.Davis Typewriter Works

.Davis Typewriter Works

Saturday, September 10, 2016


We now bring about a "first" at any of our typewriter web pages, or blogs, in the roughly 16 years that I've been writing about typewriters on the internet.  That "first" is the presentation of an index typewriter on one of my pages.

How I came by the intriguing Merritt is a longish story, but a happy one.  Suffice to say a collector to collector trade was made, and I found myself proudly in possession of a very interesting little device.  And, apparently, from what was written about the machine during the period in which it was being sold and later (while off the market but still in recent memory) the machine was a highly workable and useful device.  It was also sold at a considerably low price compared to the big makes; my regular fascination with "low price" or "cut rate" typewriters then only adds to the interest.  So, let's take a look at this machine and try to imagine a time when such a typewriter really was a viable product and was competitive on the market.  Hopefully after we're through here, you'll see it that way, as I do!


The machine you see above is the Merritt Typewriter; my example is serial number 4653.  This interesting little typewriter was put on the market in 1889, which simply for comparison's sake is the same time give or take that the Smith Premier appeared to challenge that juggernaut of the early typewriter industry, the Remington.  However, while the Smith Premier was a large, heavy and sturdy machine priced near the same $100 for which the Remington sold, the Merritt was priced at only $15 in its most basic version (the upgrades generally being the case style) and was of course of vastly different construction.

The Merritt shipped in its box was advertised as comprising a package no larger than 12-1/4 inches long, 6 inches wide and 5-1/4 inches high.  Shipping weight was 6-3/4 pounds.  I can tell you right now that the Merritt (which in my example has a nice dovetailed wooden case lid which clips onto the base) is a small and light thing to carry around.  In a word - it's portable

This machine was invented by C. E. and Mortimer G. Merritt (Johnson's Universal Cyclopedia: A New Edition, Vol. 8, 1895) and was manufactured by the Merritt Mfg. Co., Springfield, Mass.  The Merritt Mfg. Company was incorporated March 4, 1888 in New York.

A confusing fact about this typewriter is that another manufacturing company, namely Lyon Manufacturing Co., Fifth Avenue, New York became the sole distributing agent for this typewriter for the world - this appears to have led to belief that Lyon was making the typewriter.  However, the evidence clearly points to Merritt having made the machines throughout the production run and in fact a business directory from England printed in 1902 tells us that the last known entity making the Merritt was the Densmore Typewriter Company, Springfield, Mass.  The reality of what happened to the Merritt Mfg. Company is actually more interesting.

On March 29, 1893, the now well-known Union Typewriter Company, often referred to in literature of the day and later as "the Typewriter Trust," was formed.  The purpose of this company was to buy up the stock of typewriter manufacturers (with whom agreements had already been made) so as to be able to effectively control the market.  In a Fitch's Listing Statements of the New York Stock Exchange dated 1919, we discover that Union Typewriter acquired all of the properties of the Merritt Mfg. Co., which had (according to this listing) a capitalization of $30,000 and which "had manufactured the Densmore typewriter."  The listing for Densmore Typewriter Company describes that firm as simply the seller of the Densmore typewriters, not their maker.  We can now with certainty say that the Merritt Mfg. Co. became a part of Union Typewriter, and it's very possible that this had an adverse effect on continued sales of the inexpensive Merritt.

As early as 1893 M. G. Merritt himself was actively promoting the Densmore typewriter at trade fairs (The Stenographer, Vol. 5, 1893.) 

The Merritt may have actually been manufactured through 1896, as advertisements through this date (in England, at least) exist.  Advertisements in the United States for the Merritt seem to cut off around 1892; the only explanation for this is that after that latter date the Merritt was only for export.  Pitman's Journal wrote in 1891 that "The Merritt typewriter is being largely exported to Denmark, Germany, France, Spain and Austria.  Machines fitted with the necessary accent marks and special types for these languages can be obtained in London."  What's clear is that by the time of 1902 or so, persons were placing classified ads looking for Merritt typewriters -- a good hint they were off the market, and as we know likely had been for some time.  It is this author's suspicion given the revelation that Merritt became part of the Union typewriter trust that the machine was pulled after the creation of Union, the arrangements for which began in 1892 in advance of the actual Union incorporation date. 

According to Peter Weil, no official serial number record exists for these machines, making exact dating impossible by serial; nothing ephemerous in terms of a dated sales receipt even exists which could tie a serial number to a date.  This is not to say that there is not significant literature on these machines -- there is, but it was written long ago.   Luckily for us, today, we have access to much of it.

The Merritt in Contemporary Literature.

It's unfortunate but we must immediately discount that normally useful volume written on the history of the typewriter in 1923 by Typewriter Topics, as the historical entry for the Merritt is itself incorrect in absolutely every respect except for the statement of the price.  Wide quotation of this material has apparently tainted many accounts written since. 

We can however look back at the wonderful 1909 book written by G. C. Mares, "The History of the Typewriter - Successor to the Pen," which has a good if brief entry on the Merritt.  Mares opened his entry on this machine by writing "This is a very stately, very ingenious, and thoroughly workable little instrument."  Mares described the operation of the machine (which we shall describe shortly) and noted that the carriage "appears to have been suggested by a much more elaborate machine."  He finished his entry by writing the following:  

"In many ways the Merritt is the very best of the index machines."

Indeed, it has been written more than once that, of the various index style typewriters placed on the market, the Merritt was the best.  It should be remembered that these days of the 1890's saw an enormous range of typewriter designs, operative elements, sizes and prices as what we might call "the typewriter marketplace" sought to examine the furthest commercially viable extents, in either direction, of complexity and price.  It was to the lower groups of price that the index typewriters generally belonged, and these were of course generally nowhere near as quick in producing text as were the large, elaborate keyboard machines.  There seemed to be little point in producing a relatively high priced index machine; however as the lowest workable price range was approached the index typewriter was at first attractive as a manufacturing prospect and then at the very lowest price all that could be manufactured.  

On consideration of the above, and knowing that Mares himself had operated most of the many dozens of typewriters described in his book, we find that Mares' statement on the Merritt being "the very best" index typewriter carries special weight.

Index typewriters seem historically to have been, for some, that range of machine which introduced mechanical writing. While writing by machine was becoming first known and then accepted in contemporary literature it was still yet well out of reach of most people and even most companies - at least, if the use of the well advertised Remington and competitive machines was considered.  The index machines were not only far less complicated but tremendously less expensive; they provided a lower entry point to typewriting. 

This process is brought to light most clearly in a passage printed by Pitman's Journal in 1903.  In that passage, material from another contemporary magazine named "Advertising" is reproduced which mentions the Merritt in a favorable light:

"When the Remington typewriter was the only machine on the English market-- it had a practical monopoly for some years, and has reaped, and reaps today, considerable advantages from the fact -- the first form taken by competition was the invention of several cheap and light machines, designed to imitate, at a low price, some of the characteristics of the big twenty-guinea Remington machine.  The Merritt typewriter, at three guineas, was one of the most successful.  It wrote just as well as a Remington, and duplicated, if anything, better, as it had no ribbons,  The only fault about it was that it was very much slower than the Remington machine.  For many people it constituted an effective alternative.  But neither this nor any other of the cheap typewriters ever did the business of the Remington company any harm.  On the contrary, they did good, because the British public at that time knew very little about typewriters, and the cheap machines served as educators.  People tried them, became accustomed to typewriter work, wanted something better, and eventually purchased Remingtons."

Perhaps we can do no better than this passage in characterizing the Merritt.  By these accounts (and others) the Merritt was a fully operable, and useful machine which definitely produced quality work at a cost only 15% of that of a standard typewriter.  Still, as we know, all index machines were made obsolete eventually by a variety of competitive pressures (eventually including rebuilt standard machines which were available at far less than those machines' original prices.)  

The Merritt in Operation.

The Merritt is operated with both hands, although some contemporaneous accounts ("Modern Mechanism, 1892 and subsequent editions) are in error as they describe the Merritt as a 'one-hand machine.'  The indexing handle (on the example above, long ago lost or broken and replaced with a curved metal extension) is moved left to right until it is above the desired character for printing.  If a capital letter or figure is desired, the left hand is used to depress the appropriate key seen at the left front of the machine, and this key is depressed first followed by operation of the indexing handle.  Once the indexing handle is above the proper character or figure, it is moved downward and printing takes place.  For spaces between words, a space key is provided at the left outside of the machine.  The carriage is forced along as the machine prints, and is returned by hand.  A single platen knob at the right of the machine is used to effect all line spacing.

Above, we see the Merritt with the carriage in printing or normal position and then with the carriage raised.  The Merritt is technically an index typewriter, but it is also technically an upstrike or blind writer machine.  Running through the center of the machine is a trough; in that is another trough carrying 78 individual types.  When one of these is at the print point, action of the indexing handle shoves the type up through an alignment hole and to the paper.  The type are inked by two rollers; the Merritt is a direct inking machine.

In the photo above, the print point is clearly labeled at center; the type can be made out running left to right inside the machine.  The spacing bail is at the left side only, and is actuated when the machine prints; the SPACE key is attached directly to this bail.  The printing bail runs across the front, and it is this bail which is depressed by the indexing handle.  When the bail is depressed it pushes on the tang that can be seen at the middle of the machine (sort of straight in from the letter R in this view) which then pushes the type up to the print point.  The effect of the two shifting keys, FIG and CAP is to slide the entire index plate (on which the letters and figures are printed) left or right, aligning one of the three appropriate types (letter, capital letter or figure) at the print point.  

The Merritt when found with its original lid will have instructions printed on a sheet glued to the inside of that lid.  This includes instructions for operation, for placing the type in the trough, and for oiling and upkeep.  The basic case, seen here, was used on the machine at the $15 level.  Two optional cases were available:  A leatherette case lined in satin for $17.50 and a gilt-trimmed Oak case with plush lining, for $18.50.  The typewriter in each of these was the same machine.

Above, the dovetailed corner of the case and the metal clip which holds it to the wooden base of the typewriter.  

Merritt on the Market.

The advertising for the Merritt at times made some interesting and valid claims; let's take a look at some of these and offer some commentary.

•"It prints with perfect alignment."  Indeed, we know that from the very beginning of the era of competition in typewriters that alignment of the writing was critical; Alexander Brown, who invented the Smith Premier, did so because having seen one of the original Sholes & Glidden / Remington machines he was sure the same effect could be had by a different machine that could not so easily, to his trained eye, work itself out of alignment.  The Merritt has "forced alignment" - although not by use of a type fork as so many front strikes did, but rather by use of a type guide not unlike that found in another direct inking and blind writing machine, the $100 Yost typewriter.

•"It has no ribbon to wear out, smut fingers or paper."  The Merritt was a direct inking machine, meaning that ink was applied directly to the type and then thus to paper.  This printing press sort of impression was thought in many quarters to be of a higher quality than ribbon printing, and (once again) the Yost machine was sold very well on the visual quality of the work performed on it.  

Some front strike machines employed direct inking, such as the Sun Standard.
•"It does work equal to the Hundred Dollar Machines."  In this claim we may take considerable credit, as the testimonial seen earlier gives it weight -- as do a number of customer testimonials sent in to Merritt and reproduced in advertisements.  We must be careful here though to note that it is the quality of work being described and not the volume of work over time.  The company did defend itself in advertising against the speed disparity, thus:  "Speed is not the only requisite of the perfect typewriter.  Legibility, neatness, superior alignment, clear sharp cut letters in every word - thus securing better copying facilities in the Letter Book, etc. should be considered."

•"It can both duplicate and manifold - no other low priced typewriter can do this."  It would be difficult to picture an index machine such as the Hall being called upon for such work, and this claim seems solid.

The Merritt was advertised as being exceptionally useful for the following:  Ministers, teachers, insurance clerks, doctors, editors, commercial travelers, lawyers, reporters, hospitals, students at college, school girls and boys, writers of prose and poetry.

The Merritt in Retrospect.

Today we may look back on the Merritt and see in it those very characteristics assumed by that much later class of machines known well as the "flat typewriters"  -- the machines such as the Royal Dart of the 1960's whose simplicity and entry level price made them attractive for home use, for light work (as for example clubs or Church groups) and for students.  Of course, by that time, there was no need to introduce to people the useful nature of typewriting as it was well established.  Knowing that the Merritt in the 1890's served such groups draws a great parallel; knowing that it in some aspect was introductory in mechanical writing, still new in many quarters, gives it an even higher position or status historically for us as an opener of doors and giver of opportunity.  While some of this perception may be attributed to marketing, it's a fact that unsolicited testimonials as seen above put the machine squarely in such a position.  

The unconventional layout of the Merritt as compared with our normal perceptions of a typewriter is not important; the proper context in which to view the Merritt is that in which mechanically writing at all is new and novel, so that the exact nature of the machines employed to perform it is far less important than the fact that they accomplish the task in the first place.  Only with the broad acceptance of and then need for mechanical writing would there become a need for standardization and broadly for speed to meet the competitive situation; it was at that point when machines such as the Merritt or its competitors stepped aside to make way for the extensive range of keyboard machines of myriad shapes, sizes and costs.  

Though on the market only a short time, the Merritt was clearly viewed well by those familiar during its life; we may wishfully attempt to attribute its fairly rapid obsolescence and disappearance from the market not to any failing of the Merritt typewriter itself but rather simply to the extremely rapid advances being made in the market at the time. We must realistically observe the unavoidable fact that the Densmore was being made at the same plant, that Merritt went into Union, and that the owners of the Densmore eventually took over the operation under their own name.  Whatever the case may be, in a historical perspective many efforts and machines did far worse than the Merritt, and few such short lived machines are remembered to history so well in contemporary accounting. 


  1. Congratulations! Very impressive research; I didn't know that the Merritt was part of Union.

    As for "writers of prose and poetry," here's some neat information that is due to Typex, but it's more convenient for me to quote the account in ETCetera #15 (June 1991):

    The Typewriter Exchange gave us an
    intriguing story in its Vol. 7, No. 3
    (mailed out in February). The article
    tells the tale of Jessie Conrad, wife of
    the famous novelist Joseph Conrad
    (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim). It turns
    out that Jessie, with lots of time but little
    money, typed some of her husband’s
    manuscripts on a cheap little typewriter.
    She called it a “Marriott,” but
    from her description it seems unmistakable
    that it was the well-known Merritt,
    an index machine that must have been a
    real chore to use for such work. But
    Jessie didn’t complain. TypEx says she
    did her Merritt typing on her honeymoon,
    so there were, no doubt, other
    things to make her happy.

  2. Thank you, Richard! Researching this machine turned up a few revelations for me. And thank you for that neat anecdote!

  3. Outstanding information and research, as alwsys. It is interesting that the earliest versions of this machine did not have the name cast into the frame. They were "nameless".

    1. Thank you, Herman! I am very glad you liked it. I do wonder why the earliest machines are unmarked; that's fairly odd, overall, to find a large number of manufactured but unmarked typewriters.

  4. An article that merritts some thought, perhaps, even merrittorious.