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Caught Our Eyes: Tapping Out a Giant Message

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In the era before the development of social media, how did you get a big message across?  Type it out on a giant typewriter!

Texas sized letter to Vice President Garner. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939.
Texas sized letter to Vice President Garner. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939.

Reference Librarian Jon Eaker ran across this photo while browsing the Harris & Ewing negatives online. It came with very little information. As with many images that catch our eyes, however, delight in an image prompts us to look around and discover more.

We learned that there is a related photo in the George Mason University Special Collections and Archives that gave us the size of the letter (40 feet long) and the name of the typist (Dorothy French).

And what was Dorothy French doing perching on this gigantic piece of correspondence? The Underwood Typewriter Company built the world’s largest typewriter as a promotional effort. From an article we found in the Honolulu Star Bulletin (Jan. 5, 1916, p. 7), Underwood seems to have been inspired to feature a giant typewriter at the Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. (We’ve seen reproductions of postcards from the exposition depicting the typewriter, and now we’re excited to look for it in our postcard collections!). From San Francisco the imposing machine headed to Atlantic City, NJ, to be put to work “writing news bulletins and baseball scores” for the National Advertisers’ permanent World’s Fair at Garden Pier .

The information at the top of the giant letter in the Harris & Ewing photograph and the reference to the “world of tomorrow” in the text gives a hint about the venue for the typewriter at the time the photo was taken: The 1939 World’s Fair in New York. A New York Herald Tribune article dated April 19, 1939, provides details about the exhibit (p. 11). The 14-ton typewriter occupied a central position in the Business Systems and Insurance Building, and it was in daily operation by remote control from a regular typewriter. It also apparently provided an exciting dancing surface. A New York Times article also from April 19, 1939, describes how the cast of a Broadway show pirouetted on the keyboard in celebration of the completion of the exhibit (p. 18).

Reputedly, the giant typewriter ultimately contributed to an even larger goal: its metal was recycled at the beginning of World War II, presumably to aid the war effort.

Here in the Prints & Photographs Division, our questions tend to start with pictures. In this case, a picture about text took us on quite an information odyssey!

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