Discovering and Assessing a Typewriter
We are going to let this typewriter talk about itself for a while.
Thrift stores can be very good places to look for typewriters, because they give us a chance to test the machine before laying down the cash for it. Dr. Boli has heard that some people are embarrassed to be seen going into a thrift store. His advice, first of all, is to remember that thrift is a virtue, and secondly to remember that other people have much more embarrassing secrets. If walking into a thrift store will diminish your reputation among your peers, then perhaps you need a different set of peers.
This typewriter was lurking in the miscellaneous section of a thrift store, along with the framed prints, the staplers, the camera bags, and the music stands. The case was instantly recognizable as the case of a wide-carriage Smith-Corona portable. But the name on the case was Penncrest.
Penncrest was a J. C. Penney store brand: the machines were made by Smith-Corona, but the cosmetic parts were of a different design from the machines sold under the Smith-Corona name. Smith-Corona made good portable typewriters–in fact, some of the best portables, in Dr. Boli’s opinion. The different shell makes the machine unusual and interesting. It would at least be worth checking out the machine to see whether it was worth the modest price the thrift store wanted for it.
It’s not hard to test the basic functions of even a well-specified mechanical typewriter like this. Does the carriage move one space when you press the space bar or type one letter? Do the keys move at all? (If they’re a little stiff, and the typebars have to be pushed back into place, that will probably be cured with a little alcohol and a lot of exercise, just like most of the problems human beings have.) Does the return lever work and respond to different line-space settings? Can you set and clear tabs properly?
This Penncrest Caravelle 12 passed all the tests except one: the “Auto-Space,” which is supposed to be a rapid-repeat spacer with a sound like a quiet machine gun, simply released the carriage and flung it to the left with all its might. That was not enough of a defect to disqualify the machine, since it was otherwise in good shape, and since it was a fairly rare variant of a good typewriter. So it came home and received a few minor adjustments: the ribbon, for example, had been installed upside-down, but once it was turned over it proved to be adequately inky. Now it is writing about itself and doing a good job of it. Its one mechanical problem cured itself with a few pages of writing: the Auto-Space now works as it should, though it seems like an extravagance of limited utility.
Now it is a member of a three-piece subcollection that is both curiously broad and curiously narrow. Dr. Boli has three of these wide-carriage Smith- Corona portables. Mechanically they are more or less the same machine, but each one carries a different brand name, and each one writes in a different typeface: this Penncrest Caravelle 12 with Pica type, a Smith-Corona Galaxie 12 with Elite type, and–by far the oddest of the lot–a Tower Constellation with Elite Gothic small- caps type, an option that is not listed in Sears advertisements for that model and must have been a special order. (Tower was the Sears store brand for typewriters and cameras and such things.)
Is it really necessary to have all three? Well, of course it is. That’s all that needs to be said on that subject.