The world of typewriters includes sturdy and heavy office machines and sleek, lightweight portables. But not all typewriters are made equal.
The idea for the typewriter dates to the early 1700s, when Englishman Henry Mill filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” The first mechanical typewriter was built in Italy in the early 1800s by Pellegrino Turri for the Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, who was blind. While no one has seen Turri’s machine, there are copies of the Countess’s letters. Commercial production began in the late 1800s only with the “writing ball” of Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen (1870) followed by the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer which hit the American market in 1874. The patent was sold for $12,000 to Densmore and Yost, who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (then famous as a manufacturer of sewing machines), to commercialize what was known as the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. Remington started production of their first typewriter on March 1, 1873 in Ilion, New York. The Type-Writer introduced the QWERTY, designed by Sholes, and the success of the follow-up Remington No. 2 of 1878 – the first typewriter to include both upper and lower case letters via a shift key.
The Remington, like the one pictured below from the 1920s, came to dominate the early typewriter market but at a price–the machines cost around $100 each in the early 1900s.
Enter the Simplex
The Simplex Typewriter was not created as a toy but as an affordable, simpler alternative to the much more complicated QWERTY typewriter. The first Simplex debuted in the early 1890s and cost $2.50, a fraction of the cost of a QWERTY typewriter.
This was made in New York by the Simplex Typewriter Company and many models of Simplex manufactured through the late 1800s and into the 1900s including one with a decorative keyboard. However, all work approximately the same way–much like Dymo Label Maker. They are slow but do a fair job of typing.
The Simplex wasn’t intended as a child’s toy but early advertising often suggested it as a gift for children as well as emphasizing its affordability (like the ad below).
The Simplex came in many models debuting in 1892 and lasting more than half a century into the 1940s. Check out the history of this amazing machine at ozTypewriter website. The toy version of the typewriter, like many other technologies (think cell phone–how long did it take for a toy cell phone to appear on the market after the adult version hit the market), grew up alongside its more expensive and adult counterpart. The first toy typewriters date to the late 1800s or early 1900s, depending on the definition you use (for example, counting the Simplex as a toy). Some of the early “toys” like the Lord Baltimore and the Eureka were pretty serious looking little machines like the Simplex, but as the 20th Century grew into adolescents and worked its way into adulthood and through the Great Depression, the toy typewriter came of age.
Key among them (couldn’t help but slip that in) were machines made by Berwin, Mettoy, Unique Portable, Mettype and Dial-Marx of Louis Marx toys fame. The interesting thing is that most of these were designed by one individual Samuel Irving Berger (1889 to 1970) of Newark, New Jersey, which is why so many competing designs look so similar.
The toy typewriter remains a hit today. Along the way other toys that celebrate the technologies of writer also made their debut like the Cub Printing Press Superior Marking Equipment Company (SMECO) of Chicago, Illinois (pictured below). Many of these became popular after World War II but have a following today–just check out your local toy store or online seller of toys.
While typewriters and printing machines may have a lasting audience, we love the vintage models like the Simplex, Berwin, Marx and SMECO. If you share our passion for all things print, text and type, check out our Vintage Types Shop in ETSY.
More about the history of typewriters
If you want to know more about the history of typewriters and the Simplex we suggest two websites that offer a wealth of information:
- The Classic Typewriter Page is hosted by Richard Polt of Xavier University and is among the best sites for information about the history of typewriters. There are many photographs and links to resources like where to buy ribbons and get the repaired.
- The ozTypewriter website is hosted by Richard Messenger at the Australian Typewriter Museum in Canberra, Australia. It is also a terrific resource about vintage typewriters and typing machines. There is a page about the Simplex that includes photos and more information.