Out with the old? More like out with the new.
Retro is in, and there’s one old school item that’s met a recent resurgence in popularity. You could say something clicked…clacked, and dinged in the minds of our current generations. Yup, you guessed it—we’re talking about typewriters.
Originating in America, typewriters have been around since the late 1800s, and were used for anything from business communications to school writing assignments. They were a mainstay in offices until the 1980s, after which computers and word processing software took the number 1 spot.
Today, typewriters are at an interesting point in history. There is a fascinating phenomenon among dated things where past a certain point, “old” items become “vintage”. They go from junk to jewels, from trash to treasure. And if you ask me, typewriters as we know them today fall into this category.
How much are typewriters worth today? Are vintage typewriters good investments? To get some answers, I spoke to Claudia Tan, a typewriter hobbyist and proud owner of 70+ typewriters. Her collection is currently sitting in Haji Lane’s Type8ar, a family-run business that offers a pretty unique service. It’s a welcoming space for people to sit down with their thoughts, and spend some time using their typewriters to create anything from journal entries to marriage proposal love notes (true story!).
I spent an afternoon with Claudia and her typewriters, and learnt that she is as knowledgeable as she is passionate about these clickety-clackety machines. She was the perfect person to explain how valuable typewriters are today, what typewriter collectors look out for, and why in the name of Microsoft Word people are turning to these archaic typing machines once again.
Are Typewriters Good Investments?
- Why do people still use typewriters today?
- How much do typewriters cost?
- Are typewriters good investments?
- How do I choose a typewriter for investment?
- How do you maintain typewriters?
- How do I choose a typewriter for personal use?
- Typewriters—Investment or sentiment?
1. Why do people still use typewriters today?
There’s something about typewriters that has people hooked. It’s not just the tactile feedback of the keys; if it were, many people would be happy enough with their mechanical keyboards. As I sit here typing on my own mechanical keyboard, with the memory of Claudia’s typewriters fresh in my mind, it’s plain as day to me that it just isn’t the same.
“It’s the aesthetic and functional use of typewriters that get people interested,” Claudia tells me. “Typewriters spark a lot of joy!” That spark is what draws customers into Type8ar, which sees an average footfall of about 40 customers each month for both workshops and walk-in sessions.
In many ways, typewriters hit different. Firstly, they have a certain retro aesthetic that’s difficult to duplicate. The old-timey look of vinyl records and gramophones aren’t quite the same as the fashionably dated charm of typewriters.
Secondly, typewriters are more functional than you might think. I mean, is your desktop computer immune to blackouts? Can it produce printed text without electricity? Didn’t think so.
But what surprised me the most about typewriters was the state of deliberateness and conscientiousness that they force you into. “I don’t enjoy using my phone or laptop that much, but I can use a typewriter for many hours,” Claudia tells me. “I just sit with my typewriter and my thoughts.”
Don’t underestimate how much typewriters can teach you about the importance of quietude, patience and even letting go. There’s no ‘delete’ option on a manual typewriter. You either get it right, or you learn to live with imperfection.
Evidently, there’s a lot of non-monetary value in typewriters. But at what cost?
2. How much do typewriters cost?
For the average folk looking for an entry-level, affordable typewriter, you’re looking at a couple hundred dollars. Of course, this depends on many factors, including the condition and rarity of the typewriter. Rare typewriters can go into the thousands—as some of Claudia’s typewriters cost—especially limited edition, vintage, or antique models. We’ll go into factors that make typewriters more valuable later.
If you’re importing a typewriter from overseas, don’t forget that shipping a typewriter isn’t like shipping any old online purchase. Typewriters are heavy—many are around 6-8kg, and one of Claudia’s at Type8ar weighs in at a hefty 15kg!
Plus, extra precautions have to be taken to ensure the typewriter is packed securely—its moving parts should be immobilised as far as possible with extra padding so that it can arrive in good condition. These considerations mean that shipping a typewriter costs a pretty penny. When she purchases a typewriter from overseas, Claudia pays about US$200 for shipping alone!
To complicate matters, there’s a good chance your typewriter will still be damaged during transit. It’s not a guarantee that the seller will pack the typewriter well enough for overseas travel. “There’s a bit of a risk when it comes to shipping in typewriters because there are a lot of moving parts,” Claudia explains. “I think it’s like a 50-50 chance of it arriving damaged.” If your imported typewriter does arrive damaged, you’ll have to pay for repair and servicing.
Typewriters are insured during shipping by the sender, not the receiving party. There’s no special insurance just for typewriters, but the sender can add insurance coverage to their parcel before shipment. According to typewriter website Typewriter 101, paying United Parcel Service (UPS) in America US$2 will get you US$200 worth of insurance for the typewriter being shipped.
Don’t want to risk damaging your typewriter during an overseas shipment? You also have the option of purchasing typewriters locally. Options include online marketplaces like Carousell, typewriter Facebook groups, and local typewriter shops. You might expect to pay around $100 to $500 for a typewriter purchased here in Singapore.
3. Are typewriters good investments?
Like other vintage collectibles, the value of a typewriter really depends on how much other people (usually, fellow hobbyists in the field) are willing to pay for it. In other words, whether a typewriter holds its value or even appreciates over time is decided by the market, for which there are no guarantees. Person A might offer $200 for your typewriter today, and Person B might fall absolutely in love with it and offer twice that much the next day. Or, if luck isn’t on your side and the right people don’t come across your typewriter, it may be tough to sell your typewriter to anyone. Typewriters cannot be considered liquid assets—i.e., they cannot be easily converted into cash.
“Sometimes it’s about media exposure,” Claudia tells me. “When shows like The Great Gatsby or more recently, Wednesday feature a particular typewriter, there might be a sudden surge in interest in a particular model or brand.” In Wednesday, the titular character Wednesday Addams uses a 1940s Juwel typewriter in the episode Quid Pro Woe. Its appearance sparked interest in the machine, and prompted some to list the typewriter for sale online, marketed as the typewriter Wednesday Addams uses. We found a sold-out listing on Etsy going for SGD 1,295.93:
Claudia has other reasons she wouldn’t recommend typewriters as investment tools. “I wouldn’t advise people to invest in typewriters because it’s space consuming, and the humidity in Singapore is not the best for typewriters,” she explains. On the space front, I can definitely see where she’s coming from. Collectibles like luxury watches and exclusive sneakers take up far less room than these clunky, bulky machines.
As for Claudia’s point about humidity, unfortunately, even some of her own typewriters have visible signs of rust. “I think for a good ten years or so, they were just sitting in the storeroom,” Claudia says. “Then when I took them out, that’s when I realised, oh no! Quite a lot of them have got rust on them, and I had to find ways to remove it.” Much like how Barbie dolls get sticky in Singapore, typewriters too don’t cope too well in our humid climate. Upkeep is another issue to bear in mind if you’re thinking of getting a typewriter, be it for investment or personal use. (We’ll go more into how to maintain typewriters later on!)
That said, there are certainly typewriters out there that are better bets for investment than others. If you do want to invest in typewriters, be smart about the machines you choose.
4. How do I choose a typewriter for investment?
When it comes to typewriters, here are some factors that can increase their value.
Typeface, a.k.a. the “font” of a typewriter
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That’s right—different typewriters come with different typefaces! You can’t just swap one for another as you would on a computer. Script (a.k.a. “cursive”) typefaces are rarer, and thus command a higher price. “In the past, a script typewriter would have to be custom ordered from the manufacturer. Back then, script typewriters could only be used for personal correspondence. You wouldn’t use it for official documents,” Claudia explains. Script typeface typewriters were not the default, and owning such a machine was something extra that not everyone could afford. “You probably had to have some money to be able to afford a standard classic typewriter font, and then a more frivolous script machine for your personal correspondence.”
Proportionate typefaces are also highly valued. Claudia owns an Olivetti Graphika, a typewriter that is highly sought after amongst collectors for its proportionate typeface not typically found on manual typewriters. Here’s a peek at what this typewriter and its output look like:
This one’s obvious. Just like any item, the better condition a typewriter is in, the higher a price it can fetch. While you could buy a typewriter, get it restored, and then try to sell it for a higher price, there’s no guarantee that you’ll make a profit after you factor in the cost of repairs.
Like many other collectibles, rare colours can make a big difference to how much a typewriter is worth. “Pink typewriters are a little bit rarer. And personally, I like pink, so you’ll notice a lot of pink typewriters in my collection!” Claudia tells me.
My favourite colour is purple. During my visit to Type8ar, I couldn’t help but notice that in the sea of pink, black, yellow, red, green, and blue typewriters, there was not a single purple one. Turns out, that’s another colour that’s relatively more rare when it comes to typewriters. When I asked her about it, Claudia whipped out her phone and quickly pulled up an image of an unusual purple typewriter:
This Remington Portable 3 typewriter from the 1930s isn’t just purple—it’s duotone purple, which is not very common. While we don’t know for sure how much people would be willing to pay for such a typewriter, a very similar typewriter is currently listed on eBay for US $299.95.
Rare models and editions
Colour aside, there are many reasons a typewriter may be considered rare or more desirable to collectors. There’s a whole world of typewriters out there, and if you aren’t already deep in the typewriter hobbyist universe, there’s probably a lot of interesting machines out there that you don’t know about. For example, ever heard of a round typewriter?
The Rasmus Malling-Hansen Writing Ball (1870) has a striking round shape and was the fastest typewriter of its time. According to VIP Art Fair, it is the most expensive antique typewriter ever sold, going for a whopping US $110,059 in 2019.
Closer to home, Claudia has plenty of unusual typewriters in her collection that amazed, delighted, and surprised me. To start off, consider this question: how does one ensure a typewriter that enters and exits a prison can’t be used to smuggle things in? That’s right—make the typewriter transparent.
Here’s another question for you: How did one print music in the 60s? Yup. There’s a typewriter for that too—the Smith Corona Musicwriter, used for typing music scores.
Next, here’s a typewriter that astounded me—this enormous Shuang Ge Chinese Typewriter, which carried a bajillion tiny Chinese characters I could barely make out. “There was an office in Chinatown that was closing down, and they had a Chinese typewriter,” Claudia tells me. “They used to use it to type letters to their Chinese-educated clients, but the office was going to shut down. So they came and asked, would you be interested in acquiring this from us?” Of course, Claudia said yes.
While the typewriter can’t possibly include every single Chinese character out there, it carried a lot of them—so many that Claudia can’t make them out without using her phone flashlight function. These characters are not only in Traditional Chinese script, but are also mirrored. You know how rubber stamps themselves are the mirror of the image that you stamp on paper? That’s how the tiny Chinese characters of this behemoth typewriter work.
Some typewriters are rare not because of function, but form. These Royal Quiet De Luxe and Princess 300 typewriters below are plated in real gold, and are the most expensive typewriters Claudia has ever purchased. “The gold plated ones are usually anniversary editions, so they are very limited in production,” Claudia explains.
My favourite typewriter in Claudia’s collection is far less fancy, but very unique. Claudia’s adorable Snoopy typewriter is a toy typewriter that was meant for children, but is also fully functional. It’s one of her latest typewriters acquired, purchased just earlier this year.
As Claudia said herself, it’s fitting because Snoopy is kinda the OG when it comes to being a typewriter enthusiast. (If you need convincing, check out this Peanuts comic strip first published in 1974 that was shared on the TypeWRITERS public Facebook group.)
5. How do you maintain typewriters?
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The first rule of typewriter maintenance is simply this: Use them.
“Typewriters need to be used,” Claudia states. “I know retired typewriter technician uncles whom I used to hang around with. And they said typewriters are like humans—they need exercise, they need to be used. Regardless of how you store them, storing them without using them is not the best.”
Aside from simply using your typewriters, you might also need to oil your typewriters from time to time. As is often the case with collectible items, the best places to gain and exchange knowledge about typewriters are online community groups like the Antique Typewriter Collectors and TypeWRITERS Facebook groups.
If you’re looking for a resource on typewriters, Claudia recommends The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt—one of the numerous books on typewriters sitting on the shelves of Type8ar.
6. How do I choose a typewriter for personal use?
Choosing a typewriter for yourself to use and choosing one as an investment piece are 2 very different ball games. Aside from obvious things like the colour of the typewriter and simply how it looks, there are a few things you should look out for.
Firstly, the typeface. If you’re a complete typewriter newbie, remember that each typewriter comes with its own typeface. Not all typewriters come with that standard typeface that looks like the Courier font on a computer. You should definitely see a sample of what a typewriter prints before you make your purchase.
Even better, actually try the typewriter out. This is because each typewriter feels different. I can personally vouch for this, having spent some time in Type8ar trying out different typewriters. It’s like driving different cars, or playing different instruments—some just feel smoother and easier to use. All are very tactile though, and the satisfaction of typing on a typewriter is something special.
“A lot of youngsters tell me, your typewriter is like a mechanical keyboard,” Claudia tells me. “But I’m like, no! You got it wrong. It’s the other way round—your mechanical keyboard is like a typewriter!”
Feels aside, typewriters even sound different, from the clickety-clack of the keys to the ding of the bell when you’re reaching the margin and need to go to the next line. How different? Different enough that Claudia could differentiate her typewriters by sound alone: “There was a period of time I was so obsessed, I could actually tell which typewriter you were using just based on the typing sound! They all sound a bit different.”
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Would you buy a car or musical instrument without first trying it? Probably not, unless it’s a super rare model from a well-known brand. As long as you’re actually going to use your typewriter and not just put it in a glass cabinet as a trophy piece, you should apply the same principle to a typewriter.
7. Typewriters—Investment or sentiment?
Most of the typewriter hobbyists Claudia knows don’t collect typewriters for their investment value. They see another kind of value in typewriters. “With the typewriter, there’s an old school charm. It’s like nostalgia, which is quite ironic because I didn’t grow up with typewriters,” Claudia chuckles. “But I think it’s reminiscent of a time where things were well and thoughtfully made. They were not made to be disposed of, unlike today’s disposable culture where convenience is the priority. Things get spoiled very quickly today.”
Whether typewriters are good financial investments or not, they can be pretty good family investments. “You wouldn’t pass down your iPhone—it becomes obsolete,” Claudia points out. “But I think the typewriter is something that you could pass on. It’s so well-made, and it probably can last for generations.”
From a purely financial perspective, certain typewriters can definitely fetch a pretty penny. But, at least for most typewriter hobbyists, the investment value of typewriters is all but overshadowed by their sentimental value. In a world where everything moves fast and changes are rapid, typewriters have prevailed as simple, dependable machines that invite you to slow down, breathe, and click-clack your thoughts into words.
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