A Review of Janine Vangool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine

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Confession: I probably can’t be objective about this book.

Reason One: I love typewriters so much that even a bunch of badly photocopied black-and-white photographs of typewriters sloppily stapled together would probably get a positive review from me.

Reason Two: I have so much respect, admiration, and adoration for Janine Vangool (that’s a better way to say “girl crush,” right?).

Reason Three: She lives in Calgary; I also sort-of live in Calgary.

Reason Four: I’m totally judging this book by its cover and I’m already smitten (sorry, every librarian of my youth who told me not to do this).

Reason Five: I got this book on sale. My favourite bookstore in Calgary, Shelf Life Books, sold it to me for the low, low price of $27. Just having it sit on my coffee table looking pretty is worth $27.

But I’m going to put on my big girl journalist pants, put a lid on the gushing, and try my best to give this book the fair review it deserves. 

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[Photo via Amazon]

Janine Vangool is the publisher, editor, and designer of the quarterly print magazine UPPERCASE, whose tagline reads, “for the creative and curious.” Vangool founded the magazine in 2009 in Calgary, Alberta after working as a freelance graphic designer and graduating from The Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) in 1995. (That sounded pretty objective, right?)

Now available worldwide, Uppercase Magazine is an award-winning, beautifully-designed publication, cherished by creatives looking for inspiration, information, and encouragement.

uppercase-magazine

[Source.]

Vangool is also a diehard collector. Not only does she have about a dozen typewriters in her personal collection, but most of the typewriter ephemera, artifacts, and ribbon tins featured in the magazine are her own.

In addition to being the name of her magazine, UPPERCASE is Vangool’s publishing company on which she released The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine in 2015.

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[Photo of Vangool by Kristie Tweed. Source.]

[Read an interview here with Vangool about her book on Lisa Congdon’s blog.]

In 2016, she curated The UPPERCASE Compendium of Craft and Creativity (selling feature: its dust jacket can transform into four different cover designs), and the press’s next project is The UPPERCASE Encyclopedia of Inspiration. You can pre-order the first three volumes of the Encyclopedia (which UPPERCASE’s website says will be an ongoing project) here. The topics of the first three volumes are as follows: Feed Sacks: A Pattern Sourcebook, Botanica: A Fascination With All Things Floral, and Stitch-Illo: Every Stitch Tells a Story. ($120 for the first three in the set? Take my money, Vangool!)

The Typewriter: A Graphic History is a stunning hardcover coffee table book, which Vangool calls “a beautiful ode to an all-but-obsolete creative companion” in her book’s opening letter to the reader. The book boasts over 900 images, a linen-wrapped spine (inspired by a typewriter case, no less!), and a mini-book insert of a reproduction of a 1950s pamphlet targeted towards women called “How To Be a Super Secretary,” the advice of which pulls at my feminist heart more than an episode of Mad Men. Here’s an example of said advice: “You hide your light. If you originate a good idea, you give the credit to your boss because you know when he advances you advance with him.” (Of course the boss is a “he.” Of. Course.)

After the letter to the reader, this book is divided into ten sections: first a section devoted to the typewriter’s invention, and then a section devoted to each decade from 1900 to 1980. One thing I found weird, though, is that the information included in the sections did not always correspond to the decade. I swear there is no clearer way to say that, but I’ll clarify with some examples. In the section on the 1900s, for instance, there is a subsection on typing instruction that spans multiple decades (one of the instruction manuals featured is from 1961). Then in the section on the 1910s, we have information on the different fonts Royal typewriters provided in the 1930s. The 1910s chapter also includes documents relating to salesmanship from the 1950s and the World’s Fair in 1901. I think this raises the question why divide the book by decades at all? Why not divide the book by topic rather than by year?

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[Photo of 60s-era advertisement from the Royal Typewriter Company reprinted in The Typerwriter]

Despite my organizational misgivings, the book achieves what it sets out to do: deliver a graphic history of the typewriter. The images document the evolution from the typewriter’s invention to its last iteration in the 1980s, while simultaneously chronicling the history of advertising and copywriting since the late 19th century (the ads are hilarious, infuriating, and graphically interesting all at once).

In case the title hasn’t fully prepared you, I will say, this book is graphic (and no, not in an “X-rated, sexy naked typists” way, but in a “mostly pictures” way). This is the work of a graphic designer and so it’s unsurprising that much of the text focuses on the design of the machines and the way they were advertised and marketed to the public (and this is not a criticism—some of the ads are as beautiful as the machines they promote).

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[Photo of a 50s-era advertisement from the Royal Typewriter Company reprinted in The Typewriter]

Be warned though, there is a limited amount of written information, unless you deign to read all of the copy in the advertisements. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive, detailed, substantive written history of the typewriter, maybe this book isn’t quite your TYPE and you may want to SHIFT your sights somewhere else (although, as Vangool points out, “Telling the entire story of the typewriter in a single book is impossible”).

You might try, for instance, Tony Allan’s The Typewriter: The History, The Machines, The Writers or the soon-to-be-released Typewriter: A Celebration of the Ultimate Writing Machine by Paul Robert and Peter Weil. 

All that being said, I did learn some things:

  1. the QWERTY layout we use today was not designed for speed of typing but for even distribution of left and right hand key strokes to minimize the risk of jamming more quickly on one side than the other.
  2. When using the earliest typewriters, you couldn’t actually see what you were writing; after typing on these antique blind, or understrike machines, you had to lift the carriage manually to see what letters you had typed. (Imagine the typos!)
  3. Index Machines were a cheaper, slower version of a typewriter where instead of pressing keys, you turn a dial to the desired letter.
  4. Underwood typewriter company actually manufactured its own brand of chip-resistant nail polish, “Underwood’s Red,” and the half-moon shape of typewriter keys was to ensure fingernails did not touch the keys.
  5. I now know I want to start collecting typewriter ribbon tins.upprcasetins

I do wish, however, that a bit more care would have been taken with the text itself. It’s obviously clear that a lot of time and effort were put into the design and layout (which I can’t praise enough), but there are some glaring typos that make me think slightly less time was put into copyediting. For instance, on page 11, Vangool writes that Mark Twain typed a letter to his brother in 1974, which would have been very difficult for him to do since he died in 1910. There also seem to be errors in the captions; at times they refer to photos which aren’t there or aren’t where the captions say they are. For instance, the text on page 13 reads, “as demonstrated in the letter on the following page,” but there is no letter on the following page. And the caption on page 77 refers to a postcard on the far right which does not seem to exist (unless this is a typo and should say “the far left”). Also, a copyeditor might have caught the awkward dangling modifier on page 158: “Purchased for $10 late on afternoon at a flea market, the seller didn’t want to lug it home again.” 

Verdict: this book is for the typewriter-lover looking for an aesthetically-pleasing collection of photographs and advertisements of the beloved machine to flip through (me!) and less for the history-buff scholar looking to do research (unless, of course, that research is on typewriter advertising).

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