When most of us think of a modern office, we think of desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices. It might seem inconceivable to consider a workplace without them. But it wasn’t too long ago that a mechanical typewriter was the height of innovation.
Most of us are familiar with the traditional typewriter, from their signature fonts to the iconic keystroke sounds. Once a staple of a hardworking office, vintage and antique typewriters have now become collectors’ favourites.
So, if you have an Underwood typewriter you want to have valued with a view to sale, here’s your complete guide.
A Brief History of the Typewriter
A typewriter is a machine used for typing characters. Whilst most of us now use a computer or mobile device for typing, typewrites revolutionized offices, allowing writing work to be completed much more efficiently.
The first typewriters were introduced into the market in 1874 but did not become commonplace until the mid-1880s. This invention required a substantial financial outlay for offices but completely transformed working practices, especially for administrative staff.
It took until 1910 for the typewriter to reach a standard design. There were, of course, variations between different designers and typewriter manufacturers, but there were key elements that were present in every typewriter created after this period.
These key features included a carriage that moved from right to left, allowing for standardized letter spacing. Additionally, a tab key (which we are all now familiar with) was added to the keyboard. This allowed creating lists and columns to become effortless. Similarly, from around 1910, the shift key became a regular occurrence on typewriters. Before this, users would require two separate keyboards – one for uppercase and one for lower.
Perhaps most interestingly, the standardization of typewriters meant that various colors became commonplace. For example, a red ribbon was introduced into the machines, allowing users to highlight specific text areas. This was hugely useful for many administrative duties across the globe.
The next notable evolution in the typewriter was the creation of the ‘noiseless‘ machine. The Noiseless Typewriter Company were the first to bring these to market in 1917, a business that Remington purchased in 1924.
The noiseless typewriter sold exceptionally well throughout the 1930s and 1940s. However, the mechanism was much more complex in these devices; therefore, they were notably more expensive.
Interestingly, the noise of the typewriter has had an enormous resurgence recently. Particularly within the gaming community, mechanical keyboards that make the same noise as a traditional typewriter are highly sought after.
What Is an Underwood Typewriter?
Anyone passionate about vintage or antique typewriters will be familiar with the Underwood name. Underwood’s headquarters were in New York, but their machines can be found in all corners of the world. While technology might have evolved further than the typewriter, Underwood is synonymous with collectors globally, with older models selling for more than $1000.
The Underwood typewriter company started its life as a small, family-run business in 1874. At this time, Remington was one of the largest producers of typewriters in the world. The Underwood family were among one of five companies that produced typewriter ribbon and carbon paper for them.
Remington decided to bring this process in-house, and the Underwood family suddenly needed to diversify. So, they partnered with the fantastic German-American engineer Franz Wagner, and the first Underwood typewriter was born.
The Underwood typewriter No.1 was the first hugely successful modern typewriter. Underwood typewriters were set apart from the competition due to the fact they had incredibly smooth and effortless keystrokes; a quality other manufacturers had failed to master. Additionally, the modern Underwood design featured a sleek, four-row straight keyboard with a single shift key.
However, the true pièce de resistance was the front striking type bars, giving users visible typing and allowing the whole process to become much more seamless and straightforward.
Earlier models were successful, but the No.5 transformed the company into a household name. The Underwood typewriter became commonplace in most offices in the western world, cementing Underwood’s legacy. Incredibly, by 1939, the Underwood company had produced over five million machines.
Olivetti purchased the Underwood company in the early 1960s, merging into the short-lived Olivetti-Underwood Corporation. By the ’80s, unfortunately, the ‘Underwood’ name had disappeared.
However, this now means these fine pieces of machinery are collected worldwide.
How to Identify a Genuine Underwood Typewriter
Of course, the first step in valuing and selling your antique is to determine if you do, in fact, have an original Underwood typewriter.
The Iconic Underwood Name
The most obvious sign that you have a legitimate model from the Underwood typewriter company is that the name is printed across the machine itself. On most models, this will be in bronze or gold writing to contrast the black typewriter.
However, all is not lost if you cannot identify the Underwood name. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the Underwood company passed through many iterations. Therefore, the earlier models have Wagner Typewriter Co. written on them, due to the partnership with the German engineer. On later models, you may find the Olivetti Underwood branding.
Once you are confident the name on your typewriter shows you are dealing with a genuine Underwood model, you should next look for a serial number.
You can use the typewriter serial number database to get the most accurate date that your typewriter was manufactured.
- Serial numbers between 100 and 10000 were created between 1900 – 1902
- Serial numbers between 50000 and 200000 were created between 1904 – 1908
- Serial numbers between 247000 and 450000 were created between 1909-1912
- Serial numbers between 551000 and 940000 were created between 1913 – 1917
- Serial numbers between 1050000 and 1910000 were created between 1918 – 1925
- Serial numbers between 2070000 and 3825000 were created between 1925 – 1931
Open or Closed Frame
Another excellent way of identifying underwood typewriters is by determining whether they have an open or closed frame. As you would expect, an open frame allows you to see the inner mechanisms of the machine. These were created between 1900 – 1930 and are generally worth the most money.
Conversely, closed frame machines have the inner workings covered by a piece of metal, and generally indicate the typewriter was created post-1930.
Identifying Portable Typewriters
Underwood portable typewriters are slightly smaller than the original models, to make them easy to transport around the office or home.
These can be very easily identified by their keys. Portable typewrites with three rows of keys are dated between 1919 – 1929. Those with four rows are post-1930.
Different Models of Underwood Typewriters
The Underwood company was responsive to its customer base’s changing needs and regularly released new models. Whether you are looking to purchase a typewriter for your collection, or sell one of your beloved pieces, it is vital that you can distinguish between different Underwood typewriter models.
Underwood No. 1
It is important to note that the Underwood Typewriter Company were not the first manufacturer to produce this modern typewriter design. Daugherty had first offered these new features, such as a four-row keyboard and single shift button. However, Underwood’s offering was completed to a much higher standard, catapulting it to the top spot by consumers.
The Underwood No.1 contains all these modern features, and the shift key can be found in the bottom left. This first model has 76 characters.
Underwood No. 2
The Underwood No.2 was very similar to the first model. There are only two very delicate differences.
The first is the addition of eight additional characters, bringing the total to 84. The second is simply that the carriage is slightly wider on this second iteration.
The No.1 and No.2 models are the most valuable, as so few of them were created.
Underwood No. 3
The third iteration in the Underwood empire contained many of the usual features. The four-row keyboard and the front strike mechanism.
The company also stayed with the wider carriage featured on the predecessor. However, the main difference with the Underwood No.3 is that it features two shift keys, one at each end of the keyboard.
Underwood No. 4
The Underwood No.4 is most recognizable by the labelling on the front of the machine. The gold font makes this iteration instantly recognizable.
For this model, the Underwood company stuck with the same wider width it had developed but reverted back to the 76 characters used on their original typewriter.
The Underwood No.4 was actually manufactured at the same time as the hugely popular No.5. Therefore, production of the No.4 ceased when the company recognized the huge success of the later version.
The Underwood No.4 is not hugely popular amongst collectors, but niche buyers will still pay decent money for one in excellent condition.
Underwood No. 5
The Underwood No.5 is the most famous typewriter associated with this magnificent company. In fact, it is probably the most famous typewriter in the world. The Underwood No.5 is the quintessential Underwood machine.
This version saw the resurgence of the 84 keys. The Underwood No.5 also saw the introduction of a two-color ribbon selector as well as backspaces.
1933 saw the release of the Underwood No.6. This machine had a lot to compete with, as the world had fallen in love with the earlier model.
The biggest difference with this version was the fact it was an open frame with a single panel. This allowed for easy removal in order to clean and maintain the machine. Whilst this was a great addition in its prime, it also makes it a favourite amongst collectors. These machines can be restored relatively easily, ideal for those who love tinkering with antique typewriters.
Additionally, the No.6 model has a carriage shift. Meaning, that to change to uppercase, the user must use their pinkie finger to lift the whole carriage. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a huge problem, for typists using the machine all day, it would cause significant discomfort.
The Underwood noiseless was manufactured in the 1940s and became a global hit for obvious reasons. However, the font on the noiseless model was different to the earlier versions, and instead resembled Remington’s current offering.
As the name suggests, the biggest difference with this more modern Underwood offering is its use of an electric motor. This model was one of many electric typewriters released after the end of the second world war.
It does appear that the Underwood company had the opportunity to patent the electric typewriter but failed to do so. Should this have been the case, the company would likely still be operating today.
Factors That Affect the Value
As with all antique items, many factors will affect the value of your Underwood typewriter.
If your typewriter is lacking in a particular area, this does not necessarily mean it cannot attract a high value. Many specialist buyers are willing to take the time to restore these unique pieces. Whilst selling online allows you to reach a global market, visiting an antique fair or specialist auction is likely to help you achieve the highest price.
Before attempting to sell your typewriter, you should always seek a professional valuation, especially if you believe it may be particularly unique.
First, it is essential to distinguish between vintage and antique typewriters. By definition, an antique must be at least 100 years old. The lines are slightly more blurred where vintage items are concerned, but it is generally thought that anything older than 50 years is considered to be vintage. However, many adopt a laxer approach and label any item created before 1999 as vintage.
Therefore, No.1, No.2, No.3 and No.4 all fall into the antique Underwood typewriter category and are valued much higher. Underwood’s other models are considered vintage typewriters and therefore attract a slightly lower price tag. Generally, the more modern typewriters are worth the least, with the oldest bringing the most money.
The most valuable typewriters are the oldest Underwood models, in mint, working condition. However, many collectors are willing to purchase an Underwood typewriter that isn’t in working condition. They will take the time to lovingly restore a magnificent piece and are ready to pay substantial sums for these pieces – a non-working Underwood No.3 recently sold for $100.
Condition of Your Underwood Typewriter
As with almost all vintage pieces, the condition is one of the factors that can affect the value most dramatically. As well as whether the typewriter works, buyers will be looking out for any scratches, marks, or defects in the machinery.
If the defects are merely cosmetic, you will likely find a buyer willing to restore the machine themselves. However, this will probably mean you have to accept a slightly lower selling price. Underwood typewriters in excellent condition can incredibly sell for over $2000 on eBay.
Whether you are selling at an auction or on resale sights such as Etsy and eBay, you must include a complete product description. A range of photographs and an honest, detailed description is most likely to lead to a successful, ethical sale
As a seller, you should examine the mechanics of the typewriter are in good order. Whilst these can often be restored, it is a highly skilled and expensive process. Additionally, be wary of extensive rust. A small amount of rust is perfectly normal for an antique typewriter. However, rust indicates that the metal is weak and can render the typewriter useless in very little time.
The Rarity of Your Typewriter
The rarity of your Underwood typewriter will undoubtedly be one of the most significant factors that increase its value. For example, the Underwood Portable typewriters are highly sought after amongst collectors, with much fewer in existence.
Many people prefer these as they are much easier to transport. This is not just the case with the Underwood brand but other typewriters too.
The Popularity of Your Underwood
With all antiques, some models that collectors prefer, and others do not rank quite so highly. For underwood typewriters, the earlier models are firm favourites with many collectors looking to add that final special piece to their collection.
While Underwood No.5 sales are plentiful, they are still hugely popular and can retail for around $170 on re-selling websites such as eBay.
How to Care For Your Underwood Typewriter
All antique and vintage typewriters must be adequately cared for to ensure they maintain their beauty and value. Here are some top tips to keep your Underwood in its best possible conditions
- First, always keep the typewriter covered when not in use. Like all items in the home, they will collect dust when they are not being used. However, over time this can create huge problems and cause the mechanics of the machine to fail.
- Keep the temperature of the room stable. If the environment is too hot, the rubber elements of the typewriter can begin to melt, rendering the machine unusable. If the room is too cold, the metal elements can become damaged.
- When in use, always use a backing sheet. The second sheet of paper behind the one you are typing on will give a more aesthetically pleasing print but also help preserve the platen and type slugs in your typewriter.
- Dust regularly with a dry brush or cloth. Providing that nothing has been spilt on or near the typewriter, a dry wipe every few weeks should be enough to keep your machine in top condition. If your typewriter needs a little extra care, use a small amount of denatured alcohol.
The Best Way to Sell an Underwood Typewriter
As with all antique items, there are various ways to sell your Underwood typewriter.
Online – Etsy or eBay
Online websites such as eBay or Etsy are the easiest way to reach a global market. There are many collectors scouring these websites daily, searching for pieces in excellent condition.
However, you should be aware that Underwood typewriters are extremely heavy. Therefore, shipping your typewriter can be very expensive, and should always be factored into the listing price. Alternatively, you could offer the vintage piece on a collection-only basis.
A Specialist Auction
Selling an antique at auction is the best way to sell a niche product such as an Underwood typewriter. Before the auction, advertisements can be issued, attracting specialist collectors.
It is worth noting that auctions will take a commission for selling your piece, which is generally between 10% – 25%. It is always a great idea to place a reserve price on your typewriter, meaning it will not sell under a set value you have placed.
Local Vintage Stores
A local antique or vintage stores are a great way to sell your typewriter without incurring heavy shipping costs. However, these stores may not have a particularly strong knowledge of typewriters, and therefore you may have to accept a slightly lower price.
Antique Underwood Typewriter – A Round-Up
As you have read, Underwood Typewriters have a rich history and have truly shaped how modern offices work. Their machinery was cutting edge, defining working practices for typists across the globe. The Underwood Typewriter company is a worldwide brand that reaches all corners of the earth. They are a firm favourite amongst collectors, and when in mint condition, can sell for over $2000.
Here are our top takeaways from this article:
- The Underwood Company started its life as a small, family-run business creating parts for larger manufacturers.
- Identifying a genuine Underwood typewriter is done by looking for the iconic name, alongside the serial number.
- There are many models of Underwood typewriters, and it can often become challenging to distinguish between them.
- The most recognizable and sought-after model is No.5.
- A huge number of factors will affect the value of your Underwood typewriter, including its age, condition, and rarity.
- There are many ways to sell your Underwood typewriter, including on eBay, at auction, or in a local antique store.
Do you have any further questions relating to your Underwood Typewriter? If so, please leave them in the comments below, and one of our experts will get back to you.