Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office

at Amazon for a song

It\’s like someone was reading my retrotech mind. Washing machines and dictaphones and typewriters, oh my! Never mind that this little ditty was published about seventeen years ago by The Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, I never saw it so it\’s new to me.

Mechanical Brides covers all the gadgetry of cleaning, cooking,  and rote office work. What I found most interesting is the chapter on office machines (of course) and the feminization of this technology. Turning a male clerk into a female secretary involved separating the act of writing into two distinct jobs:  composition and typing. While male clerks had done both, female typists were relegated to writing as assembly line production. Interesting now is that we\’ve come full-techno-circle, because everyone with a laptop both composes and produces \”typed\” text.

Business invented a middle-woman and then obsoleted her. Not that it was a bad thing, really, but that\’s a rant for another post.

This book is as much about feminine identity as it is about the machines that defined it. Full of stunning/appalling advertising copy and art, it\’s a steal if you can find one either on Amazon or Ebay. In fact, I\’d like to have a copy just to cut up and frame.

List-Making as Art


Ding Ren has the perfect gig: Typing as performance art. She just held an exhibition yesterday, but will perform \”Observations with a Typewriter\” again on August 20th as part of two-month \”Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.\” Here\’s a description of Ren\’s exhibition/performance:

\”Ren will sit at a desk in the gallery space generating lists with a typewriter. The content of the lists will be gathered through an on-the-spot observation of visitors in the gallery space that is akin to an ethnographer performing a field study. These observations may include, but are not limited to: what visitors are holding in their hands, untied shoelaces, bits of overheard conversations, and the color of visitors’ shirts. The observed content will be recorded through typewritten pages that will spill out onto the floor of the gallery for visitors to read. Like the lists already on display, the lists Ren creates in real-time are meant to highlight potential patterns and find meaning in the easily overlooked, near-nothings of everyday life. Past records kept by Ren include an observation of falling objects, red dots, stray pennies on the street, and other people’s reading material on public transportation.\” ~ The Pinkline Project

Part one in this series began February 5th, and it looks like the whole collection might be available through September. Fascinating business, actually. Take a look at Smithsonian\’s online exhibit HERE, or order the companion book, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists, although I\’m sure neither will come close to that live performance. If anyone is handy to DC and can make that trip, be sure to let us know.

As a side note, that folded printer paper is for the birds. Clearly Ren hasn\’t yet experienced a fine BAROP.

In honor of all things Smithsonian and list-y, I\’m proposing we all typecast a list or two to celebrate the everydayness of common writing. Besides, it\’s an excuse to make lists I don\’t have to follow.

List on, typosphere!

This One Looks Good

Fresh Ribbon

Just found an interview with Dennis Baron, author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. Yes, the interview was in Inside Higher Ed, and yes, it has an academic edge. But just look at this portion of the interview:

I’ve always loved writing and its technologies. My earliest memories of writing include typing on an old Remington portable on the floor of the living room when I was 5 or 6. I can still see the ink-clogged e’s and o’s. I also remember my first fountain pen, a marbled-maroon Esterbrook that I got for my 8th birthday. I remember the smell of the ink when I filled the pen (no cartridge refills back then), tangy, metallic, kind of like blood. And my first ball point, a Paper Mate in two-tone green, the same colors as my parents’ 1955 Chevy (I later inherited that car, and while I always hated the colors on the car, on the pen they were magical).

You can read the rest of Serena Golden’s interview with the author here.

Clearly, we need a book club. I hope a few more of you snag a copy of this soon, because this looks like it warrants discussion.

Booktalk: The Iron Whim by Darren Wershler-Henry

Fresh Ribbon

Note: I finished this one a few weeks ago and was promptly buried underneath piles of freshman essays. Tomorrow I’ll be buried under final exams, so there’s this window and I’m jumping through it.

I’m going to give it to you straight – The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting has its moments, but is overall Strikethru was right – it’s a bit academic for casual reading. Given that it’s published by Cornell University Press and that the acknowledgments page thanks his graduate committee for their help, it’s likely The Iron Whim is a post-thesis incarnation. It’s meant for a different audience and for a much different purpose.

Regardless, I found some bright spots. The chapters on “amanuesis,” for example (typewriting and dictation) and the women who, like ghost-machines themselves, entered the work force for paltry wages and changed the definition of “women’s work” long before World War II did that in a more permanent way. Good stuff. Men created and women translated. While much is written about business writing and the office-proper, I was much more interested in the discussion of Dracula and how Mina crosses that create/translate line in the novel first by using the typewriter to make her own voice, then by becoming demonic. Nothing like a good techno-feminist reading to make me feel my literary oats again.

On the whole I found the book just as fragmented as the subtitle suggests. All the better to skim and pick, actually. There’s a section on machine history that didn’t interest me, and the end of the book fell into a hole or two discussing contemporary readings in children’s and sci-fi typewriter-themed books. Not my cup of tea, really. There’s a chapter early on that discusses Ebay and the cult of nostalgia that should certainly make most of us wince, but in a good way.

We are who we are.

In the end, I didn’t fly through The Iron Whim anticipating the next chapter, but it was perfect for recuperative, post-knee-surgery reading. I’ve honestly spent more time with the bibliography than with the book itself, but I’m funny like that.

Wershler-Henry has an online place, by the way, and he Twitters. Let’s just say he’s been formally introduced to typecasting now. And that’s a good thing, because at the end of The Iron Whim he’s made a sort of promise I’d like to see him keep:

“…there are other books to be written about typewriting. At least one of them will be about typewritten concrete and visual poetry, because I’ll be writing that next…”

So, hows that new one coming along, Darren? No pressure.

The Iron Whim: Recuperative Reading

Fresh Ribbon

A very good friend gifted me this afternoon with a little something to read while I recover from knee surgery this weekend. Because it’s likely I’ll be ridiculous from pain meds, I’ve already peeked a bit inside The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriters by Darren Wershler-Henry.

I promised myself I’d only read the first chapter or so and save the rest for later, but so much for that. How could I help it? The intro is a haunted machine and hashish-motivated writing jag. Chapter 1 is the infamous Royal Road Test. I finally put the thing down after Chapter 2’s nostalgia as religion – pages dedicated to those crazy folks who haunt Ebay (can you imagine?) to snag a bit of mechanical history.

I’m stopping right here. I swear. Not another page until after Friday’s surgery.

Thanks, Steph!