In a world of digital distractions, these Kansas City wordsmiths embrace analog typewriters
Among the old furniture and knickknacks that crowd the aisles of Reclaimed by Michele, a vintage shop in North Lawrence, Kansas, Alison Dishinger is on the hunt. As she carefully picks her way through the antique wardrobes, desks, and stacks of plates that cover nearly every surface, she's keeping an eye out for something in particular.
“So this is part of what typewriter enthusiasts do,” Dishinger says. “And we'll always have our eye out for that box, that square box. Usually they're on the floor, they're underneath something.”
The one she finds turns out to be a gunmetal gray Royal Companion, built in 1953. For Dishinger, it’s an unusual find because the machine was made in Canada. The keys clack as she tests each one to see if any of them stick.
“I basically just do an overall inspection of how clean it is, if it's missing any parts,” Dishinger says. “And most of the stuff I'm seeing on it is is typical of the type of its age, so I'm going to go ahead and roll some paper into it and see how it types.”
Dishinger owns more than 100 typewriters, and is very involved in the typewriter community. She regularly attended national typewriter gatherings before the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down.
She prefers midcentury portables, but she’ll pick up just about any typewriter she thinks she can repair. This one, Dishinger says, just needs a good cleaning.
“The thing that I love the most is finding a functional machine in the wild, like this one,” Dishinger says. “To have a 70-year-old machine show up and be in fine working order is just a thrill.”
The early machines
The first commercially successful typewriter was patented in 1868 by inventor Christopher Latham Sholes, who designed the QWERTY keyboard that, with a few adaptations, is still in use. The name comes from the first six letters in the top-left corner of the keyboard.
But the first typewriters were awkward. Mark Twain, Missouri’s most cantankerous storyteller, bought his first typewriter in 1873. He reportedly liked the machine at first, but developed a fraught relationship with his "newfangled typing machine."
"That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects — devilish ones,” Twain wrote in 1904. “It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character."
Twain managed to overcome the quirks of typing words on a page. In 1882 he composed the first manuscript written on a typewriter, "Life on the Mississippi," with a Remington No. 2. (In his autobiography, Twain famously misremembered the first book he typed out as 1876's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.")
On the campus of Park University in Parkville, Missouri, Jack MacLennan is known as the typewriter guy. Vintage typewriters line the shelves in his office.
“There's a lot of different reasons why people collect typewriters,” says MacLennon, an assistant professor of political science who is originally from New Brunswick, Canada.
“Some people, it's just they like the look and the aesthetic of them, they don't even care if they really work. For other people it's very tactile, right? They like the sound, they like the mechanical process. But there's also a bunch of writers that use them because of the way they shape the writing process," he explains. "That's why I fell in love with them and started collecting them.”
At the peak of his collecting, MacLennan owned around 45 typewriters. Today, the collection hovers around 20. He cycles them in and out of use as a part of his writing process.
For MacLennan, a manual typewriter creates a focused space where he can think. His collection includes a few showpieces, like an Hermes 3000, but the Alpine blue Smith Corona Silent-Super is his favorite.
“They're really helpful early in the writing process,” MacLennan says. “So while I'm writing a new article for publication — sort of free writing, trying to figure out what I think — they're good for that, right? There's no email, there's no dings, there's no internet browser to distract you. There's none of that kind of stuff.”
Kansas City poet and essayist Andrew Johnson also uses a typewriter to avoid online distractions, but he prefers an IBM Selectric II, not a fully manual typewriter, when he needs to get words on paper. It helps him find a rhythm, he says. When turned on, it makes a pleasant hum and the keys make a gentle tapping sound.
“I like to write first drafts on the typewriter because it's fast,” Johnson says. “If I'm writing on a computer ... its autocorrect distracts me and makes me pause and think about errors or grammatical mistakes or typos.”
In June, as a Charlotte Street Resident Artist, Johnson moved to a new studio space, where he has been spending even more time in front of his electric typewriter.
“I’ll have a turn of phrase or a word that I want to just play with," Johnson says. "That's kind of what that process lends itself well (to), where I think I just have something I need to get going that's very language-driven.”
Lawrence writer Kelly Barth types all of her work on her late father's Smith Corona Silent, from the 1940s. She’s been using the machine since she was a girl.
Her first project was to retype a treasured copy of Mother Goose nursery rhymes.
“I decided I was going to type them, you know, so I'd have a copy," Barth says. "And I just loved it. I loved everything about it: the smell, the feel, the sound, all of it — it just was magical.”
She also used her father’s typewriter for drafts of her memoir, "My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus."
Her father, Robert Barth, learned to type in high school. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served during World War II.
“When he was in boot camp, they were asking if anyone could type,” Barth says. “He raised his hand and said, 'I can type,' and they took him one way and everyone else the other way. And he then became company clerk of his unit, in the 79th Infantry Division.”
All through the war, Robert Barth carried a gun and a typewriter, though he never had to use the gun.
“He wasn’t on the front lines,” his daughter says. “He was in danger, of course, but he literally was spared active shooting by being in the office.”
Instead, her father followed the troops as they pushed the Germans back. When a soldier fell in battle, he wrote the letters to families back home.
“He always wanted us to learn how to type because, literally, typing saved his life,” Barth says.
When Martha Sanders was a baby in Boston, one of her first memories was listening to her father, Bob Sanders, tapping away on a manual typewriter.
“It is just the most beautiful sound in the world to me,” she says.
Her father was a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, and he wrote everything on his manual typewriter.
“He was always writing the eternal book,” Martha says. “At my mom's house we have boxes and boxes and boxes of typed pages of things that he thought and said about the world, and it's all pretty amazing — very thickly written, very difficult to get through.”
The elder Sanders also kept a healthy collection of typewriters, and never fully embraced computers.
“He was wary of all this newfangled stuff,” Martha says. “He was very much an antique kind of person.”
After her father retired, he worked as the dean for students at Kansas City Academy, where Martha now works as admissions director.
In 2009, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and, as his health declined, Martha found herself wanting to to find a way to memorialize him.
“I was lying in bed one night, crying, thinking my dad's going to die,” Sanders says. “And it just popped into my mind, like, 'I need to get a typewriter tattoo.'”
When she showed him the finished tattoo, her father was weak from radiation treatments.
“I took the bandage off and he burst into tears, and he said, ’It’s a Smith Corona portable from 1915 and I have one like that,'” Sanders remembers. “Every time I saw him after that he would always touch my arm and say, ‘This beautiful tattoo — thank you.’”
It’s not unusual for people to have such a strong connection to a machine, says collector Alison Dishinger.
“Somebody used this, somebody loved it,” she says. “It was a tool for them and respecting that is also really important.”
After giving the '53 Royal Companion a thorough going-over, Dishinger decides to buy and refurbish it.
Despite the newfound connection, Dishinger says she'd be pleased if someone came along after she fixed the typewriter and wanted to take it home.
"I'll be like, 'Come on, try it out! Get your fingers on it and tell me what you think,'” she says gleefully. "I love it no matter what, but there might be somebody out there — this is their typewriter-soulmate."