.Davis Typewriter Works

.Davis Typewriter Works

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Montgomery Ward's Reliance Visible Typewriters

Above is the front of a small, and quite delicate insert sheet that one might have found inside of a catalog or magazine; this insert is in my collection.  It was published by Montgomery Ward & Co., which for many years was the second largest general sales catalog mail order house in the USA (behind Sears, Roebuck & Co.)  There is no date on this little flyer.  The back side is below.
This might well be the first step anyone would take in ordering a typewriter for himself, herself, or for one's small office or home.  The time range in which this flyer was published -- roughly the 1916-1920 time period -- was that time period in which the typewriter as an entity, as a product, was moving from being a specialty item to being something that people felt they could, and possibly should, have as a personally (privately) owned object and not as property of a business or office.

The machine advertised is the Reliance Visible.  In point of fact, the machine and the factory to produce it in Kittanning, Pennsylvania were either owned by or completely contracted to Ward's at this point.  The Reliance Visible was, in many ways, to Ward's what the Harris Visible was to Sears.  The differences though are notable; for example, the Harris wasn't really seriously marketed widely until 1913 while the Reliance Visible had a pedigree going back to the 1890's and the Daugherty.  The Harris was a three bank double shift machine, while the Reliance was a four bank single shift machine which some collectors today might call a "gimmick" machine -- because the Reliance had a quickly removable key lever and type bar assembly for change of type.

We're here to take a look briefly at the Reliance and the trade catalog material, but let's first quickly identify the heritage of the Reliance.

Daugherty - Pittsburg beginnings

Daugherty Visible, courtesy JIM DAX

The Daugherty Visible was introduced to the market in 1891, and in fact predates the well known Underwood in the field of front strike, four bank typewriters.  Initial production was at the plant of the Crandall Typewriter Co., Groton New York but production was moved to Daugherty Typewriter Company's own plant in Kittanning, Pennsylvania in 1894.

The company's offering of 1896 is pictured below in an advertisement sent to us by Peter Weil.  Note the price for the machine of $75.00.

Daugherty Ad, 1896; Peter Weil collection
Important to note on this advertisement is the statement that the machine had the "Remington Keyboard."  This is an indicator of the time in which the machine was being sold; the conclusion that visible writing, four bank keyboard (single shift) machines would win out was not by any stretch decided firmly at this point - neither was it especially obvious.  In being a visible writing machine and in having the four bank single shift keyboard, the Daugherty was visionary.

In 1897, a problem with production caused the scrapping of 2500 machines at the factory.  This devastated the small company, with agents around the country compelled to cancel the orders placed should machines be unavailable.  The company was bankrupted, and was bought out; the factory was shut down for seven and a half months.

As a result, the Pittsburg Visible Typewriter Company was born and the machine became the Pittsburg Visible.  The "h" in the name Pittsburgh was not used for a time, and the company and machines reflect this spelling aberration.

Pittsburg Visible No. 10, JIM DAX collection
The typewriter continued to receive improvements (and continued to sell in the $65-$75 dollar range) into the 20th century.  The Railroad Telegrapher in 1905 contained an ad stating that the Pittsburg Visible held the world's record of 28,000 words in seven hours, and the telegraph record of 274 unsorted Western Union messages in 254 minutes.  The ad, put out by "Telegraphers Typewriter Co., Rialto Building, Chicago" also said that "we can give you names of telegraphers who have used this machine for ten years, handling from 100 to 200 messages per day without expending one cent for repairs."  The price was $75.00, payable $10.00 down and $6.50 per month thereafter.

Eventually the Pittsburg Visible was manufactured through the No. 12 model.  In 1910, the company came under control of Union Typewriter - the giant trust that included Remington, Smith Premier, American Writing Machine (by this time rebuilding typewriters, but formerly maker of the Caligraph), Monarch, Yost and others.  The company would last only three years under this ownership.  The original inventor himself remained with Union Typewriter until 1913, at which time he left to join Underwood Typewriter Company.   (Some historical points here.)

By 1912 the No. 12 had appeared - the final Pittsburg Visible model. By now the machine looked much more modern than had the thin, open early models. The machine was selling at $65 and according to advertisements by the company, most of the sales were by mail order.

Pittsburg Visible No. 12 serial 39284, David A. Davis collection
Peter Weil has sent us a bill of sale for Pittsburg Visible No. 12 serial number 37764, which was sold on September 6, 1912.  The price was $57.50 which might indicate a trade in was used.  Shortly the company would change the spelling from the previously used "Pittsburg Visible" and "Pittsburg Visible Typewriter Company" to include the "h" at the end of "Pittsburg."

The company entered bankruptcy on May 12, 1913 according to information sent us by Richard Polt.  Richard also informs us that in September 1913 the selloff of machines had begun; an ad in the New York Times told interested buyers that leftover machines were available at the New York office for just $39.00. One of the receivers of the company was Frankin L. Sholes, of the famous Sholes typewriter family. Typewriter Topics' 1923 compendium relates the fact that the manufacturing plant was sold on March 16, 1914 to one J. S. Kuhn of Pittsburgh, for $12,000.

On August 20, 1914, the manufacturing plant was shut down.  "Standard Corporation Service Daily" reported that the company's shutdown put "many men out of employment" and noted also that the company had been selling a large part of its output to Germany.  (The implication here is that the outbreak of war had cut off the company's sales.)

The total number of machines manufactured by Daugherty and Pittsburg did not exceed about 41,000 typewriters.  The companies had lasted twenty-four years, give or take; it would appear that the cutoff of exports, coupled with a business model that sold direct by mail only had done the company in.

It is important to note that by this time, the Pittsburgh Visible (as it was now known) existed in a storm of competition.  Established $100 machines on the market included the Underwood, Remington, L.C. Smith, Royal, Monarch and Smith Premier which were dominating sales.  Other lesser makes such as Oliver, Fox and Victor further crowded the field; the Woodstock was just about to appear and take a major place, and Sears, Roebuck had ordered ten thousand Harris Visible machines to sell in large volume through its catalog and through mail order.  Competition was serious; many various styles of typewriter - some index type, some keyboard type - were killed off in this period.

It was only through the effort of another large catalog sales outfit that the design we're discussing survived beyond this rough period.

Reliance Visible and Montgomery Ward

Reliance Visible trade catalog, Will Davis collection
Although there is evidence that the machine formerly known as the Pittsburgh Visible re-appeared under the Reliance name in late 1915, it is not until early in 1916 that Montgomery Ward begins heavily advertising the typewriter in various magazines, describing it as their own machine.  As noted, the direct implication of this is that the machine's entire production was contracted to Ward (as was the early arrangement Sears had with the Harris Visible) or else that Ward actually had controlling interest in or owned the factory.  Whatever the case, as of early 1916 the two biggest mail order houses in the world were now selling standard typewriters they were willing to put their brand names behind.

Will Davis collection
The page above not only describes Ward's faith in the Reliance Visible, but actually shows the machine being used in three settings in the offices of the company.  This is a direct parallel to the depiction of the Harris Visible being used in Sears, Roebuck offices in the Harris trade catalog.  Click the photo to enlarge it and read the particulars - and look at the Reliance machines in actual use.

The Reliance Visible was described by Ward's as incorporating the six features absolutely necessary for any machine to be considered "standard" - namely:

1.  Visible writing
2.  Standard keyboard (four row, single shift as opposed to three bank double shift or full)
3.  Fixed key travel distance of 9/16 inch - "It is interesting to note that all speed and endurance contests have for years been won by standard machines with 9/16 inch key depression and four rows of keys, both of which features the Reliance has," according to the brochure
4.  Light Shift Key Action
5.  A Light-Running Carriage
6.  Rapid Escapement.

Further, the machine was said to be of "standard design" (in configuration, fit and finish), "standard material" (high grade material and workmanship), and had "standard features" (the six required points, and said to be "equipped to do any kind of work that can be done on the most expensive typewriter.")

There were no longer any model numbers or major variations; the machine simply was the "Reliance Visible" and had optionally available keyboards as will be seen.

The Typewriter - A Big Factor in Modern Business (from trade catalog, Will Davis collection)
Above, the Reliance Visible (from the same sales catalog, Will Davis collection.)  The configuration of the machine is generally standard, although the openness of the area around the type bars is notable when compared with just about any other standard make.  This machine does have some unusual operating features.  For example, the key seen protruding from the side of the machine here is the tabulator key, which also serves as the margin release.  Opposite it, on the other side of the typewriter, is the backspace key.  Paper release is effected by pulling the paper table forward.  The machine does have a two-color ribbon, and a target type indicator to tell which color is selected.

Immediately to the side of the type bars in the illustration above can be seen a key protruding from the top of the deck.  Pulling up this key releases the "keyboard" for removal, as seen below.

The Reliance Visible was normally sold with the Commercial Keyboard.  However, according to the sales catalog:

"..we can furnish two regular foreign keyboards. One of these can be used to write French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, and the other for German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish or Danish.  We can also supply special keyboards for languages such as Greek, Russian, Bulgarian or Croatian. These keyboards can either be purchased separately or fitted on your machine when you order it.  The arrangement of letters on these foreign keyboards is exactly the same as on the English."

Further, four type styles were available:  Pica, Medium Roman, Elite, and Small Italic.   Pica and Small Italic were 10 cpi,  Elite 10 cpi and Medium Roman about 8 cpi.

Other features of the machine included the following:

•44 keys, 88 characters
•Tabulator with six stops as standard equipment
•Ball bearing carriage
•Single, double and triple line spacing; includes ratchet release
•Adjustable paper fingers
•Type face protection (projections on rear of type bars)
•Extra wide paper capacity (paper width 10-1/8 inches, writing line 9 inches)

The Reliance Visible itself, catalog item 157L8503 was $48.50 with a shipping weight of 58 pounds including machine, shipping crate, metal case, rubber dust cover, typewriter brush, oil, two ribbons (one blue or black and one two-color) along with instructions.  The net shipping weight was 25 lbs.

Extra keyboards, catalog item 257L8506 were available for $30.00 and had a shipping weight of 20 pounds. Available in four type styles, with languages and styles noted above.

Reliance Visible Examples

We own three Reliance Visible machines; two are shown and briefly described below.  The third is a parts machine, and is not different from the first unit shown below.

Reliance Visible serial 51695, Davis Bros. collection
The machine you see above was actually purchased along with the trade catalog whose illustrations we've been showing.  The catalog had a letter from Ward's to one Enos Lesh, with a date of October 28, 1916 about sending for the trade catalog.  Letterhead on this is labeled "Montgomery Ward & Co. - Reliance Visible Typewriter Division."   Hand written inside the catalog is "Mar 4-1917 Enos Lesh."  Thus we can pin the date of this serial number in the first quarter of 1917.  This concern did not make more than about 12,000 typewriters from late 1915 through perhaps 1922 or 1923.

Serial numbers for known examples jump from the 41,000 range for the last of the Pittsburgh machines to a new 51,000 range for the first of the Reliance machines.

We tested this machine and found it to be fairly pleasant to use.  The type action is not strong - having somewhat of a delicate feeling - and is not conducive to exceeding high speed.  The control of backspace is clumsy, being located on the outside and pushing inward.  However the shift (which is segment shift) is among the lightest ever tested here and is a real high point of typewriter design in terms of its ease of operation.  Other controls are workable, if unusual; the paper release via paper table is novel, and the line space is functional if not excellent (it in fact duplicates that on the Emerson exactly.)

Reliance Visible, serial 60800, Davis Bros. Collection
The machine above displays two significant changes.  First, the line space lever is totally different, as is the whole line space mechanism.  More important to historians is the decal on the front top of the keyboard, which now says "Reliance Machine Mfg. Co." instead of saying "Reliance Typewriter Co." as before.  This latter name has been found a number of times in various corporate records references, but the exact date of the change in corporate name (and perhaps ownership) is not known.  In all other respects however this is essentially the same typewriter.

Reliance Visible catalog, courtesy PETER WEIL
The trade catalog cover illustration sent us by Peter Weil, seen above, actually matches the later version of the Reliance Visible shown in actual example above.

Above, we see an illustration from Peter Weil, showing the AMERICO.  This relabeled variant is physically the "high deck" version of the very late Pittsburgh Visible and Reliance Visible machines, which is far more enclosed and which looks much more like other standard machines of the day.  Collectors like these because of the range of relabelings seen applied to them.  These "high deck" variants are much less common than the machines otherwise shown on this page and were never advertised or shown in Montgomery Ward ads or materials.  Note the line space lever, which matches that on the late style Ward's Reliance Visible shown earlier, serial 60,800 and on the late trade catalog cover.

Reliance Visible - In Retrospect

Today as collectors, we view the Reliance as somewhat of an oddity.  The machine definitely falls into two brackets we seem to like to apply retroactively to typewriters:

•First, the machine was a "lower priced" standard. Many of these failed, and because they did they're not common and are thus more prized by collectors.

•Second, the machine had a removable major element.  While many typewriters had quickly removable carriages (for interchange with wider ones, as an example) many fewer makes had major interchangeable units like this.

In total, the Reliance Visible didn't sell more than about 12,000 machines from perhaps late 1915 through the early 1920's when it was taken off the market.  This is neither a total failure nor a major impact, and it looks as if the Reliance was not a make that drove events in the industry.  The sea was very full of very big fish by the late teens and early 20's -- and a recession in the early 20's killed off a large number of makers (including Fox and Victor.)

Sales-by-mail was an increasing problem around this time; early on, this was workable with lower priced machines (and helped enable lower prices by omission of sales forces and offices) but the enormous flood of rebuilt machines everywhere - often of highly variable quality - made inexpensive typewriters rather easy to come by.   Thus the "middle ground" between brand new $100 machines sold under one to three year contracts with service available at all times, and rebuilt machines for $25 to $50 which were a couple years old but solid was almost completely untenable.  This is further hinted at by Royal's move out of the $65 (Royal Standard, Royal No. 1) and $75 (Royal No. 5) range up into the true $100 range in 1914 with the Royal No. 10.  The middle ground was clearing out, fast.

(Speaking of mail order.. Oliver Typewriter Company famously ditched its sales organization in 1917, letting go 15,000 sales people and closing its city offices; the company converted to direct by mail sales.  This allowed it to drop its price from $100 to $57 but could not save the company.  It would have done better to develop a four bank front strike typewriter.  This seems obvious today, but such things were not obvious at the time in a seriously competitive market -- and some bad decisions were made.  I note this to indicate the range of actions being taken by companies in those days -- and also to note the move of the established Oliver make from the high priced bracket down into the price bracket of the Reliance Visible and of the Harris Visible / Rex Visible.)

The fine appearance of these machines when found in good condition makes them desirable, as does their somewhat unusual profile.  Typists could be frustrated by these, as they reward only a precise technique and very steady rhythm and perhaps worse they're difficult to repair.  Historians will note the connection between the typewriter and Montgomery Ward, and will engage in making comparisons between the efforts of these concerns and those of Sears, Roebuck and Harris.  The idea that a range of disparate products could be sold by, and guaranteed under, the brand name of a distributor and not the original manufacturer was continuing to gain broader acceptance at this time; it led to the popular department stores of major cities of later years, that lasted through the 1990's when their decline began.  Thus, collectors who have fond memories of shopping at such stores in days of old may particularly enjoy the department store historical connection of the Reliance Visible.

Whatever the case, while the Reliance Visible is not terribly important to typewriter history, it is a part of it and is the end of a famous and visionary line of typewriters which, in the final analysis, were not substantial enough to stand up to the heavier, more well optioned $100 machines which had sales and service networks behind them or the flood of inexpensive rebuilt machines which themselves were just older models of the big makes on the market.

For more information:

Read about the Sears, Roebuck effort to sell the Harris Visible (as mentioned above) here.

See the letter from Ward's to Enos Lesh about the Reliance Visible here.


  1. I enjoyed reading this very much. Thank you!

  2. It's great to know there are some 100 year old machines out there in good condition. It always makes me feel a little despondent when I see a totally trashed visible in an antique shop. Reading the dates and price points for these machines, and thinking about the other innovations in technologies of that era (autos, guns, printing and so on) really brings this information to life.

    No mention of the material used for the platens was mentioned, I'm curious about the 'white' platen, and what the material is. Excellent article, really enjoyed the read, thanks. ~Tom Hitt~ http://wrongwaywriteway.com

  3. this is my Reliance Visible. ..http://typewriterdatabase.com/191x-reliance-visible.2397.typewriter

  4. I have one that was my grandfathers, the reliance visible new style. Its in good shape even habecthe cover but it's dry rotting. What is it's value? Do you know, not wanting to sale it just curious. Thanks defluit7@ yahoo.com

  5. I have one that was my grandfathers, the reliance visible new style. Its in good shape even habecthe cover but it's dry rotting. What is it's value? Do you know, not wanting to sale it just curious. Thanks defluit7@ yahoo.com