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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

Manual typewriters,
early-mid 20th century Britain

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Why typing on a manual typewriter was hard work

Vintage manual typewriter showing: the rollers holding the paper, the knob to wind the paper through the rollers, the lever to bring the rollers/paper back to position at the end of each line of typing, and the spools taking the two-colour typewriter ribbon

This manual typewriter photographed at Bushey Lincolnsfields Museum. Although it is from earlier in the century, it is here because the working parts are less streamlined than later versions and hence more visible.

Note in particular the rollers holding the paper, the knob on the right to wind the paper through the rollers, the lever on the left to bring the rollers/paper back to position at the end of each line of typing, and the spools taking the two colour typewriter ribbon to enable typing to be in black or red.

Typing on old manual typewriters required more physical effort than on a modern keyboard.

Each new sheet of paper had to be placed between the rollers and wound into position by hand using roller knobs at either side of the typewriter.

When typing, substantial pressure had to be applied to a key because it had to force a metal print-head up to press hard onto an inked typewriter ribbon, to make an impression on the paper.

At the end of each typed line, the typist had to move her left hand away from the keyboard to pull a large lever to return the rollers and paper to the beginning of the next line, as the rollers and paper had moved along as she typed.

1950s typewriter

A more streamlined typewriter from the 1950s or 60s.

Then, at the end of every page, the rollers needed to be wound back to release the paper.

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How to type capital letters on a manual typewriter

Every typewriter had a fixed typeface with two characters on each print-head - one upper case and the other lower case. There were keys at both sides of the keyboard to raise the rollers so that the upper case character hit the ribbon.

Manual typewriter print heads

Manual typewriter print heads from above. Note the two symbols on each head: lower case at the bottom and upper case or symbol at the top. Note too that the symbols are inverted left to right so that the imprint on the page is the right way round.

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Printheads jamming on a manual typewriter

Printheads jamming on a manual typewriter

Why manual typewriters jammed

Sometimes, if the typing was too fast or more than one key got pressed at the same time, the printheads would lock and need to be disentangled by hand.

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Typewriter paper - foolscap

The standard size for paper was called foolscap. It was slightly taller than A4 as can be recognised from the photo below.


Foolscap paper

Foolscap paper. Note that it is longer than A4.

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The appearance of typing from a manual typewriter

It was difficult to put the same pressure on every key, so the resulting typing varied in intensity, as can be seen from the old letter below. Note also that all the characters occupied the same width, irrespective of whether they were narrow, like 'i' or wide like 'm' and that the letters appear slightly blurred because of the smudging of the typewriter ribbon.

Incidentally the letter shows the punctuation convention of the time, with more punctuation marks than became usual in later years. In particular, 'Mr' has a full stop after it. Being relatively short, the letter does not show the normal practice of the time of two or three spaces after a full stop. This practice was dropped when word processors became common.

letter typed on old manual typewriter

Letter typed on an old manual typewriter, courtesy of David Daniels

Where a few copies were required, they were normally made at the time of typing not afterwards. This involved the use of carbon paper. Where more copies were required, there was the Banda and Gestetner.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.