Tools of the Trade

American Writers Museum

From oral traditions to modern word processing, the medium of storytelling has always affected how people tell and understand stories. The printing press and later typewriters preserved writers’ words beyond their own lives and allowed for a wider spread of ideas and information. The tools in this exhibit were all used by writers who sought to express ideas they found fundamental to their understanding of the human condition. These tools may not have defined who they were as writers, but the choice of one method over another can influence the writing process. In this exhibit, we’ll be taking a closer, personal look at some of the writing tools that have shaped history. Welcome to Tools of the Trade.

Frederick Douglass Deed and Pens by UnknownAmerican Writers Museum

Frederick Douglass
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Douglass called learning to read his “pathway from slavery to freedom.” Denied access to words during the first part of his life, he spent the rest of his life crafting them.

On loan from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, National Park Service

Frances Parkinson Keyes Inkwell by UnknownAmerican Writers Museum

Frances Parkinson Keyes
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Keyes wrote 51 books over the course of her life, many inspired by the history of her home in New Orleans. She chose to write using traditional methods, rather than the newer typewriters.
All objects provided by the Beauregard-Keyes Historic House Museum in the New Orleans French Quarter

Jack London Typewriter (1902) by Columbia Typewriter Manufacturing CompanyOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Jack London
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Jack London rented his typewriter and would always give it up last when money was tight. His mackintosh, suit, and bicycle would all go first until a check came in the mail and he would go redeem everything and start again.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Ernest Hemingway's Typewriter (1926) by UnderwoodOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Ernest Hemingway
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Hemingway is known for his strong sentences in the active voice, and his writing process reflected this. On the platen, there are faint outlines of letters that he typed many times with enough force that they marked the machine forever.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Orson Welles Typewriter (1926) by UnderwoodOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Orson Welles
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Throughout his life, Welles was a private figure despite his celebrity status. He surprised everyone with a revealing interview for “The Merv Griffin Show” at age 70. Approximately three hours later, he died of a heart attack with his typewriter in his lap.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Tennessee Williams Typewriter (1936) by CoronaOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Tennessee Williams
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An absent father, family trouble, and personal attacks against him for his homosexuality made reality unpleasant for Williams, and writing was his escape. He bought this machine while attending college, a time in his life that heavily informed his fiction.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Jerry Siegel Typewriter (1939) by RoyalOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Jerry Siegel
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In 1938, Jerry Siegel, along with Joe Shuster changed not only the comic book industry but Americana at large. They created the character we know today as Superman with Action Comics #1.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Helen Keller Braille Writer (circa. 1946) by UnknownOriginal Source: American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archive

Helen Keller
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A deafblind advocate, ambassador, suffragist, civil rights pioneer, and always a writer, Helen Keller defied expectations and forged her own path. This braille writer was one of several that helped give Keller a voice that has since inspired millions.

On loan from the American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archive

Ray Bradbury Typewriter (1947) by RoyalAmerican Writers Museum

Ray Bradbury
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Bradbury was inspired to become a writer at age 12 when he received his first typewriter. He considered all writing poetry derived from the subconscious, and typing always played an important role in giving his work life.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

John Lennon Typewriter (1951) by ImperialAmerican Writers Museum

John Lennon
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Lennon began seeking U.S. citizenship in 1971, but was repeatedly denied for political reasons until being granted permanent residency in 1976. This typewriter is from his early days of songwriting, and is somewhat different from American models. Note the £ symbol above the 5 and the low platen.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Mae West Typewriter (1959) by OlympiaAmerican Writers Museum

Mae West
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One of Hollywood's most polarizing figures, West's risqué and provocative writing challenged social conventions of morality and sexuality. Her double entendres and playful ambiguity transfixed fans in print, film, and on stage.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Truman Capote Typewriter (1961) by Smith-CoronaOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Truman Capote
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Capote preferred to write his first drafts with a pencil in bed, dismissing Beat writers as “typists.” When he did type, he had a typewriter in his lap, and a cigarette in his hand.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Hugh Hefner typewriter (1963) by RoyalOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Hugh Hefner
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A now infamous character, Hefner was committed to providing a space for new voices, which he believed many magazines of the 1960’s had failed to do. Regardless of its critics, Playboy changed the magazine industry forever, and helped give rise to a generation of journalistic thought.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Gwendolyn Brooks Typewriter (1964) by HermesOriginal Source: Nora Brooks Blakely

Gwendolyn Brooks
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Known as one of the most influential American poets of the 20th-century, Brooks created a name for herself early in her career. That success led to personally-imposed pressure to craft near-perfect poems. The typewriter lent itself to this slow, deliberate process.

On loan from Nora Brooks Blakely

Mildren Benson Typewriter (1972) by OlivettiAmerican Writers Museum

Mildred Benson
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Under the pseudonym, "Carolyn Keene," Benson wrote 23 of the original Nancy Drew mysteries, including the first seven novels. Benson's depiction of an independent and courageous young woman proved emphatically influential, cementing Nancy Drew as a cultural icon who continues to inspire generations of readers.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Sandra Cisneros Typewriter (circa. 1972) by Smith-CoronaOriginal Source: National Museum of Mexican Art

Sandra Cisneros
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Cisneros has already cemented her place in American history as a poet, short story writer, novelist, activist, essayist, and artist. She chooses to write her poems and stories of the working class on a typewriter because of the feel and sound of the machine.

On loan from the National Museum of Mexican Art

Gore Vidal's Typewriter (1978) by Smith-CoronaOriginal Source: Collection of Steve Soboroff

Gore Vidal
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Vidal wrote his first drafts longhand, with no prior planning or outline. He believed that writing came most naturally when done without conscious thought, and was often surprised by what his characters or plot did even while typing later drafts.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Maya Angelou Typewriter 3 (1980) by AdlerAmerican Writers Museum

Maya Angelou
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Angelou’s writing process was as unique as her personality. She began her days with a glass of sherry, then began writing in a bare hotel room that she booked monthly. This room gave her the clean state of mind she needed to work.

On loan from the collection of Steve Soboroff

Let's Talk Typewriters! (2020-05-20) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum

Watch our virtual tour to learn even more about typewriters!

Credits: Story

Tools of the Trade was sponsored by the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation and Irv & Carol Yoskowitz.
Brialling services in the physical exhibit were provided by Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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