.Davis Typewriter Works

.Davis Typewriter Works

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Quite an Investment

I bought the post card you see below recently, and looking at it for a few moments got me thinking.

What we're seeing here is a pre-World War One view of the Entry Department of the headquarters of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago.  This is where order blanks filled out by customers are transcribed using typewriters onto forms that go to the merchandise departments' pickers.  

Now, what's interesting here is really two things:  First, we can see that all the typewriters in view are Olivers.  That's probably not surprising given the qualities of the Oliver - visible, indestructible.  Second, there could be as many as four hundred of them in just this room alone.  That's a LOT of typewriters.

Not too many years later, we'd have a view in any of the Sears working rooms more like that below.

This second view comes from the front page of a Harris Visible Typewriters trade catalog, and it shows a room full of Harris Visible No. 4 machines in the early variant; some nearer us have carriage attachments.  Look at the caption, though - "..nearly one thousand are in constant service throughout our plant."  That's a WHOLE LOT of typewriters ..  and, frankly, a pretty enormous investment in machinery.  In fact, Sears stated in this trade catalog that it had entirely re-equipped using the Harris and that it had sold off all other makes formerly used in its offices.  (Sears sold them direct by mail, as "used.")

De Witt C. Harris (shown above for the first time and which photo comes from Harris letterhead in my collection) and his brother Benjamin Harris were District Sales Managers for Remington Typewriter Company when in 1908 they decided to take up an offer from Sears, Roebuck to design a typewriter ostensibly for sale through its catalog.  As with the Burnett, Sears would buy the entire output of the factory (at least initially.)  

In November 1912, after several years of development, the Harris was put into production in the form seen below, with solid keytops like those on an Oliver and other contemporary makes, and at that time Sears began to replace the typewriters in its various offices and plants with the Harris as rapidly as possible.

Harris Visible No. 4, serial 13680, Will Davis collection.  This typewriter is in bad shape, but it retains its original solid (one piece) keytops.  There is evidence to suggest that Harris and later Rex were rebuilding their machines, and so a number of very early machines were refitted with ring style keytops later.  Note that an operator of an Oliver would have little trouble changing right over to a Harris Visible - both were three bank, double shift visible typewriters.

Here's what got me thinking about that post card I first showed.  At the time that these Olivers were purchased, they were still solidly $100 typewriters; this was years before Oliver got rid of its big branch offices and went to mail order at roughly half price.  On the other hand, the Harris Visible initially retailed at $39.80, although within a short time it had to be increased to $44.50 as the earlier price was too low (the Harris concern in fact was forced to reorganize).

So if we make an assumption that roughly 1000 Olivers (or any other big make) were replaced by 1000 Harris Visibles, we arrive at an interesting conclusion:  Sears, Roebuck and Company saved itself a vast amount of money in changing over to the Harris.  The cost of 1000 Olivers at retail at that time would, naturally, have been $100,000; the cost of 1000 Harris Visibles would have been $39800 to $44500 .. that is, IF the Harris machines were obtained by Sears for its own use at a retail price.  It's likely they were not, initially at least; the cost would thus have been lower if true.  So, Sears Roebuck cut its machinery investment down to roughly 40% of what it would have been had it reequipped with name brand $100 machines.

In today's money, $100,000 (in 1912) would be $2.6 MILLION.   And, $44500 would be about $1.2 million.  The actual savings to the company, which quite simply had to have that many typewriters in operation in order to do its work, was absolutely tremendous.  Which brings up a question:  Did Sears actually intend this when it opened up its offer for typewriters?  Did the company realize that a potentially large saving was possible if it not only sold, but used, a "cut rate" yet high quality machine in its own offices?  

It's impossible to say for sure because we have nothing to tell us either way.  However, it's also impossible to imagine that SOMEONE at Sears didn't grasp the magnitude of investment in machinery that Sears had just in typewriters alone, and it's not a stretch to at least consider the possibility that cutting its own costs was something Sears wanted to do all along as far as its own offices were concerned.  And again - we don't know this, but it sure is enough money to make you think twice about the real possibility that savings for itself was in Sears' play book all along.

But in reality, it's just a post card and these are just musings.  

Early (left) and main production (right) Harris Visible No. 4 machines.  Davis Bros. collection.