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WWI’s impact on typewriter manufacturing

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Corona 3 on Tripod during World War I

Soldier using a Corona 3 during World War I. Read about the tripod for this machine at oz.Typewriter.com (see here).

While much has been written about rationing and retooling during World War II, not as much has been said about the war effort during The Great War. What impact did the war have on typewriter manufacturing?

Based on contemporary accounts, it was not business as usual:

  • Manufacturers retooled and redirected efforts. One newspaper reported, “The entrance of American typewriter companies into the manufacture of war supplies on a large scale, although it is officially denied that the Underwood company is interest in the American Ammunition Co., the new concern formed by typewriter companies for making the more delicate parts of shells, such as the time fuse, is said to have diverted to the Underwood company an additional amount of business.”1
  • Typewriters were rationed in some parts of the country, perhaps everywhere.2 Wrote one newspaper, “Typewriter Shortage Soon: According to Mr. H.H. Savage, representing the Remington Typewriter company, who is in Bisbee today, there will soon be a shortage of typewriters for civilian purposes.”3
  • As the war raged, it is possible manufacturers experienced difficulties acquiring raw materials. To note, there was a brisk market for reconditioned typewriters, which sold for as much as 80 percent of the cost of a new machine.4

In 1919, The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed editor for Typewriter Topics, saying: “Production has increased probably 100% since 1909. Output, however, is much below demand, and will continue for some time. During the two years that we were in the war the Government took 75% of the American output. Since 1914 practically all typewriters going abroad have been for use by the various European governments. Business life has been starved as to typewriters for almost five years.”5

The editor estimated that some 875,000 typewriters were produced world-wide, and the vast majority — some 775,000 machines — were produced in the United States. He offered the following breakdown:

  • Underwood — 190,000
  • Remington — 150,000
  • Royal — 100,000
  • Corona — 70,000
  • Oliver — 70,000
  • Hammond — 50,000
  • L.C. Smith — 40,000
  • Woodstock — 20,000
  • Rex and National — 20,000
  • Noiseless — 15,000
  • Blickensderfer, Allen, Victor, Visagraph and others — 50,000

The editor estimated that Germany’s output before the war was 200,000 machines per year.

Underwood 1918, Typewriter Topics ad

Labor efficiency was crucial during the war and typewriter manufacturers capitalized on this point. Advertisement from a 1918 Typewriter Topics issue.

After the war, American industry grew, but not without convulsions. Raw materials were sometimes hard to acquire as supply channels strained and labor conflicts grew. The Molle Typewriter Company, which after the Armistice lost a 10,000 machine order from the U.S. War Department, noted in a stockholders report that metal was nearly impossible to acquire, as steelworkers were on strike. The company never produced very many machines — some speculate as few as 7,0006 — and post-war conditions may have contributed to Molle’s demise. (That the Molle No. 3 was a large, three-bank machine didn’t help either.)

Note also the following:

  • Underwood produced 6,000 portable typewriters in 1919, 20,000 in 1921, and about 40,000 in 1922. These numbers are low, especially for such an anticipated machine.7
  • Remington likely manufactured only a few hundred of its four-bank portable in 1920, and perhaps only a few thousand in 1921 — dealers did not receive machines until October 1921.8
  • Corona’s ever popular folding typewriter seems to have lagged too.9

What, besides insufficient supplies of raw materials, could have kept these companies from meeting market demands?

What I’ve presented is anecdotal, but evidence suggests that the conflict and post-war conditions significantly impacted typewriter manufacturing. It’s possible that smaller companies struggled to acquire raw materials, and this may account, in part, for failures in the 1920s. Larger companies, like Remington and Underwood, seem to have struggled too.

As we continue to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the start of the Great War, further research in this area is vital.

Postscript: Robert Messenger at oz.Typewriter offers some fine accounts in the following posts —

  • Otto’s Corona Typewriter Tripod – pictured at the top of this post
    What To Do When War Breaks Out – Pack Up The Typewriters and Skedaddle – muses Messenger, “In the past week the world has been marking the centenary of “The shot that was heard around the world”. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. The assassination led directly to World War I. During the next four years, 37 million deaths followed. Naturally, I was wondering what was happening in the typewriter world when this far-reaching event occurred.” He offers an interesting account of events in Europe.
    Typewriter Industry Answers World War I Call – clippings from Typewriter Topics

Feel free to post more links on this topic in the comments section.

© 2014, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

  1. The Wall Street Journal (New York, New York) July 28, 1915, Page 2. []
  2. Consider the following advertisements — El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas) Nov. 26, 1917 Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina) Oct. 9, 1918 []
  3. Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona) · Thu, Aug 29, 1918 · Page 8. []
  4. The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 1919, Page 9. Also, this advertisement — Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina) Sept. 28, 1918 []
  5. The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 1919, Page 9. []
  6. See http://www.willdavis.org/BotheMolle.html. []
  7. Underwood at http://typewriterdatabase.com/underwood.4.typewriter-serial-number-database; other sources place figures much lower. []
  8. These figures are based on anecdotal evidence — serial numbers and extant machines. Richard Polt posts information about the Remington Portable here: http://site.xavier.edu/polt/typewriters/rem-portables.htm#1. []
  9. See http://www.sljohnson.net/typewriter/corona/Corona-Serials.html. []
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