An Underwood Olivetti typewriter (Photo/Ronn ashore via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)
An Underwood Olivetti typewriter (Photo/Ronn ashore via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)

Margaret Mead was wrong: Thank God I can type

In 1960, when I entered Oberlin College, my prized possession was a manual Underwood Olivetti typewriter with a stylish, blue leatherette case. Using correction tape or thin corrasable (erasable) typing paper, I could erase typographical errors — in theory. Unfortunately, reams of paper wound up in the trash. If I decided that paragraph three should be the first paragraph or eliminated, I had to retype everything. Before computers, typing a paper for a class was an ordeal, often involving multiple drafts.

Even when I wrote articles for the Oberlin Review, my college newspaper, I typed them out on short sheets of draft paper, each numbered. At the bottom of the final page, I typed “30-30-30-30,” which meant “the end” to a linotype operator. The coding, said to have originated by Western Union in 1859, was still used by journalists more than a century later.

Twice a week, I walked to the Review offices, housed in an old building behind South Main Street. Chet, the linotype operator, retyped my story, ordering rows of metallic type in a vertical box. Then we would roll the galleys with ink and create paper proofs. When the linotype operator made a mistake, he would type “etaoin shrdlu,” which meant “ignore that line.”

Rolling proofs was a messy process. So was changing typewriter ribbons, and professors would write, “You need a new ribbon” in the margins of our essays. Not all their notes were that constructive. In Freshman Composition, my papers were pocked with snide comments like “Ohhh,” “Huh????” or “Gobbledygook” — all of which meant “nonsense.” Once I was damned with faint praise: “You write well when you’re not trying to.”

Between mediocre grades and an abortive romance, my self-esteem was shattered by the end of first semester. The good news: I had nowhere to go but up. It wasn’t an easy climb, particularly for women who came of age in the early 1960s. Margaret Mead told the women of our senior class that if we settled for a typing job, we’d be typing for the rest of our lives.

However, Mead was an anthropologist, with an office in the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side of New York. I don’t believe she knew what it was like a couple of miles downtown, where women, fresh out of college, sought editorial jobs in New York publishing circles.

Like it or not, typing was the entry point, and a cum laude degree didn’t alter that fact. A month after graduation, I landed a position at Holiday magazine, grossing $75 a week while typing manuscripts with five carbons on an old manual typewriter. Slowly, I began taking on copyediting and researching duties without extra pay. After six months, I resigned to go to grad school.

With a small fellowship, I entered the University of Michigan, married a law student, and discovered that the epithet “student wife” after my name doomed me to a hateful secretarial job in the university library. I finished my master’s degree, taught English briefly, and put my career plans on hold to raise children. Then, in the 1970s, when the paths into professions eased for women, my entrée into newspaper work was as a fashion writer at the Contra Costa Times, an anomaly for a 1960s Oberlin grad. I moved on to features, food and other areas, eventually winding up at the Jewish Bulletin, the forerunner to J., as a copy editor.

Thank God I can type, a skill I picked up at a weekly class in junior high. Thank God my father could type, since it kept him out of active combat during World War II, but not out of the onerous task of graves registration.

Dictating my articles doesn’t work for me, since I think with my fingers. Scientists may not have discovered a direct path from brain to fingertips, bypassing speech and possibly conscious thought altogether, but I believe it exists. Maybe they will find it in my autopsy, but for now, it keeps me alive.

On a trip to England, I saw a light blue Underwood Olivetti typewriter on display in a museum in Manchester. Yes, it was a beauty, and I loved my light blue Olivetti. It was elegant, and it had a key for typing acute accents, which was helpful for my French papers. I have no such affection for the MacBook Air that sits on my desk when it’s not on the road. It’s just a machine. Yet, it works, and so do I.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].