Monday, June 17, 2019

Women Behind the Keys

My mother was an excellent typist and worked “keeping books” for my father’s several small businesses. It wasn’t long before I mimicked her, sitting at the typewriter-stand-on-wheels, pecking away at the keys.

During my junior year in high school, I took a night class for typing at the local college and, thereby, set the course of my life.

I’ve been typing – or keyboarding – ever since.

The keys that make my living.
I dare say that typing skills have served me in every job I’ve had, from secretary to schoolteacher, journalist to novelist. It’s difficult to imagine making it through life without the ability to type.

However, this specialized skill changed the course of more lives than mine, particularly that of women in the public workforce during the 1880s. As typists, women could do more than they had as telegraphers, clerks, and copyists in the previous decades.

Both men and women worked as typists, but they were not referred to as such. Research indicates that there were discrepancies in the spelling of typewriter or type-writer. Sources differ in their opinions as to which denoted the machine and which denoted the operator.

Newspaper articles of the day touted the type-writer as a great invention. By 1885, it was credited with expediting business and coming close to replacing the pen. The Remington Standard Type-Writer was heralded as the premier machine.

Remington had previously been associated with firearms (and sewing machines), and the company had several under its belt, including pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself reportedly carried a Remington New Model Army .44 from 1863 to 1906.

We haven’t heard that he carried a typewriter.

Remington was founded in 1816 by Eliphalet Remington in Ilion, New York, and later became E. Remington and Sons in 1839. It was not the first company to produce a writing machine, but by 1873 became known for manufacturing the first successful commercial typewriter.

Another writing-machine company, Sholes and Glidden, sold their patent to financial backers Densmore and Yost who negotiated with E. Remington and Sons for production. Remington introduced Sholes’s QWERTY board in their model, and the Remington No. 2 of 1878 became a wildly successful typewriter with both upper- and lower-case letters accessed by a shift key.

Today it’s hard to imagine anything else.

Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule in 1868, and manufactured by Remington & Sons, Ilion, New York, USA, between 1874 and 1878. This was the first typewriter to be manufactured commercially (about 5000 were made), the first to use the Universal or QWERTY keyboard which Sholes invented, and the first to be called a 'typewriter'; Sholes coined the term. The colorful flowery decorations may have been intended to appeal to women, who were entering the typist profession. Wikimedia Commons.
The QWERTY keyboard design was so named for the lineup of letters on the top letter row of keys, with other letters placed elsewhere based on frequency of use. With a few changes in other letter/character positions, it remains in use today with Latin-script alphabets. Wisconsin newspaper editor and printer Christopher Latham Scholes came up with the layout after earlier designs resulted in the jamming of keys.

Scholes's QWERTY, 1878. Wiki-Commons
The Remington typewriter was used in law offices, counting rooms, and mercantiles in European and American cities, employing young women with wages ranging from $12 to $15 per week. 

Even my old Oliver from 1914 has the QWERTY layout.
The abandoned heroine of my novel, An Unexpected Redemption, is one such young woman who finds employment as a type-writer in a Denver law firm and later in her hometown of Olin Springs, Colorado. Her not-so-portable Remington No. 2 model typewriter influences the course of her life, as does her other Remington, which you can read about here.

Funny, how a few little letters—and the ability to manipulate them—can change a person's life for the better.

Davalynn Spencer
Wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters, Davalynn Spencer can’t stop #lovingthecowboy. She writes Western romance with rugged heroes, teaches writing workshops, and plays a different keyboard on her church worship team – when she’s not wrangling Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Connect with her at


  1. Thanks for your post! I love typing, probably because I've never had a job where I did that primarily!!!

  2. I remember my mom saying she could type 90 words a minute and rarely make an error. I took typing way back in Jr. High, and that skill is probably why I'm a writer today. I don't think I'd have the patience to write a book by hand. I used to own an old Remington.

  3. I know what you mean, Vickie. I can't imagine writing out an entire book, but punching one in on these older model machines might be just as challenging!

  4. I've always said God invented typewriters (and then the computer) because no one could read anyone's handwriting. That's certainly the case with me. In the past, handwriting was taught, and my father had gorgeous handwriting. He bemoaned the fact that the skill was not passed on in the schools. Thanks for your post!

  5. Marilyn,

    Marilyn, as a former teacher, I too bemoan the fact, right along with your father, that the skill is no longer taught as it once was. My grandfather had a highly artistic script, and yes, it was hard to read. Typewriters may have dulled our eyes to the beautiful curls and swirls of yesteryear.