Monday, May 20, 2013

When Woodstock Illinois Changed the World

A Woodstock made Oliver Typewriter and one of the new class of women officer workers it helped make possible.

Note:  Running late today so here is a goody from the archives inspired by a post on Facebook of an old Oliver Typewriter ad.

I bet you didn’t know that Woodstock, Illinois was once the Silicon Valley of the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Just as previously obscure California towns boomed when the technological innovations fostered there blossomed into industries seemingly over night and changed forever the way we communicate with each other, so did this once sleepy county seat less than a two hour train ride from Chicago help transform the world a century ago.
Woodstock was once known as Typewriter City.  In 1922 nearly half the world’s typewriters were produced in two bustling factories here.  The machines produced in Woodstock were landing on business desks, in government offices, newspaper city rooms, schools and homes.  And they changed everything. 
Long rows of high clerks’ desks attended by young men in green eye shades and sleeve garters laboriously hand copying documents in fine Palmer Method script were replaced by mechanical devises and a few young women—both originally called “typewriters”—who could be hired at half the wages.  With the addition of carbon paper and tissue-like onion skin paper up to a half dozen perfectly identical copies of any document could be made at one time.  The machines could be used to cut a stencil for another new invention—the Mimeograph—and hundreds of copies could be made cheaply and quickly without having to send anything to a job printer.
The result was an explosion of paper—and of information.  Businesses and government ran smoother.  Productivity soared.
In 1894 a tinkering local Methodist minister, Rev. Thomas Oliver, started the Oliver Typewriter Company and produced a unique machine in which type bars were mounted to strike the platen from the top making the impressions on the page clearly visible to the typist.  Previously the type bars of most machines struck the platen from the rear and the typist could not see the result until the paper was removed. Talk about a technological breakthrough! Oliver machines were especially favored as stencil cutters for business and because of a unique marketing program became the first typewriters widely used in homes.  Production in Woodstock ended in 1928 and was shifted to Great Britain.  British Olivers of the same design as produced here became the backbone of the war effort with tens of thousands put to use by the military, government, and contractors during World War II.
Meanwhile, in 1910, the Emerson Typewriter Company relocated from Momence, Illinois into a state of the art factory building occupying a whole city block near the Woodstock railroad station.  When the Emerson company foundered it was acquired by its largest distributor and main creditor, Sears, Roebuck and Company.  Alvah C. Roebuck himself took over management of the firm.  By 1914 he had personally completely redesigned the typewriter into a sturdy machine on the modern model.  He retired the Emerson name and from then on Woodstock Typewriters were very successfully marketed by Sears.  Over the years Woodstock Typewriters introduced many innovations including the 1925 introduction of the first successful electric machine.
In 1950 the company was bought out by R. C. Allen and the machines re-branded and modernized. 

Allen already had a line of desk calculators and wanted to expand into a comprehensive office machine provider.  The new Allen electrics were among the most advanced machines available.  The company produced over a million and a half typewriters until the company closed operations in 1967 ending more than seventy years of typewriter production in Woodstock. 

Three generations of Woodstock working people responded to the whistles of these factories every morning.  Business was good.  Even during the Depression demand for typewriters remained high.  World War II sent demand through the roof as a complex world wide conflict required legions of typists pounding away in offices and Quonset huts from Washington, D.C. to the most obscure Pacific atoll.  Those workers considered their jobs as secure any in America.  After all, wasn’t business done on typewriters?  Wouldn’t it always be?
But marketing changes were challenging independent firms like R. C. Allen.  The introduction of innovations like the IBM Selectric machines with their easily interchangeable ball fonts made the Allen models passé. 
Today most people under the age of 40 have never even used a mechanical typewriter.  By the early 1980’s even the electric models were being replaced by new electronic “Word Processors.” By the ‘90’s computers were ubiquitous and only the most hidebound traditionalists clung to the old machines.
And some day, surely, those same computers, the whiz bang internet, and the industries that sustain them will fade, replaced by what we can only imagine.  Maybe it’s just as well to say that Silicone Valley may become the Woodstock of the future.

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