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The Double Life of Typewriters — 2/27/14

Posted by Nicolae Harsanyi, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

Some complaints have simple solutions, and some grievances can be addressed readily. Other situations, such as one involving a typewriter much like the one pictured above, and exactly like the one featured below, require radical, historical change when seeking solutions.

In 1981, while I was living in Romania, a decree was passed requiring every privately owned typewriter to be licensed by the communist authorities. Out of the blue!  Or not entirely without context, because anonymous typewritten anti-regime leaflets had appeared in the buses and streetcars of several cities in Romania. In order to identify the authors of these leaflets, the Securitate (Romania’s secret police) needed the imprints of all the typewriters existing within the borders of the country. At that time, other means of producing and reproducing the written word—the printing presses and the few photocopy machines—were already under strict control. 

Lists were drawn up, and, under penalty of law, typewriter owners had to bring their “machines” to the local police station for the annual sample taking. On my scheduled date I went to the municipal police headquarters and was brought to a large room where, at desks arranged in several rows, people were busily pounding at the keys of various sized typewriters—it sounded (more than it looked) like the editorial office of a large newspaper from an American movie of the 1930s. I was handed a sheet of paper with a text taken from a Romanian foreign policy magazine and had to reproduce it on my typewriter exactly like the original. From time to time an individual would walk in with a non-functional typewriter. The police official would register it and then hurl it out of the window down into a cement-covered inner yard. The location of our room on the fourth floor ensured the physical destruction of the typewriter—just as the decree stipulated.  In retrospect, I wonder how they might have dealt with the typewriter shown above—dynamite, perhaps. One month later I received the license for my typewriter in the mail. In other words, I was “legit”!
A few years later, as I was typing out a chapter of my doctoral dissertation (on Renaissance English history plays) my typewriter broke down and I could not fix it. I took it to a shop to have it repaired, but it could not be done before the deadline set by my advisor to hand in the manuscript. In despair, I called a good friend and colleague to see if I could borrow her typewriter. She reluctantly agreed, with the caveat that I not show the typewritten text to anyone else but my Ph.D. advisor, because she did not have a license for her machine and was afraid she would be found out.

The authorities had achieved the intent behind this repressive regulation: adding just one more dimension to the general fear whereby they ruled. And, since it was mostly intellectuals who used typewriters in their work, the typewriter license proved to be a very efficient way to keep them in check. Only the overthrow of the communist dictatorship of Ceausescu in late 1989 put an end to this restrictive practice.

As for me? I finished my dissertation and received my doctorate, thanks to typewriters both licensed and unlicensed. And as for my typewriter? It’s nearby…or a version of it, at least. While I was perusing The Wolfsonian’s digital image catalog looking for typewriters, I had the great pleasure of discovering that the museum’s holdings include a Remington typewriter from around 1928 that is the same model as my typewriter.  Only, of course, The Wolfsonian’s was not licensed to be operated in the 1980s Romania!   

Nicolae Harsanyi is The Wolfsonian’s rare books cataloguer and associate librarian.

Captions: (top) Postcard, The Giant Typewriter, Weight 28,000 Pounds. Writing Daily at the Underwood Exhibit, Palace of Liberal Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, Cal., 1915. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

(bottom)Typewriter, Portable No. 3, c. 1928. Remington, New York, manufacturer. Metal, enamel, rubber, cotton. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.