Saturday, November 18, 2017

Macy's Portable No. 1 typewriter

The advantages of a sabbatical include the occasional 8-hour typewriter repair session. That's what I did on Thursday. I received a package containing a Macy's Portable No. 1, which I had grabbed on eBay when I saw it for a reasonable Buy It Now price.

This typewriter sold by Macy's department stores is a name variant of the Barr, which was made for only about a decade (ca. 1929-1939) in upstate New York by a small, independent manufacturer. The typewriter was designed in the early '20s by John H. Barr (1861-1937), a professor of mechanical engineering who had been awarded typewriter patents since at least 1906 and was responsible for the famous Remington portable. (See Robert Messenger's story and Will Davis' pages on the history of the Barr).

In a way, this typewriter has come home, since Macy's headquarters are not located in New York, as you might expect, but in Cincinnati.

I brought the typewriter down to my basement and removed the shell (easy).



Note the strange position of the mainspring, circled in green in the photo above. At first glance a Barr may look like a typical portable typewriter of its day, but in fact, just about everything on it is idiosyncratic. John Barr apparently had a number of pet ideas that he wanted to try out, and he was willing to start his own typewriter company to do so. For example, the typewriter uses basket shift and a mechanism that keeps keys horizontal at all times. These features are familiar to us from the Smith-Corona portables of the '30s and later, but they were groundbreaking for a portable when Barr introduced them.

Other miscellaneous peculiarities of Barrs: The carriage is locked by pushing the return lever shaft down into a hole. The rollers on the paper bail include a length of textured metal that lets you move them without touching the rubber. The margin stops and tab stops are on a scale in back of the machine that swings up so you can see it better (a feature also found on some early standard typewriters). The platen can easily be popped out, and so can the paper tray; the front feed rollers then swing backwards so you have access to some of the mechanism. Controls on the Barr are in unusual locations or operate strangely; for instance, the paper release lever has to be held open with a separate piece that grips it from behind.

How does all this function? Sad to say, not terribly well. The controls feel awkward, and although some of that is just due to unfamiliarity, some of it is intrinsic to the design. The touch of the Barr is pretty heavy and requires noticeably more effort than, say, a Smith-Corona. Consumer Reports offered its harsh judgment on the Barr in November 1937:


My Macy's certainly needed a lot of work. Let's see if I can remember:

— Carriage return lever swung around loosely and needed a new bolt and screw. (This problem had been described in the eBay auction.)
— Paper bail had loose screws, and the scale was upside down (facing the platen) — factory error?
— Bell was not ringing and line lock wouldn't disengage (turned out to have an easy solution, just flip up the bell ringer mechanism, which had been pushed down)
— Broken left margin stop (I was miraculously able to reform the surviving parts into a functional piece, but then had to elevate the piece that bumps into the stop when you return the carriage)
— Ribbon vibrator had slipped out of its lower retaining clips (apparently this can happen if you vigorously type red capital letters)
— Margin release mechanism had come unattached
— Rod that holds the shift lock wouldn't stay in place (I had to attach a new spring and form it into shape)
— Two feet were missing (a trip to the hardware store the next day got me some bolts that could attach some old Underwood feet)

And of course, lots of dirt had to be removed and the paint needed work. (Scrubbing Bubbles + Pledge did wonders for its appearance, and a black permanent marker effectively covered some bare patches.)




This typewriter has serial #38334. Other Macy's No. 1 serial numbers known to me include #37303 (Nick Fisher collection), #37604 (ex-Tilman Elster collection), #38753 (Mark Rosenzweig collection, glossy paint), and #39840 (Will and Dave Davis collection). So it's possible that over 2500 were made, but I suspect that most typewriters in this sequence were labeled Barr, not Macy's.

Macy's also sold typewriters made by Remington. Like the Barr-made Macy's, these machines are marked with the department store's red star trademark, which is still in use today.





Another, very rare name variant of the Barr is Standard Model Mercury. (This is one I saw online years ago.)




So, after all those hours of working on my Macy's, am I going to write a novel on it? No, I'm going to put it up for sale to benefit WordPlay Cincy, where kids explore language with the help of typewriters and tutors.





Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ziltzsch strikes back!

I published I. M. Ziltzsch's review of D. F. Niente's The Gordian Naught on November 1.

The review provoked a critique by Agent Bikethru, published on November 7.

Now, Ivo Ziltzsch submits a counterattack. My blog has become the scene of a vigorous controversy!





Thanks for your card, Ivo, and it was great to see you again. Everyone, I recommend Taft's Ale House the next time you're in Cincinnati.