Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Fox Portable Typewriters and the Demise of Fox Typewriter Company
The previous post on this blog (which can be found here) concerned the history of the $100, standard Fox Visible series of typewriters as seen above -- which are the Fox machines most commonly found today by collectors and which are the best known. The company added portable typewriters to its lineup rather late in its history, however, and the entire period in which they were made was, for Fox Typewriter Company specifically and for many parts of the world generally a time of turmoil. This article will explore the histories of the portable Fox machines and the demise of the company overall, as they are inextricably intertwined. The story starts, though, well before introduction of any Fox portables.
1915 - The Winds of Change
It has been written in the now well-known 1922/23 Typewriter Topics compendium of typewriter histories that the Fox Typewriter Co. plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan partly closed down at the outbreak of war, and became from that point an unpredictable element in typewriter production.
In point of fact William R. Fox himself in 1915 sold out his interest in the Fox Typewriter Co., and in July 1915 a special shareholders' meeting was held in order to ask for a 60 day option on launching an entirely new corporation to take over the assets of the old, without taking on the debt -- in other words, a reorganization. This was made good on July 19, 1915. The factory was idled to a large extent the last quarter or half of 1915 according to contemporary reports.
Later, the Fox Typewriter Company's sales manager, Irving Franks, was quoted in Typewriter Topics as having said that a reorganization and recapitalization of the concern was needed in order to be able to manufacture the Fox machine (at this point still only a standard typewriter) in quantities large enough that the unit price would be competitive. Put simply, the original firm had gone broke. (The previous article discussed the complexity and cost-to-build of the Fox visible.)
By all accounts production of the standard machine resumed after the reorganization and in fact increased, at least for some time. However, in October 1916 a report leaked in Typewriter Topics that Fox Typewriter Co. would be coming out with a portable typewriter. This was the first US typewriter manufacturer to announce having, in house, a standard and a portable typewriter.
The Baby Fox Appears - Eventually
In February 1917 Fox Typewriter Co. announced that sales records were made during the last quarter of 1916, and that it was installing "thousands of dollars worth" of new machinery at its plant. This might have been taken to mean equipment for the standard, but in fact it was probably equipment for making the new portable typewriter.
In April of 1917 an initial announcement of the Fox Portable Typewriter was made, which stated the machine would weigh but four and a half pounds.
By November 1917 the first real advertisements appeared for this machine; the stated weight was now 5-3/4 pounds, with a height of three inches when stowed. Fox had chosen to make a machine that collapsed for travel - not conceptually unlike the popular Corona, which did not collapse, but rather folded. The new machine would sell at $50.
Fox Portable No. 1 in Detail
The original Fox portable, marketed initially as "The Baby Fox," was designed by Henry P. Nordmark so that its carriage pushed down behind the typewriter when the machine was to be stowed for use, as seen above in a patent drawing.
Above, Fox Portable No. 1 serial 421, courtesy Jim Dax. The compact nature of the new portable is immediately obvious in our look at a very early example. Note that the marketing for the machine was using the name "Baby Fox," but that this does not appear on the machine anywhere.
This is our Fox Portable No. 1, serial 1364, as positioned in the carrying case with the carriage collapsed behind the machine for travel.
Here is the same typewriter with the carriage raised for use. The Fox Portable No. 1 is a three bank, double shift machine with 28 keys typing 84 characters. Shift keys are provided on the left side only, with a small shift lock key above them. A backspace key is on the right side of the keyboard. This machine incorporates segment shift, and a modern slotted segment design.
The pen in this photo is being used to indicate the hinge point for the type segment mounting, which of course must move up and down to shift. The shift keys are actually both mounted on the same tuning fork shaped lever extension, which is hinged at the base where it connects to the shaft. When the CAP key is depressed this fork rotates slightly forward, pulling a reach rod under the FIG key that engages a travel stop, limiting the shift motion. When the FIG key is depressed however the reach rod is not moved and the motion of the shift is then only limited by ultimate travel stops.
Both sides of the machine mount mirror image hardware for supporting the carriage, which is easily raised and lowered and which locks in place through use of the slot and cam arrangement clearly seen in this view of the left side of the typewriter.
The machine has a three position ribbon selector below the print point, carriage release on the right side of the carriage only, and variable line spacing. The type action was intended to be quickly removed (after undoing two screws.)
In operation we found the key lever and type bar action of the Fox No. 1 portable very light, with extremely rapid return of the type bars to rest. A machine of this model in original condition fully lubricated and properly adjusted would have been a fine, fast typewriter indeed - better than a Corona 3 in our estimation. Everything on the machine is well designed and solid, and there are no "bells and whistles" or items added as an afterthought.
Above, decal found inside the lid of our Fox Portable No. 1 which appears to be the normal logo for the company (not the "Baby Fox" logo) and which is shown here for comparison.
The Trouble Begins
Even though Fox Typewriter Co. announced in November 1917 that through assignment of an agency for South America it had sold (or was prepared to sell) 6,000 standard and 10,000 portable typewriters, the company suffered a serious blow when its long serving General Sales Manager, Irving Franks (who was credited in trade journals with having brought the company back from the brink) not only resigned his position but sold all his interest in the company. This is not exactly a glowing assessment of the company's future, coming from a man in a position to be able to predict or shape it to some degree.
The next month the company announced it had increased its capitalization from $100,000 to $250,000, with issuance of stock entirely purchased by the existing shareholders. By May 1918 the capitalization had further been increased to $450,000; the company announced in Typewriter Topics that it was attempting to "build up production" of the portable typewriter.
In July 1919 the storm hit. Corona Typewriter Company filed suit against Fox Typewriter Co., claiming both infringement of multiple patents held or controlled by them, and unfair competition. In some of the complaints certain specific parts or functions of the Fox Portable were called out, while in other complaints the matter was more of form or appearance (Corona attempting in one to claim that the general shape of the front of its machine was essentially proprietary.) This action began a drawn out process that would span about three years.
Fox Portable No. 2
Fox Typewriter Co. advertisements begin to show what is known as the Fox Portable No. 2 in July 1920. These are far harder to find today than the first model.
The photo above is Fox Portable No. 2 serial 10017, sent to us years back by Richard Polt, who we understand has sold the machine. The similarities between this machine and the No. 1 cannot be denied, but Richard tells us that there are numerous small changes all over the machine as compared with the No. 1. This machine, for example, adds a margin release function to the backspace key.
Fox Typewriter Co. had only made about 8,000 of the Fox Portable No. 1 machines when it made the change to this improved model.
August 27, 1920 -- immediately after this new machine appeared -- the first court case in the series of lawsuits between Corona and Fox took place. The outcome was favorable to Corona for the moment; Six of the eight patents that Corona had filed complaint on were declared to be valid patents, and of these, five were found to have been infringed by Fox. An injunction against Fox was granted, who would continue to build machines under a bond while the case dragged on.
After only having manufactured something less than 2,000 of the Fox Portable No. 2 model, the company decided to eliminate the collapsing feature and bring out a third but radically altered portable model, which it did in the first quarter of 1921.
The third and final portable model was the Fox Sterling. This typewriter, according to Richard Polt, is very much of the previous model in concept (for example, the same key lever and type bar mechanism, and the same carriage arrangement) mounted in and on a frame that does not in any way collapse or fold. These machines are actually technically the Model 3 - this appears on the decals that are mostly hidden behind the upper row of keys.
Above, Fox Sterling serial number s12762, courtesy Peter Weil. The machine is clearly related to the earlier models, but immediately obvious is the fact that it does not fold. The logo on the front right is particularly attractive and is seen below in detail.
This typewriter then less resembles the folding Corona 3 with which its maker remained in legal entanglement, and more resembles the National machine at that time being manufactured by Rex Typewriter Company.
The above Fox Sterling, serial number 12688 is unusual among surviving machines in having a foreign keyboard - in this case, Spanish. In some printed material this final Fox portable typewriter is referred to just as the "Sterling," or else as the "Sterling Fox."
As we noted the Fox Sterling appeared in February 1921. In March 1921 Fox Typewriter Company was declared in receivership. Actual advertisements for the Fox Sterling did not appear in trade journals widely until about September 1921.
The interesting sales receipt below is provided by Peter Weil.
The receipt above is certainly very, very late -- it is dated December 23, 1921 and details the sale of "One Portable Fox #3" (the Sterling's official model number, as noted earlier) with an original price of $50. The trade-in is a Royal No. 5, for which $40 credit is given leaving a balance of $10 to be paid. The Fox Sterling was guaranteed for one year.
W. A. Papworth was appointed by the court as Receiver and General Manager of the company, which struggled on operating during this bankruptcy. In March 1922 the trade rags reported that sale of Fox Typewriter Co. looked imminent - supposedly, forces aligned with the Bennington typewriter including William H. Bennington himself were set to buy the company, continue producing both the Fox visible and the Sterling and add in Bennington's own unique syllabic/word printing typewriter. The agreed value to be paid for the company was $200,000.
By July 1, 1922 this deal had fallen through; the forces aligned with Bennington had failed to raise the capital. Papworth reported to the bankruptcy court that the operation was losing money, and that unless some sort of measure were taken to improve distribution of the products of the company it would be forced to liquidate. He reported that the factory was "practically at a standstill." By July 15th the company had reduced its capitalization from $450,000 to $45,000.
The final blows began to hit as by the end of July, the First National Bank of Chicago had been allowed to file a foreclosure suit for nonpayment of interest on a $100,000 mortgage. At the same time Shaw Association, Ltd. who owned a large amount of Fox Typewriter Co. stock took action to foreclose on another $100,000 mortgage.
In August 1922, various trade and business papers reported that by court order the property was to be sold at foreclosure sale.
The legal action with Corona still had to be played out, and the outcome is reported in the Patent Gazette from November 1922. I've reviewed the material, and in brief, the summation is as follows: Fox won back much more ground than it had lost the first time, although it was still found at fault. In the final adjudication, only two patents were found to have been infringed by Fox; one of them was a patent held by Corona for a separable ribbon drive (Fox was found to have infringed on three claims out of the original seven that Corona made on this patent alone) and the other was a patent generally applicable to folding typewriters. In all likelihood the Sterling was free and clear of any complications involving these patents, but in point of fact had the company not been bankrupt it still would have had to, in all probability, pay or attempt to pay damages to Corona based upon a consensus of profits made by Fox and perceived damage to business on the part of Corona. At this point, though, the findings were only a hollow victory for Corona as there was nothing it could get. The Fox Typewriter Company, originally brought into being in 1898, was gone.
The letter seen below was found inside the stationery pocket of our Fox Portable No. 1 which is shown in several photos above.
This letter is dated December 23, 1953 and is on the letterhead of the Douglas M. Hale Typewriter Sales & Service Co. It is addressed to a "Mrs. Groves," and in it Hale himself writes "this old style little portable typewriter is for you, provided it suits you." Hale promises to see Mrs. Groves after the holidays to tell her about the machine. The Christmas stickers on the envelope add a wonderful touch to this piece that gives one little Fox portable a real bit of human interest as it spans more than one lifetime and enriches more than one life.
THANKS TO Peter Weil, Richard Polt, Herman Price, Jim Dax. Information from Business Equipment Topics, Typewriter Topics, Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Robert D. Fisher Manual of Valuable and Worthless Securities Vol. 6.