The Enduring Appeal of Underwood Typewriters
The Underwood Typewriting Company was a true pioneer. Founded in 1895, they were at the forefront of the typewriter revolution. The company was born when John T. Underwood, already an established seller of typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, saw trouble ahead.
Remington, the biggest typewriter manufacturer of the day, had decided to start making its own ribbons instead of buying from Underwood.
Underwood realised that his knowledge of the industry put him in a great position to start manufacturing his own typewriters, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Franz X. Wagner, a German-American inventor, that he found the key to success.
Dominating the Typewriter Market
The Underwood No. 1, created in 1896, was their first typewriter, but Underwood’s market expertise and Wagner’s skill meant they had all the ingredients to make an instant splash.
The No. 1 brought together innovative features that other typewriter manufacturers had been trying out in a package that worked more smoothly and reliably than any of its competitors.
The Underwood No. 5 is perhaps one of the most famous mechanical typewriters in the world. Not only was it wildly popular in offices across the country, it was also first modern typewriter to really establish itself, both in the market and in the public imagination.
Although you’ll find the No. 5 in museums now, it doesn’t look all that different from the typewriters plenty of people still remember using today.
Underwood went on to create many more models after that, refining what they had created, but the No. 5 was the template for a lot of what came after.
By 1939, the company had made five million machines at their factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Their reign lasted until the 1950s, but vintage typewriter fans still seek out their machines today.
Underwood typewriters have graced the desks of some of the world’s greatest writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway and Max Shulman all used Underwood models, as did Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner.
Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable model still sits in his former office, which has been turned into a museum.
Underwoods have also made plenty of appearances in movies and TV, used by everyone from sleuthing novelist Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote to tortured poet Christian in the musical Moulin Rouge.
During the Second World War, the US Navy even used a specially-designed Underwood typewriter to send Morse Code messages between ships.
These days, Underwoods are still among the most beloved mechanical typewriters among enthusiasts, and very popular for collectors looking for a vintage typewriter of their own.
The characteristics that made Underwood stand out – precision, sturdy reliability, smooth typing action – are just as relevant today as they were in 1896, so if you want to use it for the purpose it was designed for, there’s no need to treat an Underwood like a fragile antique.
Plus, in this era of word-processing programs with increasingly-complex bells and whistles, getting back to basics with a well-made typewriter can help narrow a writer’s focus.
But if you’re more of an appreciator of the artistry of typewriters, you really can’t do much better than the classic aesthetic of an Underwood – each one is a little piece of history.