from the left hand side toward the right. This means one needs to take some extra care of the machine with packing up for shipping.

The back of the paper table has an embedded spring loaded pair of metal rabbit ear-like paper supports. 

The platen is reasonably swappable and has a platen release lever, but to use it, one does need to flip back the hinged paper table. After this, the platen lifts up at an angle and can be pulled out with just a small wiggle. No small/odd parts were packed into the left side of the platen assembly to worry about falling out when removing the platen. 

I had seen the infamous Smith-Corona “Page Gage” on 1960s models, but was surprised to see it pop up on a 1953 machine. The functionality is a cleverly marked ring on the left side of the platen with marks to help the typist know when the bottom of the page is coming so that they can provide consistent top and bottom margins for their pages. The type gives six lines to the inch, which also helps in counts for margins.

Case

In general the case is about as good as one could hope for a machine from 1953. The case is firm and solid and the material covering is still solid and tight. A light wipe down brought most of it back into almost new condition. The top of the case with the handle required the most work as it had apparently been stored upright; as a result, it had a fairly thick layer of dirt and grime.

Interior of a the bottom of a Smith-Corona typewriter case with a burgundy interior and wrapped in a yellow and brown cotton tweed-like material. We see a close up of the thumb lock and bar mechanism which holds the typewriter safely in the case. Of not, the interior is very dirty and dusty and has several dust bunnies in the corner. There's a prominent white mark where the foot of the typewriter has sat. Full view of the interior of a very dirty and dusty typewriter case with a burgundy interior. Close up of the handled top of a typewriter case layered with dirt, soot, and grime. Next to the handle is a small finger-sized patch which has been cleaned off showing the stark contrast of the grime to a yellow and brown fabric. The detached bottom base of a Smith-Corona typewriter case from 1953. The bottom interior is a deep burgundy red with metal cleats in four positions at the four sides of the case. The front cleat is attached to a metal bar which extends to the left front side where a thumb lever is used to allow the front cleat's locking mechanism to be actuated. A clean and lovely yellow and brown flecked fabric covered typewriter case for the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter sits on a wooden table.

Typeface Sample

This machine has an elite typeface with 12 characters per inch (my favorite, and likely what Tom Hanks was referring to when he said the type was not too big and not too small). The machine has a bichrome switch as well as a stencil setting.

Cream index card with red lines that contains a typing sample that reads: 1953 Smith-Corona Silent
Serial number: 5S-409288 
Elite typeface, 12 CPI, portable, bichrome, U.S. keyboard, segment shift 
234567890- qwertyuiop asdfghjkl; zxcvbnm,./ *#$%&'()* QWERTYUIOP ASDFGHJKLO ZXCVBNM,.? the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. A VERY BAD QUACK MIGHT JINX ZIPPY FOWLS.

Close up of the type at the end of the typebars on a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent

Sound

Here’s a sound sample of inserting a sheet of paper, aligning it writing a sentence, the bell, and a return on the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent:

 

This is a sound file of the keys being lightly pressed without hitting the ring or platen and then the light plunk of them falling back onto the felt rest inside the basket. It’s almost like the soft patter of rain.

Photo Gallery

Below are some additional photos of my favorite new machine.

1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter with brown crinkle paint, two sets of brown racing stripes on the hood, and green plastic keys. It sits on a wooden mid-century library card catalog and next to an index card with a typeface sample

Angled view from the right hand side of a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter in brown crinkle paint with green plastic keys.

Close up of the paper table to the top row of keys of the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter. A black and red bichrome ribbon is threaded into the machine which has a black anodized segment.

Close up of the light green plastic Smith-Corona badge on the hood of the typewriter.

Close up view of a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter fills the frame. There's a glint of light on the green plastic typewriter keys.

Font oblique angle down onto the keyboard, hood and carriage of a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter

 

A deconstructed typewriter sitting on a towel on a wooden table surrounded by the brown steel body portions, screws, typewriter ribbon reels, screwdrivers, pliers, and brushes.

Angle down onto the left front side of a 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter showing the thumb release lever of the case used to remove the typewriter from its yellow case.

A brown typewriter with green keys in it's bottom case half sitting on a wooden dining room table. Behind it is the other half of the case which has been removed at the hinges. In the background are the chairs around the table and a library card catalog with an indistinguishable typewriter on it.

Unboxing Photos

A large brown shipping box with several fragile stickers on it sitting on a concrete porch next to a white wooden stick railing

Another porch shot with the typewriter case removed from the shipping box full of crumpled brown paper. The yellow hard case is wrapped with plastic wrap to protect it.

A 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter still in the bottom portion of its case sitting on a dark wooden coffee table with some potted plants on the front porch.

The hood of the 1953 Smith-Corona Silent typewriter is up and we can see the brown felt padding inside as well as a view into the typebasket.

Acquisition: 1950 Remington All-New Portable Typewriter

The Remington All-New wasn’t on my typewriter collection list until I ran across it randomly in the typewriter database where I fell in love with some of the photos. Then only days later, I had the opportunity to pick one up out of New Mexico for a terrifically under-valued $21. I’m currently in the midst of cleaning it up a bit, but this may be one of the most beautiful machines I’ve ever seen. Given the similarities to the Remington Quiet-Riter, which I already enjoy, it was a no-brainer acquisition. I don’t think I could have designed a typewriter to pair with my McDowell & Craig Executive Tanker desk if I had tried.

A gray metal Remington All-New typewriter sits on a blue writing drawer on a double pedestal tanker desk in gray with blue drawer fronts and a glass top.

Design

The Remington All-New sits in the cusp between the shiny black typewriters of the 1940s and the industrial crinkle-painted 1950s and 60s portable American machines. The sleek gunmetal gray and curving lines are just stunning to me. 

The rounded hood of the machine reminds me of the streamlined silhouette of Henry Dreyfuss’ 1936 design of New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train. This is underlined as I also own a boxy 1949 Henry Dreyfuss-designed Royal Quiet De Luxe which was first released in 1948. 

Angle down onto the left side of a Remington All-New typewriter showing off the hood of the machine which has a hole in the shape of a serifed capital letter I from which the typebars would emerge to hit the platen.

Given that Remington only manufactured this typewriter from 1949 into 1952 before releasing the very popular and ubiquitous Remington Quiet-Riter in 1950, and the similar but somewhat less ubiquitous Letter-Riter and Office-Riter models which all ran into the early 1960s, it seems like the shifts in the model over the first year (1949-1950) were a live engineering test for these later models. There are lots of subtle little changes in all the documented models of the All-New over the first year including in the cases. My particular model has an interesting tin-y sound on occasion and has old cream-colored masking tape on all the internal metal panels and one black taped section on the hood. Some of the versions I see in the typewriter database have two black patches of tape, presumably for some level of soundproofing. Later models of the All-New go from flat paint to the ubiquitous crinkle paint of typewriters in the ’50s and ’60s. This makes me wonder if engineers discovered that this particular thick paint treatment helped to dampen the sound of these typewriters in addition to the felt which was often glued into the ribbon cover portions of most typewriters in this time frame. 

Remington All-New Typewriter opened up with the platen removed.

Overall condition

My particular typewriter, received on 2024-05-23, is in great exterior condition with respect to those I’ve seen in the database. There are certainly some scrapes and scuffs, but these are also easier to see on flat painted metal. The case certainly has seen better days. 

The serial number AT-1997444 places the manufacture in February of 1950 based on data from the typewriter database. The “T” in the “AT” portion of the serial number indicates that the machine includes a tabulator, which not all of this line did. This means that next February 2025, my machine will celebrate it’s 75th (or diamond) birthday. 

The serial number on the Remington All-New is on the metal frame on the right hand side of the machine between the bichrome lever and the right spool cup.

Mine didn’t come with one, but the closest manual for this model that I can find is a 1951 version of the Remington Quiet-Riter.

Mine came with only one original Remington ribbon core (ring) and one ribbon cover. The matching set were missing, but a prior enterprising owner had tied the (now dried) black ribbon into the auto-reverse mechanism on the left hand side to jury-rig the ribbon set up. Fortunately I have an extra  spool sitting around, though I’ve opted to use a plastic universal spool with a removable core to be able to properly spool up new ribbon (blue/green bichrome) onto it.

View into the grungy typebasket of a Remington All-New typewriter. The typebars are dirty and grimy and need cleaning. The right ribbon spool has an original spool cover which is missing on the left as is the original metal ribbon ring. The ribbon is obviously old and heavily worn and not well wound. On the inside of the ribbon cover/hood is a patch of black tape on the right hand side and several strips of yellowed masking tape on the left.

The machine internally was in broadly good shape, but needed some cleaning. The segment and typebars required two rounds of treatment with mineral spirits to get the sticky keys working properly. It wasn’t nearly as dusty as other machines I’ve gotten with similar vintage.

View into a freshly cleaned and gleaming segment and typebasket of a Remington All-New typewriter with a freshly installed blue/green bichromatic ribbon.

I’m still not quite sure what to do with the white masking tape on all the internal portions of the machine’s panels, so I’m leaving them at present. Given their placement (everywhere!), I’m reasonably sure that they were all put on in the factory. 

In taking apart the carriage to give it and the platen and rollers a good inspection and cleaning, I noticed the variable line spacer was a bit sticky, so I cleaned the mechanism out and lubricated it a bit before putting it all back together. 

The bichrome lever is missing its original gray plastic finger cap, something that seems somewhat common in the All-New. Perhaps I can swap with one from the margin sliders which are hiding underneath the paper table?

The type and alignment were all in good order, so I didn’t need to effect any changes there.  

I’m terribly tempted to strip and refinish the exterior shell just for fun, but it’s in such good condition, I’ll let it slide for the moment. It seems like a great machine to potentially plate with chrome (or silver, gold, or even platinum). I’m also half tempted to do a dark matte blue similar to the sort of scheme I’ve seen on some cars recently (Tesla comes to mind).

The case is in far worse condition and crying out for restoration of some sort. More on that below.

Keys

The 1950 Remington All-New typewriter has 50 hefty gray keys with doubleshot plastic so that light yellow plastic indicates the key functions. There are both left and right shift keys as well as shift locks. The margin release (labeled “M.R.) is on the top right and the backspace (labeled with a right facing arrow) is on the top left. There is also a right side Tab key opposite the tab set/clear lever which is on the far left side of the keyboard. The right side also has a select lever with labeled 1, 2, and 3 settings for the key pressure control. The spacebar runs the full length of the bottom row of ten keys.

Focus onto the full keyboard of a Remington All-New typewriter. We just see the Remington logo on the hood and a 50 key US standard typewriter keyboard. The keys are very chunky, solid-looking pieces with light yellow lettering. There is a long curved spacebar at the bottom. There are shift and shift locks on both the left and right sides.

Close up of the dark gray typewriter keys on the top two rows. Of interest are the $ and 4 which aren't directly over each other as on most number keys, but they're staggered at an angle.

Other Functionality

The carriage has both left and right release levers. There’s a variable line spacer button in the center of the left platen knob and a related line locating lever for making it easier to do sub and super-script while keeping the line spacing the same. There’s a switch for single and double spacing. The carriage also has a traditional paper bail with two rubber rollers. The typing point includes a permanent card finger on the right hand side. The ribbon vibrator has two vertical posts with metal pivots which trap the ribbon in what is Remington’s quick ribbon changer set up (one of the easiest methods of changing ribbon I’ve seen). 

There’s a tabulator included with a tab key on the right side of the keyboard and a switch on the left hand side of the keyboard for easily setting or clearing tabs. These work like the later “Miracle Tabs” of later Remingtons, but this model isn’t labeled with that feature name. Margin stops are manually set with sliders hiding underneath the paper table. Sadly there’s a small metal tab in the middle of the carriage rail which prevents the setting of margins all on the right or the left, which becomes an issue when attempting to set both margins on the right hand side with index cards in vertical orientation. This can be remedied by centering any paper in the middle of the platen for margin settings.

Close up of the right margin stop inside the paper table. It has a black plastic slider and the indication of the number setting is made by a half-moon shaped cut out in the metal assembly. Just in front of the slider are dozens of metal fins which are used for setting the tab stops.

There are shift keys on both the left and right as well as shift locks on both sides as well. The machine has a segment shift to decrease finger fatigue. It’s not as light as some of my Royals or Smith-Coronas, but it may improve a bit with some cleaning.

The All-New has the traditional Remington portable auto-reverse ribbon switches from the mid-century in addition to a manual switch on the front left side between the hood and the keyboard. Opposite this is the traditional blue/white/red switch for the bichrome and stencil settings. A labeled (1, 2, 3) variable touch setting lever is also to be found on the right side of the keyboard. It seems to be attached properly and functioning on my machine.

The ribbon cover/hood is hinged on both sides near the carriage and has a clever gravity-based set of hooks which limits how far it opens to prevent it crashing into the carriage. I think it’s a better design than the later method on my 1957 Quiet-Riter which I don’t like as well.

Missing from this model, but available on later Remingtons is a paper guide for more easily inserting and aligning paper.

Case

This machine came with a wooden case covered with yellow and brown striped fabric. Sadly it’s fairly stained and the fabric is beginning to peel off of the bottom of the case. Given the stained condition of the fabric, this may be a good candidate for removing the fabric and replacing it. I’ve not done this sort of restoration before, so it may make an interesting experiment. Before doing that, I might try an experiment to see if I can steam clean it, particularly since the peeling parts are generally intact and I might be able to glue them back down. The original fabric does have a nice “dapper” feeling

The interior green fabric is heavily worn and has a few places which are completely worn through.

The back of the bottom of the case has two metal tabs into which the typewriter fits and there are two metal lever locks at the front of the case. All of these seem to be in proper working order.

The external fittings seem to be in pretty good shape considering their age. Alas, as ever seems to be my lot in life, there was no key to the case’s lock.

Based on other examples of the cases I’ve seen in the Typewriter Database, there was a prior variation of the case which had a press button, but the design was such that it generally scratched up the front metal bar of the machine just in front of the spacebar. Apparently that wasn’t the best design in the long run. It bears noting that the size and general design of my particular 1950 case is almost exactly that of my 1957 Remington Quiet-Riter, so obviously the change in form factor was deemed more desirable from a use and engineering perspective. The change was also solid enough that Remington continued it for nearly a decade.

A yellow water-stained typewriter case with a black bakelite handle

Angle down on the bottom and sides of a Remington All-New water-stained typewriter case with the fabric starting to peel off the bottom of the case.

Opened typewriter case with a green interior. Sitting inside it is a rounded Remington All-New typewriter in gunmetal gray with dark gray keys. The two are sitting on a rustic wooden dining room table with a library card catalog just visible in the background.

Close up of the metal clamp fitting that locks the Remington All-New typewriter into its case.

Side view of Remington All-New typewriter sitting in a case with a green interior. The profile accentuates the curved nature of the typewriter's hood.

Close up of the stained and aged green interior of a 1949 typewriter case.

Typeface Sample

This machine has a pica typeface with 10 characters per inch. The machine has a bichrome switch as well as a stencil setting. It bears noting that the % and ¢ on this machine are simply divine. They make me want to do more calculations on the percentage of small change.

Typed sample on a yellow library card index-style 3x5 inch index card with red lines which reads 1950 Feb Serial number: 1997444 Remington All-New Portable Pica typeface, 10 CPI, bichrome, US keyboard 234567890- qwertyuiop asdfghjkl;¢ zxcvbnm,./ "#$%&'()* QWERTYUIOP ASDFGHJKL:@ ZXCVBNM,.? the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Sound

Here’s a sound sample of inserting a sheet of paper, aligning it writing a sentence, the bell, and a return on the 1950 Remington All-New:

Photo Gallery

Most of the photos on this page are “before” photos, so please “pardon the dust” and grime.

Opened typewriter case with a green interior. Sitting inside it is a rounded Remington All-New typewriter in gunmetal gray with dark gray keys. The two are sitting on a rustic wooden dining room table with a library card catalog just visible in the background.

Close cropped photo of a gunmetal gray Remington All-New typewriter with its dark gray keys

Close up of the hood and carriage of a Remington All-New typewriter. Crisp Remington logo is featured on the hood.

View into the right side of the carriage of a Remington All-New typewriter. The carriage is pushed to the left providing a view of both the gray platen knob and down into the typewriter's body where one can see the bell

Angle down on a Remington All-New typewriter with the ribbon cover open to feature the typebasket and ribbon cups. The carriage is shifted to the far left.

Angle from the front left down onto a gunmetal gray Remington All-New typewriter

View from the left rear corner of a Remington All-New typewriter looking at the return lever, the black platen and a peek into the typebasket with the ribbon cover/hood closed.

Angle down onto the rear of a Remington All-New typewriter with a shadowed view into the typebasket and the typeface.

Straight on view of the rear of a Remington All-New typewriter. On the bottom half is a logo that reads Remington Rand Inc. Patented in the US and Foreign Countries Made in the U.S.A. At the bottom of the machine are two open metal slots on opposite sides into which metal tabs on the case would be used to stabilize the machine for carrying.

A view of a Remington All-New typewriter from the right rear corner. The carriage has a dark gray knob and metal side cover which contrasts with the lighter gunmetal gray body paint.

View of the bottom of a Remington All-New typewriter. We see the bottom of the keys and the many dozens of thin metal bars connecting the keys to the typebars. At the bottom is a metal plate with a variety of adjustment screws for properly aligning the typewriter. We can just make out the round shape of the bell at the bottom of the machine. There are four rectangular rubber feet at the corners of the unit.

Yellowed catalog page with photos of 5 portable typewriters labeled A-E with blocks of corresponding text below to describe them all and provide their list prices. The headline over the description reads: PORTABLE TYPEWRITERS.. NEW post-war models

Digging into some typewriter pricing history, I found a copy of the 1949 Sears Spring/Summer Catalog, which lists a version of my 1949 Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter (Sears SKU: 3 NM 4584T with Pica Type) for $95.08 on page 285. 

Converting 1949 dollars to 2024 using an inflation calculator indicates this is now worth $1,247.75. Considering that I got it for less than the original sale price in 2024 (including shipping) and that it works as well now as it did then, I feel like I got a pretty solid deal.

For comparison the competing portable models in the catalog included:

  • Royal Arrow $84.48
  • Smith-Corona Clipper $84.27
  • Smith-Corona Sterling $89.57
  • Remington Portable $84.27
  • Remington Portable with Tabulator $89.57
  • Underwood Leader $63.40

They also listed the Tower, a standard size desk typewriter, for $99.00 saying it was just a few dollars more than the portables.

For further comparison, the prior year, the 1948 Smith-Corona Clipper, a model of which I also own, was listed for $76.85. Adjusted for inflation this would be $995.96.

Collective Nouns for Typewriters and Typists

The traditional collective noun for a group of typists is a “pool”, but this just doesn’t seem as creative or entertaining as many collective nouns can potentially be. As a typewriter collector it would be more fun to have a clever collective noun for a group of typists at a type-in. Similarly it would be nice to have a name for a collection of typewriters themselves. 

So toward this end I thought I’d brainstorm for a moment to make a few lists of potential ideas for both. If you’ve got ideas, please add them to the comments. There’s no need to try to come up with an “official” collective noun as use in daily life, writing, and throughout the typosphere will ultimately determine a winner through actual usage. Some words are double-listed as they could refer to either.

What do you call your collection?

Potential Collective Nouns for Typewriters

  • Radiance
  • Tabulation
  • Segment (no one’s every done collecting, are they?)
  • Sheaf
  • Clatter
  • Flourish
  • Sounder
  • Chatter
  • Ream
  • Basket
  • Font
  • Aureole (for the Smith-Corona enthusiasts)
  • Roost (especially when stored and displayed on shelves)
  • Parenthesis
  • Return 

Potential Collective Nouns for Typists

  • Pool (traditional)
  • Claque
  • Vibration
  • Riot
  • Mayhem
  • Commotion
  • Symphony
  • Exclamation
  • Shift
  • Chattering
  • Touch
  • Drumming
  • Sonority
  • Tumult
  • Thriving
  • Applause
  • Manual
  • Carriage
  • Clatter

What could we be? Are we a vibration of typists? Maybe we’re a thriving of typists? A Touch of Typewriter Collectors? Please add your ideas to the list below…

Acquisition: 1949 Smith-Corona Clipper Portable Typewriter

I already own and love a 4 series Smith-Corona Clipper, but I’ve been wanting one or more of the family of 5 series Smith-Coronas for a while. I purchased this Clipper on May 14th and received it earlier this week on Tuesday the 21st. Loving another Clipper already meant that it immediately skipped to the front of the line for repairs. I had planned on cleaning it up over the weekend, but impatience got the better of me.

I present a brown series 5 Smith-Corona Clipper with serial number 5C-102313.

Brown bodied Smith-Corona Clipper with green keys sitting on a wooden library card catalog next to a small vase of red roses.
All typewriters should have their own dozen red roses, n’cest pas?

View of the inside left of the typewriter with the hood up showing the left ribbon cup, the touch controls and visibly stamped into a metal bar between them is the serial number of the machine

Design

Smith-Corona made a modest shift in design from the late 40s series 4 models to the somewhat more modern series 5 in 1949 and throughout the 1950s. Gone were the black bodies and glass keys and in came the brown, cream, and gray bodies with plastic (mostly) green keys. Still in was the generally rounded and compact body. The shift marked, for me at least, the pinnacle of Smith-Corona engineering and manufacturing in the typewriter space. I do like the more modern design and brighter colors of the 6 series machines, but the build quality lost a little something, particularly with the introduction of more plastic into the 60s and 70s. 

The broad line of series 5 models included the Clipper, Sterling, and Silent-Super models which had slight variations between them which also differentiated them in price as well. By 1957, the Clipper and Sterling both had 84 keys while the Silent-Super had 88 keys. The Sterling and Silent-Super also added an adjustable paper guide on the paper table, a line retainer, a retractable paper support behind the paper table, and a tabulator. The Silent-Super at the top of the line also included both tab set and clear keys (the Sterling had tabs, but they were manual), paper fingers, and a platen release latch along with an interchangeable platen. I’ve heard colloquially (but not seen documentation) that the Silent-Super also came with a softer platen to make it quieter, but with hardening over time, this feature has been nullified as a means of differentiating these models now. In addition to the tab set/clear keys, the Silent-Super’s additional two keys were generally the “1/!” and “+/=” in the top row. 

Tom Hanks thought that this series of machines was the bees knees and said so in the documentary California Typewriter (2016): 

White index card with the following quote typed onto it in blue elite typeface: If I had to keep only one typewriter, if I had to get rid of them all and only had one left... There is a version of this Smith-Corona which is the the Silent Smith-Corona. [...] Somewhere around whenever they started making this, the Smith Corona Silent and various other models that have the same silhouette. The rise on the keys is just almost perfect—going from an N to a Y requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action [types]. This is a solid, solid piece of machine. That's got beautiful highlights like the stripes here and there. The colors are good. I love the green keys.  I would probably say that this with a good case would be the one typewriter I would take. And that's why it's kinda out [on my desk] right now.  I rotate this one into use an awful lot. [He types: clack, clack]  I confess. [clack, clack again as he types.] —Tom Hanks, in California Typewriter, 2016

Overall Condition

I bought the typewriter in an online auction. Photos of this particular machine made it look to be in salvageable condition, but the site/seller didn’t provide any other details. With a bargain basement price, I jumped hoping that I would be able to make the best of the machine, and if not it would be a nice learning experience and make a useful parts machine.

The case was utterly filthy and needed help; I detailed the cleaning process and various photos previously

The exterior of the machine was in pretty good condition with only one or two minor scuffs, but it did need a serious scrub down. Given that it was brown, doing before and after photos seemed useless, but a lot of dirt and grime certainly came off in the washing process of the shell. I did a quick test on the interior with Scrubbing Bubbles which worked out well before cleaning the entire body. 

A wooden table with a towel on it. On the towel is the chassis of the typewriter with the body panels removed and sitting around it. Ordered next to the typewriter are several screwdrivers, brushes, and surgical clamps

Almost all of the keys were sticky and several were frozen solid (I suspect that perhaps someone used some WD-40 when they shouldn’t have?) The “C” key was not only frozen, but had been bent down on the keyboard and required some gentle forming to bring it back in line with the others. It took two rounds of mineral spirits on the segment along with a toothbrush and working the keys to get all the typebars moving like they should again. 

Close up of the cleaned segment and the typebars and typeface.

I wasn’t super happy with the type on the initial test page, so I made some minor tweaks to the ring and cylinder followed by an on foot and motion adjustment to line the upper and lower case faces properly. The shift and shift lock fortunately worked as expected. 

The touch control didn’t seem to be doing anything useful and upon checking, I discovered that the spring mechanism and linkage are loose at both ends of the settings. Not seeing any way to remedy what I was seeing, I went looking for adjustment advice online. That was a strike out, but I did find a useful video by Phoenix Typewriter which detailed an adjustment of three screws where the body of the typewriter meets the keyboard. Making the adjustment required removing the last panel of the body exterior I hadn’t already, so I took it off (and cleaned it) and adjusted things to make the touch a tad lighter and moved on. I have a theory about the old touch control being vestigial, but it’ll require some research or a service manual to verify. 

This Clipper came with a 16 page manual which Richard Polt has already archived at his site.

Cover of the gray typewriter manual with  a large script word "Congratulations" on the front followed by the words You now own the world's finest portable typewriter. The Smith-Corona logo is at the bottom of the page below a small picture of a typewriter.

Based on the serial numbers in the TypewriterDatabase, the beginning serial number in December of 1949 was 5C-122567, so I can only guess that mine was manufactured late in 1949 before the beginning of December. This means that this Autumn, my new clipper will celebrate its 75th birthday. I also seem to be the owner of the second oldest 5 series Clipper listed in the typewriter database presently.

The rubber on the feed rollers is in reasonable shape and isn’t flattened. The platen is almost rock hard with only a tiny amount of “give” left and may be the last part I’ll fix by sending it off to J. J. Short Associates. With this final tweak, the machine should be in good enough shape for the next 50-75 years of its life.

Keys

The green plastic keys on the ’49 Clipper are a major change from the chrome and glass keys of the prior year’s model. The plastic seems to be double shot so that the lighter green plastic of the lettering is integral to the key and not simply printed on the keytops. The majority of the 48 keys are dark green with light green keys used for the backspace (arrow pointing right on the left side), shift, shift lock, and margin release keys (“M-R” on the right side), and a milk chocolate brown key for the spacebar, which runs roughly the length of the bottom row of 10 keys.

Close up of the dark green plastic keys which comprise the keyboard of the Smith-Corona Clipper. The Shift and shift lock keys are a lighter green and the spacebar is a darker brown than the body of the machine.

Of particular note with respect to my particular model, I’ve got a Dutch keyboard layout which includes the “Æ/æ”, “Ø/ø”, and “Å/å” keys. The inclusion of these which displaces the traditional “, ,”, “. .” and the “: ;” key respectively. The usual “? /” key is replaced with a “: .”. There are two unmarked green keys on the upper right of the keyboard next to the number 0 and letter P which comprise the “/ %” and “- ”” (the later for diaresis, I think, but someone might correct me). This means that the keyboard has two keys for the % symbol. Lost altogether are the usual “1/4 1/2” and “@ ¢” keys. There’s also no semi-colon, but the ever-creative and type-limited typist might remedy this with a colon, backspace, and comma.

Close up of the right side of the keyboard featuring several Dutch characters.

Other Functionality

As is typical of most Smith-Coronas of this period, there is a bichrome selector with a stencil setting. The ribbon has an auto-reverse as well as a manual switch on the left side of the machine by the keyboard. 

The unit includes the famous segment shift “Floating Shift”. There isn’t a traditional paper bail which appears in later versions of the Clipper, but this design incarnation does have two adjustable paper fingers as well as two card fingers which are integral to the typing point. (By the late 50s, paper bails were standard and paper fingers were only found on the higher end Silent-Supers.) Left and right adjustable margin stops are at the back of the paper table by way of sliding chrome tabs. Being a Clipper, this machine has no tabulator though this functionality was seen on the Sterling and Silent-related models.

View down onto the ribbon cover and into the typebasket of the machine. On the back we can see the markings going up to 100 on the paper table, and the word Clipper written on the top side of the back of the machine.

As was the case with the prior 4 series, there is a permanent variable spacing mechanism actuated by a pulled knob on the left side of the platen.

view of the left side of the typewriter which includes a dark brown plastic platen knob with a silver button on it

On the bottom of the right side of the carriage is the same carriage centering lever as the prior 4 series model which is helpful for storing the machine in its carrying case; there is no carriage lock.

Close up of the round brown knob on the right side of the carriage. Just underneath it is a chrome button which when activated allows the carriage to be centered on the machine.

Next to the carriage return on the left side of the carriage is a line selector for single, double and triple spacing settings.

View of the left side of the typewriter looking in to the basket and the left side of the carriage including the return lever.

Case

The wooden case covered with black fabric and spring loaded hinges are almost identical to my 1948 Clipper. The internal metal hardware is slightly different and includes two metal brackets in the middle of the case where my prior version had wooden blocks nailed in.

Sadly, as ever seems to be the case, there was no included key. I suppose I’m going to have to figure out a way to do a 3D printed version of the key for my Smith-Corona cases.

For more images of the case, see the linked post referenced above.

Opened black Smith-Corona case with green interior sitting on a wooden library card catalog.
It’s only vaguely visible in the photo, but someone has written a name and address in large pencil script on the inside top of the case. It roughly looks to me like John Stramsvåg, Jh Vigegl 9, Bergen, Norway. I’m presuming it’s the name of a prior owner, though I got the machine from Orange County, California.

Angle on three sides of the black fabric covered typewriter case sitting on a library card catalog.

Typeface Sample

This machine has got an elite face with 12 characters per inch. Again, there are several Dutch-specific keys.

3x5 inch index card with a type sample that reads: 
1949 Serial number: 5C-102313 Smith-Corona Clipper 
Elite typeface, 12 CPI, portable, bichrome, Dutch keyboard 234567890/ qwertyuiop- asdfghjklå, zxcvbnme. "#$%&'()% QWERTYUIOP" ASDFGHJKLÅ? ZXCVBNMED: 
the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. A VERY BAD QUACK MIGHT JINX ZIPPY FOWLS:

Sound

The bell on this rings 8 spaces before the left margin stop setting. 

Here’s a sound sample of inserting an index card, writing a sentence, the bell, and a return on the 1949 Smith-Corona Clipper:

Photo Gallery

View down onto the ribbon cover and into the typebasket of the machine. On the back we can see the markings going up to 100 on the paper table, and the word Clipper written on the top side of the back of the machine.

view of the left side of the typewriter which includes a dark brown plastic platen knob with a silver button on it

View of the Smith-Corona typewriter of the rear.

View from the rear of the typewriter down into the typebasket. The typeface is almost gleaming.

Angle down onto the right rear of the typewriter as seen from the back.

A view into the typebasket and the ribbon and ribbon vibrator with the hood of the machine opened. On the inside of the hood one can seen thick, quilted-looking felt.

Close up view of the ribbon vibrator and ribbon threading on the Smith-Corona Clipper

table level view of the front of the typewriter featuring the brown shiny spacebar in front with the green keys sitting slightly above them. In the backgound on the right is a green house plant.

Watched Smith Corona 5 Series Typewriter Keyboard Adjustment for Lighter Touch Silent Super by Phoenix TypewriterPhoenix Typewriter from YouTube
This is a fascinating find. Thanks for the tip.
 
In looking at my own ’49 5 series Clipper I notice that the manual adjustment with the H 6-5-4-3-2 L lever attaches to a short spring, then a small plate, and from there to an arm attached to the universal bar. None of the settings on my machine effect any actual change because the entire assembly is loose from start to finish. Your machine in the video does much the same as I can see the spring attached to that lever hangs loose as you move from the L to the H settings.
 
Given the screwdriver settings you’re showing, I’m wondering if that Touch Selector is a vestigial appendage from the 4 Series days? I do notice another nearby unused arm on the universal bar with a hook-like end on it that the spring might have been attached to to provide actual tension. Unfortunately I only have a few 4 series machines to compare with (and their assemblies are dramatically different) and don’t have any other 5 series machines to see what the proper connection setting for the manual touch selector should be.
 
As far as I can tell, no one’s done a proper video of the manual touch selector assembly on the 5 series machines, if in fact they ever worked at all. Perhaps something to add to the list of videos to produce the next time a 5 series Smith-Corona comes through?

Bulk Order of Typewriter Ribbon from Baco Ribbon & Supply Co.

Having surpassed the 10 typewriter mark in my collection, I felt it was time to invest in some more serious typewriter ribbon for the “fleet”. There are some purveyors charging in the range of $10-20 for typewriter ribbon (and yes! people do still sell and buy typewriter ribbon!)  I’m pretty sure by buying from closer to the source that I could drop the price down significantly and potentially save the money toward repairs, new platens, or even other machines. 

Naturally the first stop was Richard Polt’s site, where he lists a handful of purveyors. I’ve heard good things in general about Baco both from Richard and Joe Van Cleave as well as others in the past few months, so I took the plunge and ordered a full reel of 660 yards of nylon black/red typewriter ribbon for $65. It should keep all my machines inked for quite a while. 

Given that the typical standard/universal spool will accommodate 16 yards, this should be 41.25 spools. This also brings the price down to a far more economical $1.60 per spool versus the much higher level others are charging, particularly since I generally self-wind my own ribbon onto original metal spools and don’t need the additional plastic waste. It also has the added benefit of supporting the efforts of Charlene Oesch until she decides to retire. 

If you’re in the market, here are the basic details to call and place an order (she specifically doesn’t have and doesn’t want a website), but she’s definitely still in business, carrying on in the tradition of her father since at least 1949:

Baco Ribbon & Supply Co.
Charlene Oesch

1521 Carman Road
Ballwin, MO  63021 United States

bacoribbon@sbcglobal.net
+1 (314) 835-9300
+1 (536) 394-5475 (fax)

 

Baco takes both credit card and PayPal and ships within about a day via USPS in the United States. 

Current offerings/pricing (subject to change):

  • 660 yards (full reel) of nylon ribbon in black or black/red for $65
  • 330 yards (half reel) of nylon ribbon in black or black/red for $45
  • 550 yards of silk ribbon in black or black/red for $220
  • 295 yards of cotton in black or black/red for $75

With some lead time, she can do other colors if necessary, though she typically doesn’t keep those in stock all the time according to our conversation today. She has the option to pretty easily do blue, green, and purple in single colored reels. 

I could be in for some blue/green or purple/green ribbon, which I imagine she could pull off if anyone wanted to go in on a reel or so to make it worth the time and effort to set it up. Let me know if you’re interested. Similarly if someone wanted to split an order for silk, I could be game for that too. 

Have you tried other manufacturers? Who is your favorite bulk ribbon supplier? 

Now I’m off to find some grommets and a custom pair of pliers for them…