Friday, June 2, 2017

Royal Portables, 1926-35

Here is the rough start of a project I am working on--a complete history of the American portable typewriter market:

Royal Portable Typewriters, 1926-1940

In the early twenties, three of the four major typewriter manufacturers had a portable typewriter in their lineup. Remington introduced the first four-bank portable in 1920. Corona introduced the first widely-available portable typewriter in 1907 (which became known as the Corona in 1914) and their first four-bank portable typewriter in 1924. Underwood introduced their first portable in 1913, which like the Corona, offered a three-row keyboard. Underwood introduced their first four-bank portable in 1926. In the same year, Royal introduced their first portable typewriter.
Royal’s portable typewriter was a relatively standard design, with four rows of keys, frontstrike action, and carriage shift. The feature that made it unique was its marketing.  While most portable typewriters had been marketed toward businessmen, the Royal Portable would be marketed toward women. As Bruce Bliven wrote in The Wonderful Writing Machine:  “In 1926, when Royal began to make a portable, [George Ed] Smith figured that it was important to introduce the junior machine with as loud a roll of drums he could muster. The first of Smith’s tricks was color. Like all three of his competitors, he had his eye on the nation’s fifteen million homes as the focus for his little Royals. He realized that the major-domo in each dwelling was a female, just as Hess had understood in 1904 that the secretary, rather than the boss, actually decided which office typewriter should be bought. Smith, thinking of the ladies, had the new portable painted in two tones in a full line of colors, from quiet buff-and-brown to brilliant green-and-blue, a total of more than five hundred combinations, including black-on-black for the ultra-conservative housewife, or the woman who did a great deal of formal entertaining.” (Bliven, 1954) Many early Royal Portable dealers were home appliance stores, as Bliven continues: “Portable outlets were, for the most part, home-appliance stores. The idea was that a housewife, looking for a waffle iron, might easily come home from the shop with a Royal portable instead, having been won over by the way its lovely colors matched her library drapes.” (Bliven, 1954)
Another unique marketing technique that Royal used to sell their portable was to drop it from an airplane. The theory behind it, in Bliven’s terms was “He wanted the ladies, in particular, to notice. But he wanted their husbands to understand, at the same time, that the machine was rugged despite its bright coat of enamel.” Over eleven thousand Royal portables were dropped from Royal’s Air Truck, a Ford Tri-Motor airplane that cost $75,000 (equivalent to $1,066,238.37, at the time of this writing (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017))[1]. Of those eleven thousand portables, only six were damaged beyond repair; the portables were dropped in their cardboard boxes, which were equipped with parachutes to guide them gently to the ground. If one landed on its corner, the typewriter would not survive. Those that landed on their edges were discreetly pushed out of sight. Ironically, one of the ones that landed on its corner was dropped on the lawn of Thomas F. Ryan, founder of the Royal Typewriter Company.
Early (1926-1930) portables were equipped with a two-part case. The bottom of the case was a slab of leatherette-covered wood, which was screwed to the base of the typewriter. An angular lid made of leatherette-covered wood slid over the base, forming the carrying case. By 1930, a new type of case, the “Duo Case” had been introduced. The new Duo-Case had two purposes; when the machine was inside the case, it served as its carrying case. But, as soon as the user removed the machine from its case, the case became a handy overnight bag. The Duo-Case was made of wood, covered in an alligator-grain leatherette. The case was lined with a light tan canvas, and the case was equipped with brass latches. Four catches held the typewriter’s feet in place, to prevent the machine from being rattled around.
In 1930, the Royal Portable was redesigned, splitting the Portable line into two models. The original design continued in production through 1934 as the “Model O” or Standard Portable. The new model took over the “P” serial number prefix, and became the “Model P.” The Model P offered several advantages over its predecessor, most notably the enclosed ribbon. It featured two ribbon covers, one over the left spool, and the other over the right spool. Both were hinged on the outer edge of the machine. The Model P also had wider styling, with visual columns near the ribbon covers and under the carriage.
The new portable had a new style of two-tone paint, which consisted of a solid color that was blended into another color. These new “duotone” paint schemes could be very sedate, from tan-and-brown, to the very vibrant yellow-and-orange. Many of these machines, if rebuilt, were repainted black. Woodgrain finishes also continued in production. The Model O could also be ordered in the same color schemes as the Model P, but could not be ordered with a tabulator, like the Model P.
            The Model O retailed for $45, while the Model P was $60. In comparison, Corona offered its three-bank portable for $45 and its four-bank model was $60. Remington offered a budget model beginning in 1932; many other manufacturers would begin offering “Junior portables.” During the Depression, Royal dusted off an older design for the P, which was patented in the early twenties, and introduced it as the new “Signet” and “Signet Senior.” The Signet was painted crinkle turquoise, and was only capable of printing in capital letters; the Signet Senior could print in both upper and lowercase, and was painted crinkle black. Neither of them offered a backspacer or right-hand margin. Both were made of easily-pliable sheet metal, and both cost less than a Model O. They were replaced by the Royal Junior around 1935. Like most Junior portables, they were rated “Not Acceptable” by Consumer Reports in their 1937 test.
            In 1935, Royal changed the typewriter market with a simple feature—Touch Control. Touch Control was a spring-actuated key tensioning device that let the user determine the amount of pressure needed to operate each key. As a result, their Portable was redesigned. Both the old Model O and Model P were dropped, and replaced with two new series—the Model O and De Luxe portables. Both were equipped with Touch Control. Both had new, streamlined bodies with a horizontal emphasis. Both still came in the Duo-Case. The De Luxe offered significantly more soundproofing than the Model O, as well as nickel-plated trim and a black crinkle finish. The De Luxe was also available in a choice of colors; these appear to be rarer than the black crinkle finish.

[1]  equivalent to $1,066,238.37, at the time of this writing in June, 2017 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017)


  1. This sounds like a great project!
    You need to get in touch with Ian Brumfield as he has many rare and hard to find royal portables.

  2. My grandfather's uncle was George Ed Smith. On top of being President of Royal Typewriters, George Ed had author, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, as semi-permanent house guests at his mansion in Great Neck, NY. That's where my grandfather met them in 1923. After that, F. Scott went to Paris to write, 'The Great Gatsby'. :-)