.Davis Typewriter Works

.Davis Typewriter Works

Monday, September 19, 2016

Oliver in Transition

Although the Oliver is one of the most famous typewriters in history, the period of time during which the original Oliver Typewriter Company in the U.S. failed and during which the Oliver was re-established as a working concern in England has not been well represented in the literature or on the internet of today.  This article will look into that period and the range of machines produced.  

The history of the Oliver, at least so far as the early years are concerned is well documented enough to warrant only the briefest of discussions here, punctuated by vintage images from Oliver's heyday.


Will Davis with assistance from Thomas Furtig, Berthold Kerschbaumer, Norbert Schwarz

•Oliver through the 1920's

Oliver envelope detail c. Norbert Schwarz

In its own ca. 1908 sales brochure, the Oliver Typewriter Company indicated the year 1896 as being the one in which the Oliver began to make itself known widely in the field of typewriters.  The company had launched several years prior to that date, and by 1896 its No. 2 model was making some inroads in a field that already had a number of large and well funded competitors.  The virtues of the Oliver typewriter made themselves apparent, and the improved No. 3 appeared in March 1898; it was this model which exponentially took off in popularity and sales and was that which moved Oliver right to the forefront of the world's machines.

Oliver No. 3; Davis Bros. collection

Going from success to success, Oliver introduced its improved and more substantial No. 5 machine in 1907.  (Even numbered machines one higher than the base machine typed more characters.) 

Oliver No. 5; sales brochure, Will Davis collection

Oliver No. 5, Will Davis collection

The 1907 world of the typewriter was quite different from that in which the Oliver had first come to prominence.  While the well known qualities of solid reliability, of indestructible type bars, of unexcelled manifolding power and solid alignment which the Oliver carried still had important sales potential, the "visible" quality of writing had already long since been not just equaled but surpassed by a number of machines on the market.  However, the Oliver continued to sell well even against this heavy competition as the world's appetite for typewriters continued to increase.

The No. 7 Oliver appeared in 1915, followed rapidly by the No. 9 in 1916.  By this time, the competition on the market was exceedingly heavy.  Visible makes on the general market were dominant, as was generally the four bank single shift keyboard. 

Oliver No. 9; Will Davis collection

In 1917, Oliver made a significant shift in its sales policy.  The company dropped its major city branches and commissioned salesmen, and instead shifted over to sales by agents and direct to buyer.  At the same time, the retail price of the No. 9 machine was dropped from $100 to $57, which placed the brand new Oliver into the same price range as the very best rebuilt standard machines.  This change actually reignited sales of the Oliver, which at the time had sold over 750,000 machines, and gave the brand a new lease on life.  

To finish our look at the Oliver Typewriter Company in the U.S. in the years of success, we'll feature a few vintage advertising card illustrations from the collection of Norbert Schwarz which depict the Oliver and some period "typewriters."  

•Oliver 1920-1928 - The End of U.S. Operations

By the time that a brief but serious world-wide recession began in 1920, the Oliver typewriter as a product was already essentially obsolescent. Worse, thousands of customers began to default on their time payments for Oliver machines, forcing the company to repossess a large number of these machines, which then had to be disposed of (ETCetera Issue No. 6, February 1989 as written by Darryl Rehr.)  In this time period Oliver would have had the choice to sell these machines as "second hand" or "rough" machines or else rebuild them itself and then market them as such.  ETCetera No. 6 is not clear on the actual method of disposition of these typewriters although it is stated that they were "sold off at a loss."  Interestingly, advertisements for the Typewriter Distributing Syndicate, which had not been seen in print since the cessation of Oliver's commissioned sales network, reappeared in 1922 offering "new and rebuilt" Oliver machines.  Since it is this author's educated guess that this outfit was the official, controlled resale subsidiary for Oliver Typewriter Company, we may finally have our answer as to the disposition of the repossessed machines.  

In the same time period Oliver's chief engineer developed a four bank, single shift standard typewriter which still incorporated the unique and familiar Oliver U-shaped type bars although moved to a position that essentially made the machine a front strike.  The prototype was delivered, Rehr reported, in 1922 but was not proceeded with.

The fading market position of Oliver's machine, coupled with the losses on machines already placed in the field triggered what would become the final decline of the company.  The Woodstock, Illinois Official Sesquicentennial History tells us that in October 1922 Oliver cut its work force; this is paralleled by Rehr's report in ETCetera No. 6 of a reduction in manufacturing at about this time.  The company did make moves to manufacture other products; it acquired full rights to manufacture the patented Washburne valve for internal combustion engines and put them in production in June 1922, while shortly thereafter the company announced it would begin making roller skates at the plant.  The cut in the work force was undoubtedly a symptom of the company's critical shortage of cash.

Moody's Manual's entry for the Oliver Typewriter Company in 1920 does not show a large amount of debt held by the company, but the company issued $750,000 worth of notes in May, 1921 (Moody's Manual, 1922.)   $50,000 of these notes were due May 1, 1923 and another $50,000 in May, 1924.  The annual notes due totaled $60,000 each May of 1925, 1926 and 1927; $70,000 each for 1928 and 1929.  The notes due May 1930 totaled $80,000 and those due May 1931 a whopping $250,000.  It must be remembered of course that the company issued these notes in the midst of the world-wide recession, which began to ease in most nations after 1921-1922.  However, Oliver's weak market position and buyback / resale of machines had more than likely triggered the Board of Directors to take on this debt in order to acquire working capital.  The gamble was that the company could recover, and pay off the notes.

It should be mentioned that Oliver did introduce a new model in 1922 - the Oliver 11, which was simply a further variation on its long-lived three bank design.  The company oddly appears to have continued manufacturing the No. 9 and the No. 11 side by side for some time, with the No. 9 being sold at a lower price than the No. 11.  Some of the debt may well have been taken on to pay for retooling to make the No. 11, or to attempt to tool up for the four bank machine, or both; the debt acquisition of May 1921 came before the introduction of the No. 11 in 1922 and over a year before the reduction of the work force. 

In March 1923, the periodical "Sales Management" carried a scathing appraisal of Oliver.  The magazine described the company as being "in the throes of reorganization," and noted that several of its directing officials had resigned.  Rumors were said to abound - among them that the banks were taking the company over, or that the company had been bought by Felt and Tarrant, or that the company was going to come out with "a standard basket machine."  The magazine declined to push any of the rumors but wrote that these events in total were "leading to the conclusion that its cut-price policy has failed."  The magazine went on:  "While it would hardly be fair to place all the troubles of this concern at the doorstep of its price-advertising and price-policy, its difficulties serve to emphasize a fundamental in business-building which is too often overlooked -- namely, that even the ablest management cannot make a success of a business where the appeal is to price alone." 

The last advertisements for Oliver typewriters disappear in 1923, meaning that in that time the machine was essentially off the broader market in any model, new or rebuilt from the factory. 

Exact details of this period are not clear; what is clear is that reporting by Darryl Rehr in ETCetera No. 6, which includes information provided by the last actual Oliver plant employee, tells us that the company had laid off all of its plant employees either by, or in, 1926.  According to ETCetera No. 6, the company assembled remaining parts into typewriters and disposed of them; this may explain why Butler Bros. was offering "brand new" Oliver No. 9 machines in its 1927 catalog at a price of $45. 

The Woodstock Sesquicentennial History tells us that in March 1927, the Chamber of Commerce of Woodstock (the city in which the Oliver factory was located) was approached by an unnamed adding machine manufacturer, who wished to acquire the Oliver plant and place the Oliver typewriter back into production; the acquisition would include the Oliver patents.  (This author suspects that the company in question was probably Burroughs.)  Nothing came of this proposal.  By July of that year a local paper described the Oliver plant as "old and vacant," as recounted in the History. 

The same source tells us that in February 1928 the Oliver company asked that the Oliver plant be connected to the municipal electric power supply, in order that the property be more attractive for sale.  Oliver had previously operated its own power plant.  Finally, on February 13, 1928 it was reported by a local paper (again as recounted in the History) that the Oliver plant was sold to Alemite Die Casting and Manufacturing Company of Chicago.

We now know that Oliver was liquidated in its entirety; the 1938 Robert D. Fisher Manual of Worthless and Valuable Securities reported that the company had declared a final liquidating dividend of 35 cents per share, and that stock was to be presented to the Harris Trust & Savings Bank.  This manual does not give the date of liquidation, but the sale of the plant and other information we will see soon tells us that in all likelihood the liquidation of assets occurred in very late 1927 and early 1928.  This then marks the end of the Oliver Typewriter Company in the United States. 

•The British Oliver is Born

The Oliver Typewriter Manufacturing Company Ltd. was registered in Great Britain as a corporation in 1928; it was formed by investors who sought to place the Oliver typewriter, more or less as it had existed in the United States, into production in Europe.  This may seem an odd choice, but some perspective lends clarity.

In the 1920's, the currency exchange rates had more or less made American made typewriters impossibly expensive for most of Europe's buyers.  This situation led to the rapid growth of typewriter industry in Europe, particularly in Germany during this time (where American typewriters were eventually banned for import).  The Oliver had always been popular everywhere, and it certainly could have been argued that the Oliver, manufactured in Europe and sold in Europe, would be a viable commercial product at that time. There is also no doubt that the Oliver name carried weight and had value on the market in and of itself, and rights to it could be valuable.

Records show that the trademark for the name "Oliver" for typewriters and parts was transferred to the new firm, which often referred to itself as "British Oliver," and of course we know that the tooling to make the machines was transferred there as well.  A spare parts catalog in this writer's collection also shows us that the British company either was making or could supply spare parts for the Oliver models back through the No. 9 model -- it had most likely acquired the spare parts stock from the defunct US firm.  All this together means that, in all probability, the entire rights, patents, tools, trademarks and good will for same were sold by the original Oliver Typewriter Company in the US to the new Oliver Typewriter Manufacturing Co. Ltd. as part of the liquidation of the former in 1928.  

The catalog also tells us, interestingly, that the new firm had made the decision to refer to the parts for all 84 character machines as "L series" and 96 character machines as "R" series.  The buyer is warned to carefully select between L prefix and R prefix parts to ensure having the correct part.  Even whole frames for the No. 9 / No. 10 / No. 11 / No. 12 were available from the company.

The Oliver Typewriter Manufacturing Company introduced to the trade its No. 15 and No. 16 machines in 1928, with the higher model typing 96 instead of 84 characters but being otherwise identical.

Above, the front of an advertising folder for The British Oliver, in the Will Davis collection and not previously shown on the net.  The folder covers the No. 15 and No. 16 models.

Three carriage widths are shown in the brochure interior, namely the Foolscap, the Brief, and the Policy.  A number of actual carriage widths was available on either the No. 15 or No. 16.

Further information on the Oliver is found in another part of the folder; click all photos to enlarge.

Above is Oliver No. 15, serial number CL-6613 from the Thomas Furtig collection.  Notable is the paper table, which carries the decal "The British Oliver."  In most respects the machine is not different in any major portion to the No. 11 made previously in the United States.

Oliver No. 16 serial 16 OA 458 is seen above, from the Berthold Kerschbaumer collection.  The model 16 differs from the 15 in typing more characters; this particular example also has its entire keyboard comprised of ringed keytops, whereas the previously seen No. 15 has character keys with solid keytops (as on Olivers of old) but shift and control keys of ringed type. 

Serial number records tell us that the new machines sold fairly poorly; the record for the No. 15 shows only a bracket of 1000 machines per year.  The machines of this original Oliver style were taken off the market in 1933, at the height of the Depression.  What we now know is that by that time, a number of other arrangements had been made for Oliver to distribute different and more modern machines. 

•Oliver Portable Introduced

In late 1931, portable typewriters carrying the name "Oliver" appeared both in Europe and in the United States.  Georg Sommeregger has undertaken some intensive research on these machines; what we present here is written in view of his findings but tailored to the evidence we have at hand. 

Oliver Portable from I-T-E flyer, Will Davis collection

The Oliver portables appear to this writer to have been made in two places at once, at least for some period of time.  The exact origin of the mechanical design is not clear, but no typewriter appears on the market less than several years after it is conceived.  It is thus entirely possible that the Oliver Portable was in the design process by someone, either in the United States or elsewhere, at the time of the liquidation of the Oliver concern in the United States.  This is not to explicitly state that the machine was being designed by, or at, Oliver in the USA prior to the company's failure, but this cannot be ruled out.  

One of the makers of the Oliver machines was Fortuna Buromaschinen GmbH, Berlin, Germany.  This company had emerged from the old Stolzenberg-Fortuna typewriter business wherein the machines had been made by an arms manufacturer in previous years.  Stolzenberg had oddly enough been the distributor for Oliver machines "in the old days." 

Fortuna portable illustration c. Norbert Schwarz

1931 Fortuna ad c. Berthold Kerschbaumer

The other maker of the Oliver portables was located in Italy.  The exact nature of this operation is not yet clear; what is clear is that an Oliver Typewriter (Italy) Ltd. was registered as a corporation in 1930 in that nation, according to the Register of Defunct Companies.  This only lasted until April 1932 when it was voluntarily liquidated.  However, the supply of Oliver portables known to have been made in Italy continued (although in other newer body styles,) so that the logical assumption is that the known maker of those machines, S.I.M. (Societa Industriale Meccanica) grew out of the failure of the Italian Oliver concern.

The Oliver portables seem to have been sold more widely in Europe than in the United States, although they were certainly available here.  We will examine some European examples first from the collections of Thomas Furtig and Berthold Kerschbaumer. 

Oliver Portable serial 3793 Z, c Thomas Furtig

The style of Oliver portable seen above is that first introduced; the labeling on the front "The Oliver" is the earliest, introduced at the beginning but simplified later.  This machine carries on its front frame the decal "Oliver Typewriter Co. (Sales) Ltd.," which is different from the Oliver Typewriter Manufacturing Company.  There is no record of this specific corporation, but in the United States an Oliver Typewriter Sales Co. Inc. was registered in 1922 and was completely out of business by 1933, according to the Robert Fisher Manual of Worthless and Valuable Securities (1938 edition.)  The relation of either of these 'sales' firms to the manufacturing firms is not clear but what is clear is that this particular typewriter carries the 'sales' company name and not a manufacturer name. It seems likely that the 'sales' firms were directly linked but separated in order to reduce investment risk. 

Oliver portable serial 69505 c Thomas Furtig
Fortuna portable serial 69774 c Thomas Furtig

Oliver portable serial 69890 c Berthold Kerschbaumer

The two Oliver portables above are quite close in serial number; however, the black machine pictured second does not have a ribbon selector switch.  The Fortuna machine is between the two depicted Olivers in serial number.  We'll continue in serial number order with our look - the varied paint colors and finishes found on this range of machines is especially noteworthy, as the Oliver portables are not generally discussed when collectors speak of colorful 1920's and 1930's portables. 

Oliver portable serial 82157 c Thomas Furtig
Junior portable serial 82926 c Berthold Kerschbaumer
Oliver portable serial 82974 c Thomas Furtig
Oliver portable serial 83631 c Thomas Furtig
Reviewing the above machines, it's significant to note that the flat black Oliver serial 69890 and the Junior, serial 82926 are perfectly identical other than the name.  These two are unlike the other machines in not having a ribbon selector switch.  The "Junior" name is clearly in the Oliver style - note the broken letter "o" in "Junior."  

Somewhere between the 80,000 and 90,000 serial numbers, new body styles began to appear.  These seem to have been mixed, so that the name Oliver appears after this time on several styles.  The single sheet flyer seen below was found in a cache of 1930's Oliver advertising material; it is undated but it clearly shows one of the new body styles -- probably, the first of the new styles.  The new body style machines are Italian-made. 

Oliver portable flyer, Will Davis collection

Oliver portable serial 90024 c Berthold Kerschbaumer
Oliver portable serial 104567 c Thomas Furtig
Oliver portable serial 112257 c Thomas Furtig
Oliver portable serial 112554 c Thomas Furtig
Oliver portable serial 119630 c Thomas Furtig
The beautiful finish and unusual color of the example above, serial 119630, should be called out as a particular exception.  Note that all of the typewriters from 90,000 and up shown above differ both either in body styles or in other mechanical details.

Considerable confusion over this line of portables still exists - for example, machines of the earliest form also appear in Europe carrying the name "Europa."  This is almost certainly not a product of Europa Schreibmaschinen, who were selling under the name "Olympia," but rather a renaming of either the Fortuna or the Oliver (Italy) / S.I.M. portable.  Europa Buromaschinen had already brought out its own design of portable in 1931, unlike the machines seen here.  

These portables, by the listings featured at the Typewriter Serial Number Database site, were apparently manufactured straight through the Second World War and to 1947.  In 1948, a new model Oliver Portable, made in England and a different design, appeared to replace these machines. 

•The Oliver Portable in the United States

The Oliver portable machines are not often found in the United States, but we now know thanks to a flyer acquired by this writer that they were sold here only through International Typewriter Exchange, a major typewriter rebuilder that also for a number of years did sell brand new portable typewriters of all makes through its mail order typewriter catalogues.  

I-T-E Oliver flyer, Will Davis collection.
The publication date on this piece is November 1931, and it's clearly stated that International Typewriter Exchange is the sole U.S.A. distributor.  Six colors were offered:  Blue, Olive Green, Mahogany, Black, Maroon and Roman Gold.  The cash price for the machine was $49.90 or the machine could be bought on time for $2.00 down and $4.00 per month until the total term price of $54,90 was paid.  At some point the brochure itself was hand marked to show price reductions down to $44.90 cash and $49.90 on time payments. 

This piece definitely plays on the original Oliver history - noting that there were over a million Oliver machines sold, and that the Oliver name had a thirty year plus reputation in the field.  What is never written once is that the machines were imported; their place of manufacture is never stated.   

The 1932 International Typewriter Exchange catalog did not feature the Oliver portable in its center section along with other new portables, but did include a separate advertisement for them as well as the venerable Corona folding machine on the back of the order blank.  Detail from that separate sheet is seen below. 

1932 I-T-E order blank detail, Will Davis collection
It must be pointed out here that this writer has not seen the "No. 4" model assigned to the Oliver portable anywhere but in this advertisement.  This is certainly a labeling applied for the convenience of the seller (I-T-E) and not something coming from the factory; however, it is certainly possible that persons buying or discussing the machine after having seen this material could have called this machine the Oliver No. 4.  Thus, although the chance of encountering this labeling or any reference to it elsewhere is slight, collectors and researchers should take note of this distinction.

The Oliver portable disappeared from the International Typewriter Exchange catalog and ads prior to 1938.  In all likelihood it disappeared fairly shortly after it appeared, and may have only been sold here for a couple of years.  This writer is aware of no other advertising for the Oliver portables in the United States other than the materials shown above for the first time. 

•The Oliver - Fortuna Mystery

It has been written by Beeching in his "Century of the Typewriter" that when production of the Oliver three bank standard machine ended, the German made Fortuna was brought in and sold, and that this was a four bank machine. While the immediate urge may be to suppose that the machine referenced was the Fortuna portable already seen, it is known from serial records that over 5,000 machines, in the serial range starting at 50,000, were sold as Olivers but were really Fortunas - and it's obvious that the portables seen earlier aren't in the 50,000 serial number range.  It seems curious that none of these have been found, but it may well be that these were in fact standard machines as one might guess from simply reading Beeching's account.  If this were true, the machines would match physically the Fortuna IV as seen below.  

•Oliver No. 20

The evidence seems to show us that the Oliver No. 15 and No. 16 were being sold in small numbers by Oliver alongside both imported Fortuna standard and portable machines made outside Great Britain.  This arrangement only lasted until 1935 when Oliver began manufacturing a licensed version of the Halda-Norden machine which, according to Beeching, had only as recently as 1929 appeared on the market in its then-present form.  Again, when the No. 20 was introduced, the No. 15 and No. 16 of the old style were dropped.

Oliver No. 20 folder, Will Davis collection

Above, front of a sales folder for the Oliver No. 20 in my collection.  At once the appeal to modernity is seen, as the machine is touted as "An ultra modern four bank" typewriter.  The machine is also advertised as "British throughout," as an attempt to erase any notion that the product wasn't domestic.

Will Davis collection
Mechanical details of the Oliver No. 20 (actually, Halda-Norden) are seen in the interior of the advertising piece.  Notable was the segment shift, with rigid arrangement that made alignment of the shift, or the stroke of the shift, impossible to get out of order.  On the right, the accelerating type bar action of the machine is illustrated.  Each of the numbered positions labeled next to the stroke of the keys corresponds to a position of the actual type bar as it moves to the platen.  Degrees of travel marked on the arc of the type bar travel are actually degrees moved since the last position.  Note that in the final 25 percent of key travel the type bar actually moves about half of its total travel. 

The Oliver No. 20 was of course available with wide carriages.  The machine was also available with two different numbers of characters typed, but without changing model as with the previous Oliver machines of the three bank type. 

Oliver No. 20 directions, Will Davis collection
Oliver No. 20 parts diagram, Will Davis collection
Oliver No. 20 serial 321093 c Thomas Furtig
Oliver No. 20 serial 477457 c Thomas Furtig
Collectors should note that the first of the two Oliver No. 20 machines seen here is in a green shade typical of Oliver machines of old; also, the instruction manual cover attempts to duplicate this shade. 

The Spink & Beeching copy of the OMEF serial number guide in this writer's collection shows production of the No. 20 Oliver right straight through until 1949, even with production being carried on during the Second World War.  

We close this look at the transition of Oliver from the United States to Europe, and the transition from three bank "original" design to conventional four bank front strike machines with a photo of a beautiful Oliver portable in Franz Pehmer's collection, sent our way by Bert Kerschbaumer.  It's my hope that collectors will begin to seek out these Oliver portables, and recognize that there may be far more things out there carrying the name Oliver than just the original three bank standard machine.  Thanks to my friends, again (Thomas, Bert, Norbert) for the assistance on illustrating this article!  (9/19/2016)  -- Will Davis.  


  1. Capital! I should note that the Model 15/16 did continue past 1935 - British Oliver produced some 14,000+ of them in a special "War Finish" model for the government between 1939-1947 (prefix EA/EB/EC/ED/EF/EH). Enrico Morozzi's got one:


    That's right around 50 years of active production for that old 3-bank design. Not too shabby at all. (:

  2. Thanks, Ted! The No. 15/16 were restarted at specific request of the British Government for military use only - thus, this isn't a competitive proposition, it's a military contract. That's why I left them out of this discussion - the machine by that point was desired solely for its indestructibility, but was flat dead as a competitive product on the market.