Besides being a cultural anthropologist with a long-term research interest in African and other arts and material culture, Peter Weil (no relation) is an avid typewriter ephemera collector. He's also a faculty member at the University of Delaware. While Peter's career sounds interesting, the following interview focuses squarely on his passion for typewriter ephemera.
ephemera: How does a cultural anthropologist become interested in typewriter ephemera?
Weil: I became interested in typewriter-related ephemera thirteen years ago when I and my wife, a journalist and public relations writer, first began to collect typewriters made and marketed before 1914. The date is an important one historically because of the elimination of the majority of companies with their competing designs by the end of WWI. I wanted to know more about the history of the typewriters, how they were experienced and used, and what they meant to the people engaged with them. I quickly discovered that most company records were long ago destroyed or lost, and that, other than advertisements in magazines, little was easily available about most of my concerns.
Weil: At first, I mainly tried to find more information on the typewriters my wife and I had collected. This primarily included magazine ads discovered at flea markets, antique shows, and antique paper and book shows. These were critical places to discover more but far rarer sources in the forms of trade catalogs, trade cards, instruction manuals, stock certificates, billheads with actual serial numbers and dates of sale, and, that rarest paper ephemera of all for the 19th century, interior photographs of offices and other locations showing early typewriters in use. When I first unearthed these rarer items, I often did not realize their extreme scarcity any more than I could recover from shock over their prices. And the stacks and stacks of unsorted paper ore one had to pan through to find even tiny nuggets. And the discovery of the often fantastic graphics on many of these was an added bonus. Of course, much of this occurred during two years of collecting before eBay really took off in 1997. eBayopened up a much wider venue that was combined with an incredibly powerful search engine. And, more wonderfully, eBay efficiently made available a far wider range of typewriter ephemera than I had ever dreamed existed that included sales premiums, traveling salesmen's rewards from the companies, letters detailing personal choices of typewriters and problems with them, and real photographic postcards extolling the virtues of the writers' machines, etc. So, the range of the ephemera, paper and otherwise, that I began collecting dramatically grew from 1997 on. Each piece that I find is a window into the larger scene of the life of typewriters. To see through it, I have to do more research, often aided by library visits and such search engines as JSTOR and Google.
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles do you encounter as a collector? How do you overcome these challenges?
Weil: Even with the benefits of eBay and continuing to regularly hunt through antique malls and shows, there are gigantic gaps for me and others in the paper trail of the history and cultural roles of the early typewriters. Much may be lost forever, but so many single items keep turning up that "change everything" that I am left with the conclusion that many of these gaps are obstacles that may be overcome with persistence. Thus, on a larger scale, I just keep going through the piles of ore and hope to find bright, shiny nuggets of typewriter culture.
ephemera: What are your favorite items in the collection?
Weil: I will try to answer this question with two of my many favorite ephemera images. The first is this cover from a trade catalog for the Commercial Visible Typewriter. It dates from 1903 and is an expression of a revolutionary transition in typewriter design. Until the first few years of the twentieth century, the dominant typewriter design printed though type bars that struck the underside of the paper. The result was that whatever was printed was also hidden from the typist. The change to designs that made the typed words instantly visible to the writer was the holy grail of designers, and the Commercial Visible was one early attempt at the change. Thus the dramatic visibility of the lightening strike "Visible" in the dark night sky over Manhattan is emblematic of the Visible Typewriters Company's claim to have solved the problem. The graphic also links the company's solution to the promise of the technological and business progress of the new century embodied in the forms of the large lighted buildings and the ships on the river.
The second is an original photographic portrait of an anonymous young woman (she herself was then referred to as a "typewriter") using a Caligraph # 2 Typewriter in a small office in Waterbury, Conn., about 1895. Beyond the natural lighting that was so typical of offices of the period, it is the combination of her grace and attention to her machine that make this such an affecting, memorable image.
Ephemera: What resources do you recommend for people interested in collecting typewriter ephemera?
Weil: There are no standard sources exclusively or primarily devoted to typewriter ephemera. However, ephemera are included regularly in typewriter-related newsletters, especially ETCetera and the Typewriter Exchange. The more recent standard reference books include some discussion of ephemera, including Darryl Rehr's Antique Typewriters & Office Collectibles: Identification & Value Guide and Anthony Russo's Office Collectibles: 100 Years of Business Technology. Photographs of typewriters in use are an important part of the Virtual Typewriter Museum's website and that of the Early Office Museum. For research purposes, the general typewriter archives of the Milwaukee Public Museum and Smithsonian Museum of American History are important, and for specific manufacturers, the Hagley Museum (Remington Typewriter Co.) and the Stamford (CT) Historical Society (Blickensderfer Manufacturing Co.) are essential. Access to these archives generally requires visits to the institutions that need to be arranged ahead of time.
ephemera: Thank you, Peter.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.