Replied to Want to run a typewriter shop? by Richard PoltRichard Polt (writingball.blogspot.com)
This is Tom Furrier, owner of the beloved Cambridge Typewriter  in Arlington, Massachusetts. Tom is ready to retire, and he'd like to find someone who wants to take over his small, busy shop.
I’m terribly tempted by this and even have a planned trip to Boston in June. Sadly, I don’t think my wife would approve the career change or the move from Los Angeles…
Listened to The Informed Life: Episode 139 Chris Aldrich on Cybernetic Communications by Jorge ArangoJorge Arango from The Informed Life

Chris Aldrich has the most multi-disciplinary resume I’ve ever seen, with a background that includes biomedics, electrical engineering, entertainment, genetics, theoretical mathematics, and more. Chris describes himself as a modern-day cybernetician, and in this conversation we discuss cybernetics and communications, differences between oral and literary cultures, and indigenous traditions and mnemonics, among many other things.

Show notes and audio transcript available at The Informed Life: Episode 139

A while back, I recorded an episode of The Informed Life with Jorge Arango, and it’s just been released. We had hoped to cover a couple of specific topics, but just as we hit record, our topic agenda took a left turn into some of my recent interests in intellectual history.

Jorge has a great little show which he’s been doing for quite a while. If you’re not already subscribed, take a moment to see what he’s offering in the broad space of tools for thought. I’ve been a long time subscriber and was happy to chat with Jorge directly.

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.

Watched Royal Typewriter Platen Variable Repair, Roller Removal by Phoenix TypewriterPhoenix Typewriter from YouTube
I was seeing this issue on my 1949 Royal QDL. I figured it’d be an easy fix.

Turns out, it was exactly my issue and the pieces had “frozen up”. A quick clean out and we’re back in business in under 20 minutes.

Acquisition: 1949 Royal Quiet De Luxe Portable Typewriter

For the rapidly decreasing amount of space I’ve got for storing and actively using the handful of machines I’ve got in my burgeoning typewriter collection, I’ve begun to become a bit more discerning of new acquisitions. I had yet to add a Royal the fleet, and I’ve had my eye on a handful, but the ones that stuck out most vividly to me were a span of years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Today  a Royal Quiet De Luxe (often seen abbreviated as QDL) has joined the family. 

A gray typewriter sits at an angle on the top of a 20 drawer wooden library card catalog. Next to it is a stack of index cards and a small wooden shadow box with three Lego people posing inside.

Design

The kicker on this typewriter model for me, beyond the general beauty of this era of Royals, was reading that Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, had produced a model of the QDL for Royal in 1948. In my opinion, it’s one of the prettiest in the entire Royal line, and possibly in the pantheon of typewriters in general. Really, who could resist the textured crinkle gray magic paint, the hint of yellow in the lettering, with just enough black and shiny chrome, combined with metal wrapped glass keys that lovingly cup your fingertips?

Also intriguing to me was that Dreyfuss had lived, until his death in 1972, in South Pasadena, California seven tenths of a mile from my old apartment on Orange Grove Boulevard and less than 7 miles from my current home in Altadena, CA. It seems very apropos to have a neighbor’s typewriter in the house.

For those who are unaware of his name, you’re surely aware of his work which included the design of iconic products which included the Western Electric Model 500 telephone, the Princess phone, and the Trimline phone;  several John Deere tractors; the ubiquitous round Honeywell T87 thermostat; Polaroid’s SX-70 camera; the Westclox Big Ben clock; Hoover’s model 150 vacuum cleaner, and the New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train as well as their Hudson locomotive for the 20th Century Limited

It could easily fit into a dark academia setting and might be the typewriter you could imagine Cary Grant, George Clooney, or Jude Law would have on their desks.

Henry Dreyfuss’ Royal QDL certainly meets both of William Morris’ criteria when he instructed “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” As the brief typewriter manual touts, the machine “will add grace to any room or setting.” It is not wrong. This machine is both handsome and dapper all at once. If a typewriter were to wear a business suit bordering on formal, this model would be the life of the cocktail party wearing a debonair hat. 

Overall Condition

The serial number on the machine is A-1927573 which the Typewriter Database dates to 1949. Based on the spread of serial numbers from that production year, this was likely manufactured in December of 1949.  This means that this machine will celebrate its 75th birthday this coming Winter. I intend to give it the 75th year it richly deserves.

Serial number A-1927573 stamped into black metal recessed into the gray frame of the typewriter.
The serial number on the 1949 Royal Quiet De Luxe can be found on the top left corner of the machine underneath the carriage.

I bought this in an online auction with very little information to go on, but things have turned out exceedingly well for just a few dollars. The typewriter came with the original case, a small 14 page manual describing it as “Gray Magic”, and a Royal typewriter brush. The machine itself has almost no external flaws or scratching. It definitely shows some signs of use and age, but the exterior cleaned up very well.

All the keys worked well aside from one or two which may need some minor attention for borderline stickiness. The machine’s shift keys were binding when I pressed them, but I couldn’t see anything obviously causing any issues. A quick trip to Phoenix Typewriter’s YouTube channel identified the problem and a fix that was done in about two minutes of simple adjustment by properly forming a small metal tab.

The variable spacer on the left platen knob also seems to have an issue, but I can easily get around it functionally until I have a few minutes to figure out what might be causing the problem. I’ll also have to do a quick clean out of the insides to remove some built up oil and dust and give it a quick service. The rubber feet and the platen have certainly seen better days; I’ll get around to replacing them shortly.

The ribbon it came with, a standard black and red on the original (universal) spools, still has some reasonable life left in it.

The case which has a predominantly yellow and black flecked tweed wrap has seen some action but is in generally good shape for its age. The interior seems near mint while the exterior has a few minor discolorations and one small stain. One of my favorite upcycle recommendations: “With the Portable removed,” as stated in the manual, “the case may be used as an ideal overnight bag.” I could almost imagine that Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959) wished he’d had such a case when embarking on his escape on the Twentieth Century Limited from Grand Central Station with Eve Kendall. In fact, I’d almost swear that a brunette version of Eva Marie Saint is on the cover of the typewriter’s manual.

Keys

The Royal earns the “De Luxe” portion of its name with the lush keys alone. While many newer typewriters of its era were converting to less expensive mass manufactured plastic keys, the QDL went with somewhat square keys with a domed top. Some might describe them as “tombstone” keys, but their subtle roundness provides a memento mori that makes you elated to be alive and using them. The letters are a very light yellow against a black background with the yellow hints being picked up again in the numbered hashes on the paper table scale. Over the keys are polished glass which is indented slightly. The manual calls them “Finger-Flow Keys” which are “designed to cradle your fingertips.” The tactile experience is sublime.

The 49 key keyboard is a standard American typewriter set up without any frills like a “1” or an “=”. The usual back space and margin release (labeled “Mar Rel”) are present along with both left and right “Shift Freedom” shift keys and a shift “lock” key on the left side. (The typewriter has a basket shift rather than a carriage shift.) A “tab” key sits in the top right of the keyboard next to the */- key on the top row.

The front of the keyboard features an ample black Bakelite space bar which forms the front edge of the machine. It’s presence helps to ground the machine and balance out the black Quiet De Luxe badge and platen at the top of the machine. This design prevents one’s thumbs from hitting a front metal frame of the typewriter, which happens on some poorly designed models in which the spacebar doesn’t sit above the frame with enough clearance. 

View down onto the keyboard of the Royal Quiet De Luxe.

 

The Royal badging on the front of the machine and featuring a close up of the keys for 5, 6, 7, and 8 which have a shiny glass reflection on them.

Other Functionality

This is the first machine I’ve had with an adjustable or disappearing card finger which one can move down out of the way with a quick pivot. This pivot is useful for more easily switching ribbons, but given the number of index cards I go through, it’s likely to stay in the up position most of the time.

I’ve never previously had a typewriter with a Magic Margin™, but this one has got a small metal switch on the back left of the machine which allows one to set the left margin quickly and easily with a tiny pull. Of course one can flip up the paper table behind the platen to expose the two metal margin set mechanisms which can be set manually. I love how Dreyfuss has cleverly hidden this functionality. I’d have to take a look at the margin set mechanisms to ensure the escapement would be protected properly, but when storing the typewriter, one could quickly center the carriage and set the margins for the center character as a pseudo-carriage lock. 

A close up of the left rear of the Royal Quiet De Luxe featuring a chrome level labeled Magic Margin.

View of the back of the typewriter with the paper table opened up to show the two silver sliders for setting the left and right margins.

Unlike later typewriters of the mid to late 1950s which had an almost infinite number of tab stops, this Royal Quiet De Luxe is equipped with a bar on the back of the carriage with five individual stop mechanisms which can be set as desired by sliding them into place.

View of the adjustable tab stops on the back of the typewriter. Each of the metal blocks can be slid along the toothed metal bar which has the same type measurements as the typing scales on the front. Red arrows on four of the blocks pictured show tabs set at 25, 35, 45, and 55.

Just above the keyboard, almost functioning like the cummerbund of the typewriter’s tuxedo, sits a subtle band of chrome with two small, elegant but somehow substantial horizontal switches. The left switch manages the direction of the ribbon. On the opposite side is the traditional slider with red, blue and white for switching between the bottom (red) and top (blue) of the ribbon or choosing the stencil setting (white). 

The case has a clever hinge lock that can be actuated with one finger while sliding the top of the case right with respect to the bottom to remove it from the hinge posts. The case also has a convenient clip for the brush as well as for the manual and any other papers one might wish to take. Also mounted in the top of the case is a carriage protector meant to keep the carriage in place while in transit as the machine doesn’t have a carriage lock.

Back corner of the inside of the case with a black metal clip on the left hinge. Pulling the flat portion of the clip would allow the top of the case to be slid off of the bottom. The top and bottom halves of the case have been separated. At the hinge portions of the bottom we see two metal posts to which the top of the case would be slid onto.

View into the top of the case with a deep red interior. There is a silver metal clip holding a 2 inch black plastic brush with short bristles and a white Royal logo and a large black U shaped clip for holding a variety of papers against the top of the lid--in this case we see the typewriter manual featureing a woman sitting merrily at a typewriter.

The bottom of the case has two black rails with four silver metal pins and black metal thumb locks. The pins fit into the bottom of the typewriter’s feet and the thumb locks slide easily to lock the typewriter into the case.

The red bottomed inside of the case with two black metal strips.

Close up of the right side of the typewriter locked into its case with two thumb levers visible at the front and back.

Typeface Sample

The pitch on this machine is 10 characters per inch (pica). The full platen is 94 characters wide with 6 spaces coming before the ‘0’ marker.

3x5 inch index card with red lines that serves as a typing sample. It reads: 1949 Royal De Luxe Serial number: A-1927573 Pica typeface; portable Designed by Henry Dreyfuss 234567890- qwertyuiop asdfghjkl; "#$%&'()* QWERTYUIOP ASDFGHJKL:@ zxcvbnm,./ ZXCVBNM,.? the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog A VERY BAD QUACK MIGHT JINX ZIPPY FOWLS

Sound

Here’s a sound sample of inserting an index card, writing a sentence, the bell, and a return on the 1949 Royal Quiet De Luxe:

Photo Gallery

Yellow and black tweed carrying case of the Royal Quiet De Luxe sitting on a polished wooden table. Royal Quiet De Luxe in it's open case sits on a dark wooden table. Oblique angle of the Royal Quiet De Luxe in its open case Vertical shot of a grey typewriter in an open case with a red interior. Table level image of the Royal Quiet De Luxe View into the basket of the Royal Quiet De Luxe which is threaded with black and red ribbon. Close up of the left side of the Royal Quiet De Luxe under the hood. In the front is the Touch Control setting with a lever which can be set from 0 to 9 View of the bottom of the Royal Quiet De Luxe showing off all the moving internal parts. Table level view of the Royal Quiet De Luxe featuring it's shiny gold Royal decal which is blurrily reflected in the waxed wooden table surface. Close up of the subtle crinkle texture of the gray magic paint on the hood of the Royal Quiet De Luxe Black plastic typewriter brush with short black bristles. The Royal logo is impressed onto the base. View into the basket of the Royal Quiet De Luxe from behind. In the background one can see the keyboard.

Knowledge management practices on romantic display in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Given that George Eliot had her own commonplace book, it’s fascinating but not surprising to see a section of prose about note taking and indexing practices in Middlemarch (set in 1829 to 1832 and published in 1871-1872) literally as the romance story is just beginning to brew. [Naturally a romance with index cards at its heart is just my cup of tea, n’cest pas?] Presently it’s not surprising to see the romance of an independent thinking woman stem out of an intellectual practice (dominated heavily by men at the time) that was fairly common in its day, but for it’s time such an incongruous juxtaposition may have been jarring to some readers.

In chapter two Mr. Brooke, the uncle, asks for advice about arranging notes as he has tried pigeon holes as a method but has the common issue of multiple storage and can’t remember under which letter he’s filed his particular note. [At the time, many academics would employ secretarial staff to copy their note cards multiple times so that a note that needed to be classified under “hope” and “liberty”, as an example, could be filed under both. Individuals working privately without the support of an amanuensis or additional indexing techniques would have had more difficulty with filing material in the same manner Mr Brooke did. Digital note takers using platforms like Obsidian or Logseq don’t have to worry about such issues now.]

Mr. Casaubon indicates that he uses pigeon-holes which was a popular method of filing, particularly in Britain where John Murray and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were using a similar method to build their dictionary at the time.

Our heroine Dorothea Brooke mentions that she knows how to properly index papers so that they might be searched for and found later. She is likely aware of John Locke’s indexing method from 1685 (or in English in 1706) and in the same passage—and almost the same breath—compares Mr. Casaubon’s appearance favorably to that of Locke as “one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw.”

In some sense here, we should be reading the budding romance, not just as one based on beautiful appearance or one’s station or even class, but one of intellectual stature and equality. One wants a mate not only as distinguished and handsome as Locke, but one with the beauty of mind as well. Without the subtextual understanding of knowledge management during this time period, this crucial component of the romance would be missed though Eliot later hints at it by many other means. Still, in the opening blushes of love, it is there on prominent display.

For those without their copies close at hand, here’s the excerpted passage:

“I made a great study of theology at one time,” said Mr Brooke, as if to explain the insight just manifested. “I know something of all schools. I knew Wilberforce in his best days. Do you know Wilberforce?
“Mr Casaubon said, “No.”
“Well, Wilberforce was perhaps not enough of a thinker; but if I went into Parliament, as I have been asked to do, I should sit on the independent bench, as Wilberforce did, and work at philanthropy.”
Mr Casaubon bowed, and observed that it was a wide field.
“Yes,” said Mr Brooke, with an easy smile, “but I have documents. I began a long while ago to collect documents. They want arranging, but when a question has struck me, I have written to somebody and got an answer. I have documents at my back. But now, how do you arrange your documents?”
“In pigeon-holes partly,” said Mr Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.
“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything getsmixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.”
“I wish you would let me sort your papers for you, uncle,” said Dorothea. “I would letter them all, and then make a list of subjects under each letter.
“Mr Casaubon gravely smiled approval, and said to Mr Brooke, “You have an excellent secretary at hand, you perceive.”
“No, no,” said Mr Brooke, shaking his head; “I cannot let young ladies meddle with my documents. Young ladies are too flighty.
“Dorothea felt hurt. Mr Casaubon would think that her uncle had some special reason for delivering this opinion, whereas the remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting on her.
When the two girls were in the drawing-room alone, Celia said—
“How very ugly Mr Casaubon is!”
“Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets.”

—George Eliot in Middlemarch (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, Bert G. Hornback ed., 2000), Book I, Chapter 2, p13.