Analog dilettante, and avoiding rabbit holes

You’ve probably guessed by now that I have an appreciation for “analog” things, the things that we used before digital became our reality. I still listen to terrestrial radio, send actual letters, and have gotten into film photography. And I also appreciate old proven technology, whether it be three speed bicycles or shaving with a “safety” razor (when I do shave, that is.) I like vintage things, and I like proven things that work. I also like it when things from the past, things that were built to last, are used for their intended purpose and not as “home decor”.

One thing I’ve always had an appreciation for typewriters, even though I haven’t used them much. I remember fooling around with them when I was a kid, over at someone’s house that had a typewriter. (As a Gen-Xer, it wasn’t uncommon to see typewriters in homes during the ’80s.) Sometime in the ’90s I scored one for cheap at a tag sale. It lasted a day or two before it broke. This being the ’90s, when I was really broke and not tapped into the collective knowledge of the internet, I didn’t do anything to fix it. That was the end of that adventure. Yet “get a typewriter” is something that’s been in the back of my head for the last quarter-century, but I haven’t acted upon it until now.

On a whim, I decided to buy a typewriter via eBay. What I picked out was an Underwood 378 portable. Underwood was an American maker who merged in some way with Italian Olivetti in the ’60s. This Underwood is post-merger, made in Spain in the ’80s, pretty late in the typewriter game (but there was still demand.) From the limited info I gleaned from the Internet, this particular model isn’t particularly desirable but is still a capable machine. And while the outer body is plastic, it has that mid-century styling that Olivetti excelled in.

I got the typewriter dirt cheap, and because of that, there’s quite a bit of dirt in it. This will be a cleaning project for me some weekend. But that’s okay. It works, at least. And I didn’t pay a lot. Just like many analog devices, there was a decade or three where you could find typewriters for a song. But just like film cameras, the prices for them have risen over the years, as people now appreciate them again. And similar to film cameras, there’s a finite supply, though it looks like there are still a few companies producing new typewriters.

It’ll be fun to use, but I don’t see myself “getting into” typewriters in the same way I got into bikes and cameras. I don’t think I’ll be on the hunt for more machines, nor will I start following a bunch of typewriter blogs and Instagram accounts. (Though I did put a couple typewriter books on hold at the library.) That’s okay. A simple appreciation is fine. Not every interest in my life requires a deep dive.

For example, when I decided to get out of the “razor wars” in 2013 and use a simple single-blade safety razor, I did look at some blogs about wet shaving. There are people who really get into it. And that’s great when you want to glean useful information. But I just don’t feel the need to emulate these folks, people who spend $200 on a shaving brush, a tool whose sole purpose is to lather shaving cream. In the eight years since I got into wet shaving with a safety razor, I bought three vintage Gillette razors (two regular, one travel), each used and for $10 or so. My three shaving brushes also cost about $10 or less, used.* I’ve tried a few different shaving creams, but I’m pretty settled on Prorasso, Taylor of Old Bond Street, and Musgo Real. All of those creams cost more than Edge Gel, but still don’t break the bank and last a long time. And I can get about 25 Wilkinson Sword blades (double-sided) for around $10.

I switched up my shaving and it’s better than before, but I’m not constantly testing out many different blades and creams. I found what works for me, and I do it affordably. I don’t feel much of a need to get a “better” razor or constantly try out different cremes. Those folk who are really into shaving “culture” may consider me an amateur, and that’s fine with me.

Another interest that I just dabble in is fountain pens. For most of my adult drawing life I’ve used disposable technical pens, Microns and the like. I didn’t get along with Rapidographs, so I stuck with what worked. I never got into fountain pens until a few years ago. I found a couple cheapies that worked OK, but things changed when I found a halfway decent one. The one I got from MUJI was only $15, was refillable, and produced a variable line from about 0.3 to 0.7. Not only was it good for writing, but also for drawing.** Because a fountain pen could vary line width, it means it takes the place of three Microns. So I could put just one in my drawing kit. Add in a brush pen and I’m set!

This got me a bit more interested in fountain pens. Reading a couple recommendations got me turned onto the Kaweco Sport, a very compact German pen. I just recently got a Platignum Studio pen as well. Both pens cost about $25 each, a price I’m happy to pay for a quality writing/drawing instrument. But I made the mistake of looking at a couple fountain pen blogs when I wanted to get reviews about the pens. Both the Kaweco and Platignum were considered “basic”, “starter” pens. No, the real ones start at $100 and go up from there. Now I understand that some fountain pens are exquisitely made instruments, like watches. And I get that. Yet I’m happy with my starter fountain pens, as I’m happy with Timex watches.*** I know people get really into fountain pens, and I wouldn’t mind another, maybe an American made Waterman,**** but I don’t need to fall down another rabbit hole. I don’t feel the pull to become a fountain pen collector.

What am I trying to say? I guess it’s this: It’s okay to be a dilettante and dabble in a bunch of things. One doesn’t have to fall down a rabbit hole with every thing they get into. I’m perfectly happy with diving deep with bikes, cameras, and a few other things. I appreciate well made, vintage, and analog things. I can appreciate these things without knowing every minute deal about their lineage, or getting into the “culture”. I don’t need everything I’m into to become part of my identity.

How about you, dear reader? Anything that you’re just casually into, something that you don’t want to get deep into?

*The three razors/three brushes came about because I wanted one razor/brush set to be compact for travel. I ended up with two regular sized razors and brushes from the year-and-a-half when I shuttled between my former house in Woodlawn and Emee’s place in North Tabor, where I now live. I wanted one set for each place, so I wouldn’t have to bring one set back-and-forth. So yeah, I could get rid of one razor and brush at some point…

**Previously I would use my demoted Microns for writing, the ones where the tip started to wear out.

***To note, Timex was founded in Waterbury, Connecticut, about fifteen miles up the Naugatuck River from where I was born. The current HQ is one town west in Middlebury, which is part of the Region 15 school district. I graduated from Pomperaug High School which is the high school for that region. I guess this is a long-winded way to say Timex was “local” to me at one point, but it’s been eons since watches or clocks were made there, and it’s been two decades since I lived there.

****Even though modern Waterman is a French company, it started as a US company. For most of that time, Waterman was based in Seymour, Connecticut, one town north/up the Naugatuck from Ansonia, where I was born. (Do you get the impression that the Naugatuck Valley was once an industrial powerhouse? In fact “Naugahyde” is named after the river/town.) In 1958 French-based BIC pen bought Waterman in order to get an American foothold so it could corner the US ballpoint pen market. BIC moved the facilities downriver, past where the Naugatuck meets the Housatonic River at Derby, then down that river to near its mouth at Milford. This factory is where my dad worked for the first twelve years of my life. So you might see why I’d be interested in an American made Waterman.


6 thoughts on “Analog dilettante, and avoiding rabbit holes

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  1. I came of age at the end of the typewriter era. My middle-school touch-typing class was on an Olympia SG3 typewriter. Personal computers became affordable to middle-class families about that time, and I switched to electronic keyboards — happily. They’re so much easier to type on. Yet every time I see a forlorn typewriter in an antique shop, I want to rescue it. I don’t, but I want to.

    The hairs under my chin grow nearly flat against my skin and defy every blade shave I’ve ever tried. To really razor them off I have to shave against the grain, which has the unfortunate side effect of chewing my skin to ribbons. So I’ve shaved electric all my life. However, I do need to have a razor on hand for various other hair-removal tasks and I find that a safety razor does those jobs *better* than the multiblade modern razors because a safety razor gets into tight places better. Mine is a $15 job I bought at a local big-box store. I get my blades there, too. I forget what brand. But if I’m buying at the big-box store you know it’s nothing special.

    I’ve loved fountain pens since I was in middle school. Then I had a Sheaffer No-Nonsense fountain pen — a few of them, as the nibs wore out fast. It was almost as expensive to send away for a new nib as it was to just buy a new pen at the drug store. A few years ago I returned to using a fountain pen (at my home desk) — and bought a Jinhao. It works fine, and feels good to me. I think I paid $15 for it.

  2. I’m of the typewriter generation. When I was a freshman in high school at a remote boarding school in Alaska, I took Typing 1 and Typing II. I don’t recall which make and model our manual (analog) typewriters were. However, I did become proficient typing “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and using correction ink 🙂

    Having recently retired after working in IT for 40 years, I can confidently say my typing skills proved very helpful. And while I can now talk to all of my devices and have them transcribe my words, I still prefer typing. Since I’m not a writer, however, I might succumb and buy a grammar checker.

    My penmanship is another matter. My mother and her father from England had beautiful penmanship. They would be aghast today watching me try to write a sentence in cursive.

    When my mother died last year, I inherited her portable Smith-Corona manual typewriter. The typewriter sits and clips inside a hard suitcase-style case. I think I’ll need to replace the ribbon, but otherwise it appears to be in fine working condition. I have sweet memories of my mom typing on it when she wrote for a little community newspaper in Valdez, AK in the early 60s. We were in Valdez during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. newspaper. That’s another story.

    Yes, I think it’s okay to be a dilettante. I’ve generally found folks who dabble to be an interesting and fun lot.

    Finally, Shawn this short podcast might be of interest to you if you haven’t heard it yet. I had no idea about the history of Polaroid in South Africa. I also inherited my mom’s Polaroid 900 Land Camera last year, so (the podcast) caught my ear. More about that in my long Flickr bio.

  3. Jim, I just took a peek at your “Down the Road” website. It look like we’ve got a lot in common. Perhaps our paths crossed at some point?

    I’m getting ready to digitize a mountain of photos, including my mom’s slides, so Steve Mitchell’s story is of interest.

    And FWIW, I appreciate you spelling out your privacy TOS. At the tail end of my (long) Flickr About/bio, you can read why.

  4. There was a typewriter in my home growing up – hence I’ve had time with one. While I’ve discovered that much of the technological advancement in my lifetime merely seems to trade one set of problems for another, the word processor (now word processing software) is one advancement I consider positive all around. I recall high school classmates goofing on me for submitting papers in dot matrix (on tractor-feed fanfold, no less). The teachers and I had to figure out how to properly determine the correct minumum length of my assignments, since then they were given in number of pages, not word count. Minimum length, by the way, is a terrible idea, since there is no incentive for concision – a hallmark of good writing. I suppose this is intended to prepare the student for the actual working world, where quantity of output is preferred over quality. Digression aside, I suppose I was an early adopter. Subsequent attempts to improve data entry such as voice-to-text, and predictive suggestions I can do without. But for me, the ability to do all my editing right on the draft, versus re-writing or re-typing is a joy. I’m glad to know there’s still interest in these old machines, but I’m happy to watch from a distance here.

      1. You also handwrite letters. That and typing require some confidence in writing. Perhaps one downside to the ability to effortlessly edit modern writing is that it makes it easy to make countless revisions, while at the same time striving for the level of perfection that is the enemy of progress. I seldom do it, but I’ve begun to handwrite very personal correspondence. On one occasion, I felt compelled to send an apology to the secretary of my children’s school, after a phone call where I resorted to venting. I hand wrote the apology on a postcard (one of yours, actually), and it was very well received. Hand writing anything beyond notes seems so foreign to me. Yet sometimes it’s the absolute best way to communicate. As for typing, when I do come across old, typed correspondance, I always take a moment to admire it for it’s imperfections, and the intention and effort which went into it.

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