My family has somehow managed to preserve a camp in the Adirondacks of upstate New York for several generations now. As such, each Summer I get to visit some truly impressive ferns and also to explore the many nooks & crannies of a very old cabin that my relatives have packed full of books, bedpans, bearskin rugs, and other treasures over the course of the last century.
During my time there this July I happened to look between a wall and a desk, neither of which had moved much for as long as I've been visiting them, to find what I immediately recognized as a typewriter case.
I opened it to find a beautiful Underwood portable typewriter, which I was told would have belonged to my Great Grandmother, Clara Turnbull. When I asked my grandmother and aunt how they could be sure this was Clara's machine they basically laughed at me. This was an office machine in a vacation home. Clara was the hostess. She was the boss. No one else would have been typing much at camp. They'd have been too busy fishing, sailing, and napping.
I spent the afternoon cleaning it as much as I could, not wanting to take it apart and risk messing up the precise sequencing that its mechanisms are assembled in. I didn't want to risk stuffing it in an overhead bin, so when my family drives back down at the end of the Summer they'll bring it with them. I plan to have it professionally cleaned and serviced. Though, aside from the decades of dust & buildup it was in great condition.
It's technically a Universal F-Model, and its serial number dates its production to 1939. That's a decade before my grandparents were married and only a few years prior to Underwood's temporary hiatus from manufacturing typewriters during World War II.
One of my favorite things about typewriters is that I will never own a brand new one.
When you write with a typewriter you enter a lineage of users who have relied on it to serve its one purpose for years. I realize that this is a romantic notion. In most cases your typing predecessors would probably have been typing some pretty mundane stuff. For every typewriter that was used to type novels and poems there are thousands that were office workhorses, hammered away upon to churn out wills and tax forms. That's why I was excited to find Clara's Underwood.
I know nothing about this specific machine's history, when or where it was purchased, but I know enough about my great-grandmother to make a few assumptions about how she would have used it. My family used to spend most of the summer months in camp, driving in from New York City and Pittsburgh. This machine is a portable, and there was a fair amount of wear on the case, so it could have made that trip with them yearly. I'm guessing it stayed at camp though, where it would have been used primarily for writing letters to the outside world.
Had Clara lived during a time when women ran companies she would have been a captain of industry. Instead she devoted her attention and intellect into managing her household and her family. My grandfather (her son-in-law) used to tell the story of her sending him out to buy materials to put a new roof on our house at camp. Glancing up at the house and back at a piece of paper, she made a few quick calculations and told him to buy what ultimately proved to be the exact number of shingles for the project. I think about this story often while making repeat trips to Home Depot while doing weekend housework.
Clara was a natural leader, incredibly focused, smart, and organized. Her legacy and character looms large in my family's stories. I think it's safe to say that if she hadn't been in charge of running my family's camp I might not have had the opportunity to explore it while growing up. I couldn't be more excited to have found her typewriter, and to now have the opportunity to use it after her. I plan to write quite a few letters with it.