Find out who invented the typewriter and how this amazing 1800s invention ‘put women in business’

Who invented the typewriter - Antique typewriter keys

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Who invented the typewriter — and how did it change the workforce?

In the world of modern technology, it’s easy to take the humble typewriter completely for granted. But have you ever wondered about the history of this groundbreaking invention — and how it introduced a whole new role for women in the workforce?

In this collection of photographs and vintage news stories, we delve into the story of the invention of the typewriter, the pioneering minds behind it, meet some of the earliest typists, and find out how the device dramatically changed the workforce.

From early prototypes to the first successful models, this is a fascinating look at one of the most important tools in the history of written communication.

Who invented the typewriter, or The man who put women in business (1933)

Syndicated information/opinion by Helen Welshimer, Santa Cruz Evening News (California) May 27, 1933

WOMAN wrote her Declaration of Independence on a typewriter. If Christopher Latham Sholes hadn’t invented a “writing contraption” 60 years ago, 775,000 women and girls today might be spending their time mending socks and baking cookies instead of taking dictation.

Christopher Latham Sholes - Typewriter inventor - Antique portrait

They wouldn’t be running lipsticks over their mouths when the clock struck five, and meeting their lovers and brothers and fathers — or whatever they have — at the corner. They would be watching for them from the window — with one eye on the biscuits or the roast.

But Sholes produced a typewriter. Its keyboard spelled emancipation for women exactly as he said that he hoped it would.

Back in 1873, when the machine was introduced in business circles, less than one percent of the women employed in the country were clerks, stenographers and saleswomen.

Who invented the typewriter, or The man who put women in business (1933)

The woman’s place was in the home for the obvious reason that there wasn’t anything for her to do any other place. Today more than ten million women are holding down outside jobs. This number is approximately one-fourth of the working population of the nation. Typists and stenographers alone number 775,000.

THERE are hundreds of thousands of women who use typewriters for some work, too. Lots of those employed also use them although they are not professional typists.

When Sholes tested his writing machine with Lincoln’s famous line . . . “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party” . . . he really was thinking about women.

He made them what they are today, and out of gratitude, the Young Women’s Christian Association has been holding a national celebration in Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the typewriter into business.

Antique ad for The 'Type-Writer' (1875)
Antique ad for The ‘Type-Writer’ (1875)

Christopher Latham Sholes never intended to invent a typewriter when he got his first newspaper job at the age of 14. Still . . . long-hand copy took time. Reporters couldn’t use too many adjectives.

Sholes was born in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, in 1819. After his newspaper days, he became a state senator from Wisconsin, and later postmaster and collector of customs at Milwaukee.

Somehow or other he got an idea for a “writing machine.” He told Carlos Glidden, a Wisconsin attorney, about it. They decided to collaborate. Something should be done about people’s handwriting, they agreed.

Christopher Latham Sholes in the book Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (1923)
The man who invented the typewriter: Christopher Latham Sholes in the book Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (1923)

THE two men asked Samuel W Soule, a printer and inventor, to work with them. James Destnore, an oil man from Meadville, Pennsylvania, became interested, too. Everyone thought he was very foolish when he invested $600 in the venture in return for a fourth interest in the proposed patent.

One model after another was completed, criticized, discarded. It looked as though copybook penmanship would always be found on letterheads. From 1866 to 1868 they worked.

Then — one day Sholes decided that a model was worth trying. It worked. Charles E Weller, a telegraph operator in St. Louis, was sent a model in January of 1868. He used it and liked it.

Second working typewriter model (1868)

He didn’t know that he would be remembered as the world’s first typist, a fact that is especially interesting since the triumphant army that is rejoicing over Sholes’ idea is composed of women, for the most part. Sholes was bashful. He wanted his machine on the market, but he had better luck typing than talking.

Desmore, though, packed up a model, traveled from Wisconsin to the firearms factory of E Remington and Sons at Ilion, New York, and asked the officials to come to his hotel room. He had something to show them. They didn’t know what it was, but they came.

Desmore brought along with him a man named George Washington Newton Yost, who was noted for his sales talk. “Do your stuff, George” he told him.

Yost did. Philo Remington, president of the firearms company, signed a contract for the manufacture of typewriters on March 1, 1873.

Letter from Philo Remington written on one of the first typewriters (1875)

And now we come to woman’s entrance. Lillian Sholes was a quiet little girl with a nice smile and a cluster of curls hanging down her back. She was interested in her father’s device. She discovered that it wasn’t at all hard to learn to run it.

She became the first woman typist in the world, merely because nobody else had a father who had invented a typewriter.

Like most expert typists, she married after a while. Today she is Mrs C L Fortier of Milwaukee. She can still find her way over the keys as quickly as any of the 775,000 women who are earning their living with staccato finger exercises on black and white keys.

Lillian Sholes Fortier on an early typewriter (1872)

The Remington Company began to make typewriters. They were good things, professional men and business executives agreed. It would be a treat to interpret all correspondence correctly. It would be easier on the wrists, too, not to have to perform penmanship maneuvers.

Only . . . how did one run the contraption, they asked. The manufacturers had An answer ready. Every typewriter would be accompanied by a woman operator, they announced. Some of the men shook their heads. Business was a man’s world, they said. And they would put up a men-only sign if they had to.

Others cleared their throats, The feminine touch . . . it might be nice. At least it would be nice on a typewriter.

ALSO SEE: See vintage 1960s IBM electric typewriters, including the Selectric with swappable round print heads

Offices, back in the 1870s, were cluttered places. Desk spindles held papers and hooks held more papers. Filing cabinets hadn’t arrived. The scratch of quill pens was an accompaniment to the daily routine. Not the click-click-click of a typewriter. No man ever dictated. He wrote down what he thought in long hand, put on a stamp and mailed the letter.

And then the first stenographer stepped into an office, hung up her bonnet, gathered voluminous skirts about her ankles, and sat down before the typewriter.

Woman operating a Sholes and Glidden typewriter (1872)

SHE didn’t powder her nose. Nice girls didn’t then. And lipstick . . . the very thought was scandalous.

There were yards and yards of material in every skirt that graced an office. There were several petticoats under every dress, too. Even the shape of the feminine head was hidden beneath an overpowering array of ringlets.

The masculine element of the office never knew much more about the girls who typed than whether they could spell or whether they couldn’t.

ALSO SEE: Vintage ASCII art from the 1930s: Typeys, made with old manual typewriters

The early typewriter resembled a sewing machine. The first bashful typists almost wished that they had stayed at home to sew fine seams, for the men came crowding around to see if the writing machines really worked.

The first commercial typewriter - Model 1 Remington

The Remington Company was manufacturing sewing machines on small stands. Quite naturally it stood the new invention on the same kind of a stand.

The typewriter contained a foot treadle which operated the carriage return, and a sewing machine wheel which turned the roll. Shift keys hadn’t been perfected as yet. The machine wrote everything in capitals.

There were no typewriter ribbons during the pioneering stenographic years. The typists had to buy ordinary ribbon at the dry goods stores, soak it in ink, drape it around the office on tables and chairs until it dried, and then wind it on the machine.

Woodcuts from the first typewriter catalog

The YWCA rejoiced because girls would now have an opportunity to do something more than teach, nurse, or trim hats.

It put a course in typewriting into its curriculum. Nothing could have brought down more protest.

MORE: These old IBM electric typewriters rocked the business scene in the 50s

“It is an obvious error in judgment,” all the men remarked. And all the women who didn’t want to do anything other than keep house or teach, nurse, and trim hats agreed.

But the course was announced just the same. Eight women enrolled, graduated and were placed in positions. Other girls enrolled then. The class became crowded.

Women were accepted very slowly. They were still a business novelty in 1907 when the panic came along. Some thoughtful restaurateurs thought that maybe the women were embarrassed when they ate in public dining rooms with men. So tea rooms, for ladies only, were started.

Mark Twain heard of the typewriter. He learned to manipulate one, “Life on the Mississippi” flowed from it more or less jerkily.

Samuel Clemens - Mark Twain typewritten letter (1874)

People came to see the typewriter in action. They wrote letters of inquiry. Mark Twain grew tired of being a good show. He picked up his pen and gave up the typewriter. [See below]

Back in 1870, which was three years before the first typewriter was placed on the market, less than eight-tenths of one percent of the women employed in America were clerks, stenographers and saleswomen.

By 1900, it had grown to 9.1%, and by 1920, to 25.6%. Today the 10,000,000 working women make up one-fourth of the working population.

ALSO SEE: Ka-ching! Cash register history, plus see 20 antique machines

The letter from Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain

Hartford, March 19, 1875.

Gentlemen: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding little joker.

Yours truly, Saml. L. Clemens.

Portraits of Mark Twain - Samuel Clemens (c1884)

Antique keyboard layout (QWERTY there, but other keys moved)

Keyboard diagram – from the first typewriter catalogue

Antique keyboard layout - Qwerty there but other keys moved

Antique typewriter: Sholes, Glidden and Soule model with piano keys (1868)

Notable for its piano keys, this machine’s carriage was weight-driven and was returned by a foot pedal. Its inventor Christopher Shales, also coined the word “type-writer” and the machine was known commercially as Type-writer.

Text from the Sun-Journal (Lewiston, Maine) March 2, 1968

Development of the first practical typewriter began in 1866 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Christopher Latham Sholes, editor and printer, inventor and political scientist is the man to whom personal credit for this great invention must go.

Sholes and two friends spent about seven years building model after model of typewriters; altering, improving and refining parts until, at last, they had a practical working model of a typewriter.

Sholes’s only fear was that his beloved typewriter would enjoy a brief period of popularity and then, “like any other novelty — be thrown aside.”

Happily, before he died in 1890, Sholes knew otherwise. In speaking of his invention, he said, “I builder [sic] wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”

DON’T MISS: Vintage portable & manual typewriters from the 50s, 60s & 70s

Antique Sholes, Glidden and Soule typewriter with piano keys (1868)
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Lucien S Crandall Typewriter Patent Model (1881)
Lucien S Crandall Typewriter Patent Model (1881)
Machine photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

George W N Yost Typewriter Patent Model (1889)
George W N Yost Typewriter Patent Model (1889)
Typweriter photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

American $5 index typewriter, from 1893

While it may look like some sort of mechanized ouija board or odd teletype machine, the item shown below was, in fact, a very early budget typewriter.

Retailing for about 1/20 of the price of a typewriter with individual keys, this device did allow typing… albeit at a much slower pace.

The user would select the letter to be printed via the dial gauge at the top, then would hit the (silver) button to strike the letter on the paper. This process would need to be repeated for every single character.

A painstaking system, indeed, but such machines did appeal to a certain segment of the market. These inexpensive “index” typewriters were available for several years until the speed and convenience of what we consider “traditional” typewriters eventually won over consumers.

Antique American Typewriter Co machine (1890s)

The best low-priced machine ever built.”—G. W. N. Yost

American $5 Typewriter: Complete, Simple, Durable.

A Splendid Investment for those who can’t afford the TIME to learn and MONEY to buy an expensive typewriter. It is the only standard serviceable instrument, at a popular price, writing 71 characters on full-width paper the same as a $100 machine.

It is a great educator for the young, dignifies business correspondence, and makes a positive pleasure of writing of all kinds. 

American 5 dollar index typewriter, from 1893

ALSO SEE: Ka-ching! Cash register history, plus see 20 antique machines

George W N Yost Typewriter Patent Model (1885)

George W N Yost Typewriter Patent Model (1885)

Antique Odell Type Writer (1890s)
Antique Odell Type Writer (1890s)
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

The above style of Odell Type Writer, as seen in 1962 (Chicago Tribune)

Odell type writer from the 1890s

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