Found  /  First Person

Why the World of Typewriter Collectors Splits Down the Middle When These Machines Come Up for Sale

In this new hobby, I found so many stories.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of antique office machinery to identify the Urania as a Nazi-era typewriter; it has that particular aesthetic. The shine from chrome-ringed, glass-topped keys accents its stern profile. From the keyboard, the high-gloss curves accelerate smoothly upward toward the basket of typebars. The position of every knob, lever, and button has been well thought-out and positioned most logically, and engineered to maximize utility.It has the contours of a Darth Vader helmet, and shines just as black.

This machine just looks Nazi, and unapologetically so.

But how are we to appreciate these machines of both menace and beauty? Are they simply inanimate tools for writing, and nothing more? Or are they relics of the most odious regime in human history—cursed forever to be symbols of the Third Reich where they were birthed? And if such objects were born with some kind of original sin, is there any hope for redeeming them?

Strange thoughts? Perhaps. But as both an academic and collector, these are the questions that confront me every time I come across such mechanical artifacts from Nazi Germany. Encounters like this are actually a surprisingly frequent occurrence.

“It was a war trophy,” my friend interjected, though that went without saying. “It was lugged home in some GI’s duffel bag, without its case.”

As strange as it sounds today, German klein (“small” or portable) typewriters were among the most sought-after souvenirs for soldiers fighting in World War II. Think of it: Adjusted for inflation, top-of-the-line portable typewriters cost roughly the same as your MacBook Pro today, and their usable lives were measured not in months or years, but decades and generations. Consequently, thousands of Uranias, Gromas, Erikas, Rheinmetalls, Continentals, Olympias, and other high-quality, precision-made German machines were looted from Nazi military and government offices, businesses, and even from civilian homes, whether their owners were dead or alive. “War trophy” is of course a pleasant euphemism: It denotes a reward for heroism, bravery, and sacrifice, while simultaneously acknowledging that even the good guys steal, pillage, and destroy amid the haze of total war.

In most cases, the new lives of these machines were decidedly more tranquil than those they left back in Europe. This particular Urania, for example, was built in Dresden, and was sold at a shop on Ferdinandstraße in central Hamburg in 1939. But after spending its first six years in whatever unknown capacity in Nazi Germany—and a few months in a duffel bag—it then passed the next 75 years typing out invoices and receipts at a mom-and-pop general store and service station outside of Bel Air, Maryland.