Its keys are stuck and the ribbon dried out decades ago, but Dale Hoberg still loves his dad’s old typewriter.
After making at least two cross-country trips from Pennsylvania to California to Georgia, the century-old Underwood typewriter has seen better days, but it’s still an object of fascination for the children in Hoberg’s family raised on iPhones and smart TVs.
Typewriters across the country are coming back into fashion as adults reminisce about their pre-digital past, parents pick them up at antique markets for their children and people in general want a break from the computer screen.
In Hoberg’s case, his Underwood is a family heirloom with a bit of history connected to a newsworthy case involving Soviet espionage.
“I remember my parents telling me that the FBI had come to check out our typewriter and that a similar model had been used in some sort of a crime,” Hoberg said. “They had to take a test of all of the keys because the typewriter that was involved in the crime had one letter that was (malformed). They checked the type on mine and found out all the letters were properly formed.”
After some more research on Hoberg’s part, he believes the crime was the alleged espionage of Alger Hiss, a government official who in 1948 was accused of being a Soviet spy.
He also had an Underwood typewriter that was swept up in the investigation after Hiss was accused by copying State Department documents to deliver to the Russians.
For Hoberg, 78, an Underwood typewriter was used for more routine purposes. His father wrote Sunday school lessons and used it to write letters when handwriting wouldn’t do. As a student, Hoberg used the Underwood for school.
“I remember back when I was in (high school) doing term papers on that thing, where you had to do three copies and you had to use carbon paper and erase all of the copies and all that sort of stuff,” he said. “It was a headache, because I wasn’t the best typer in the world.”
The slow, methodical process of mechanical typing — and satisfying clicks and clacks, dings and scratches that come from using a typewriter — is partly why the machines are coming back in an age of instant, constant communication.
One typist, Howard Stacy, wrote to The Times in June about his experience with typewriting.
“In the late ’50s, when I was in high school mostly girls were the ones taking typing, but I took it because I planned to go to college and knew I would need typing skills for assignments,” Stacy wrote on a hard-copy letter using his typewriter. “Over the years, I have tried to keep a typewriter, enjoying the feel of the keys and the emotional release that I get when I really pound the keyboard.”
Morris Council, owner of MC&T Electronics in Tucker, said the surge in typewriter sales and repair keep the lights on for his business. He sells typewriters to businesses and individuals and repairs the machines for an hourly rate.
His employee, Julie Huggins, said the company was packing up five refurbished IBM Wheelwriters purchased by a California company. Council said parents have taken to buying typewriters to teach their children how to spell in a world of digital autocorrect.
Huggins also had quite the surprise a couple of years ago when actor Tom Hanks walked into his store looking to buy a typewriter.
“He loves the old typewriters,” Council said, noting it might have been a Royal. “It was just an old, manual machine.”
At Endless Finds on Thompson Bridge Road, antique shop owner Hillari Marshall said she sells 15 to 20 typewriters a year.
Occasionally a customer will buy a typewriter as a decoration — another reader contacted The Times in June saying she uses her broken typewriter as a makeshift flower pot — but most of the sales in Marshall’s store are made to parents shopping for their children.
“Little kids and even teenagers, it’s like they’ve never seen them before,” she said. “They’re enamored by them; they find them really neat and interesting.”
In her seven years running the antique shop, Marshall has seen people become more interested in the machines in the past couple of years, especially vintage, fully mechanical typewriters.
For many, and for Hoberg, the machines are simply about nostalgia.
“It disappeared for a number of years, and my cousin, who is my only living relative, ended up with it somehow, and I don’t know how,” Hoberg said. “We made contact about four or five years ago for the first time in many, many years and he told me that he had my dad’s typewriter. He sent it to me from California.
“It’s one of the few things I have left from my dad.”