Friday, September 19, 2014

L.C. Smith typewriter for cutting address stencils

This interesting machine was dropped off for basic service at Cincinnati's Urban Legend Institute (supporting WordPlay Cincy), where I volunteer as the Typewriter Guy.

I've occasionally seen these short-platen typewriters online, but have never before had a chance to inspect one closely. It turns out to be a complicated and mysterious device.

On the left end of the carriage we see not only a fairly conventional return lever, but a crank that moves the metal frame in front of the platen up and down. The frame is suited for holding a 4.5-inch-wide card.

The keyboard is unusual -- notice the numerals, which print the same whether shifted or unshifted.

Another remarkable keyboard feature is the "c/o" character:

The ribbon color selector is nonfunctional—it's unattached to any mechanism. Instead, the machine is designed so that when the card frame is all the way down, the ribbon is activated and the typewriter's shift is engaged. On all other lines, though, the shift is disengaged and the ribbon is out of commission.

Behind the card frame (if that's what it is) is the small platen, which spins freely; its motion is not coordinated with the motion of the frame. And behind and above the small platen is a shaft that can hold a roll of some kind.

The shaft can be removed when you pull on the knob to the right:

A narrow roller presses down onto the platen from above; there are no other feed rollers. In this photo, the narrow roller has been lifted up:

On the right end of the carriage is a knob that can be pulled to the right when you move the chromed retaining piece backwards. This pulls a shaft out from the platen, maybe allowing you to remove the platen -- but I couldn't actually find a way to do so, since the card frame gets in the way.

One more piece of evidence is the serial number. According to Tom Furrier, the G indicates a machine made for the US Government. The serial number dates the typewriter at 1937, if I'm interpreting the Database correctly.

This video shows the machine in action. Note how with the initial turn of the crank on the left, the type basket goes down (shifting to capitals) and the ribbon goes up into printing position. The top of the card frame is just behind the printing point at this stage (in other words, it is serving as a platen). Returning the carriage advances the card carrier up by three spaces, returns the type basket into unshifted position, and puts the ribbon out of commission. You can then type another 5 lines.

So how was this typewriter supposed to be used?

Here are my inferences:

• The machine was used in a government office.
• It types 5 lines without the ribbon in order to create a stencil.
• These lines must have been an address; hence the "c/o" key.
• The top line (all-capitals, using a ribbon) may have been for typing an internal memo or label of sorts about a particular stenciled address.
• The roll is mysterious to me. Was it for making carbon copies of the stenciled addresses? Are you supposed to be able to remove the card frame somehow and use a roll for a separate purpose? In any case, the roll wouldn't be very big—there just isn't much room.

PS: Mystery solved

In their comments, Phil and RobertG identified this typewriter as a device for cutting address stencils for the Elliott Stencil Machine, which was used for printing addresses on mail. See a similar L.C. Smith and the Elliott machine at 5:33 on this 1947 film.

For more information on the Elliott, see these pages from the 1924 American Digest of Business Machines.


  1. I saw one of these last summer in a Niles, Michigan antique store. Same color and double-shift numbers, too!

  2. 1937 hey?
    This machine seems to be too specific and elaborate to be only produced a few times. So I'm going to speculate that there's potentially a few thousand of these out there. That said, these machines would have been produced on contract for a particular deparment or project. Being pre-war, this machine wouldn't have been used for specific military objectives - large scale so I'm willing to guess that this was done for a major government research project.

    Making an assumption that this machine was used to produce labels for samples - and a lot of them - I decided to google 'Major Geological Survey 1937'. As it turns out, the US government did conduct a major survey during 1936 - 1937 of groundwater across the country. It also seems that there was some major flooding in Texas at the time the led to to further research in the feild.

    So.... I'm going to give a very specific speculation: This machine was produce to label groundwater, soil and core samples of which multiple samples were taken and sent to a variety of departments for assessement.

    That's all based on assumption mind you, and no real direct evidence.

  3. Back then, there were two methods for addressing envelopes. The Addresograph used embossed metal plates. The other, I think it was called Elliott, used small stencils in a cardboard frame. I think this was used to create the address on the stencil. I suspect there was a way of making a copy as each stencil was created, using a roll of 4" paper. The stencil itself might have created the image on the paper.


  4. Quite an interesting machine. I'm thinking it may have been used as the original junk mail creator. Ads were spooled from the roll and the machine was used to address the cards as they came off the roll to be sent to unsuspecting recipients so they would buy something.

    Just teasing really. I've never seen one of these before. It is quite interesting though. If only machines could talk.

  5. Very interesting! Perhaps it could have been used in libraries to make the reference cards? But then it would have to be able to use the ribbon in all the lines.

  6. Wow, what an unusual machine indeed. I think I will second Miguel's opinion, I can imagine it as a library machine meant for the card catalog.

  7. The roll actually looks a lot like adding machine paper roll mechanisms. Could be the little roll is a brake? With the paper feed, such a roll unrolls and gets loose paper. Two tabstops, are those fixed or settable?

    Maybe it can take an extra roll of paper for keeping a archiving or checking copy of the cards on a roll? (scroll?)
    Or allowing for making either Elliot cards as well as addressing on a type of roll?

    But either way - it indeed is an Elliot Stencil Machine. You can see one in operation and the Elliot machine itself also on the 5 minute 36 mark of the 1947 movie on Modern Business Machines on my June 3rd post :-)

    1. Excellent! Thanks to you and Phil for identifying this machine. I'm going to add that fascinating video to this page.