Attention "Paper-based Romantics"

[Image from the blog Strikethru] Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.

I launched a new weekly column on the Make: Blog today, called Lost Knowledge (also the theme of our next issue, BTW). We're going "in search of the technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those slightly off the beaten track)." The first column on the blog is about collecting, refurbing, and using manual typewriters. In the comments, a reader posted a link to this wonderful blog, called Strikethru. Their mission:
This blog heartily approves of typewriters, fountain pens, junk cameras, retrotech, Rhodia, Myndology, Apica, and Moleskine notebooks, woodcase pencils, ephemera, Polaroid, rubber stamps, and fellow paper-based romantics who like the sound of a typewriter bell at the end of a sentence.
Ding! I wrote the URL in my Maker's Notebook, using my Varsity disposable fountain pen.


  1. Gareth, lovely post. If you ever drive across country looking at old typewriter and office supply shops, could you please keep an eye out for mimeo styli (or styluses)? They’re great sturdy adaptable tools, and if you’ve got a good assortment, you can do almost anything.

  2. I’m old enough to have been in a world when Computer meant Paper tape or Punched cards. The ephemera collection of such a project needs to have the Snoopy calendar ASCII art printouts and next to the printed version both a deck of the cards it was punched from and an ASR-33 tape next to that. A bit up timeline would be Aperture Card Microfilm. Yeah- I’m for what it’s worth a halfway proficient 3M microfilm tech. The card duplicators that copied the film image then perfed the card to duplicate the master card’s punched data made sounds sadly gone from our world. And one version of the printer element was weirdly evocative of Drum Printhead Teletypes. The connection being a Snoopy “Curse you Red Baron” 1978 was punched on Aperture cards a classmate in my Freshman/sophmore split comp sci class filched from somewhere. Hounded by legacy tech to the present moment. I just filled wifey’s Zippo after dinner, then used the same fluid for soaking some Speedball nibs we found at a thrift store. And there’s a shop in KcMo claiming to have a tech trained on MCST! Damn, makes me feel ancient even though I was trained on Magnavox Videowriters some 20 years ago…

  3. Thanks, Teresa!

    Ah, mimeo! I remember it well. One of the few upsides about being punished in grade school was going to the office and being…er press ganged into mimeo-ing and spirit duplicating tests and school memos. That’s probably what inspired me to become a printer (the only profession in which I actually have any training).

    BTW: Speaking of old typewriter shops, my MAKE column and an entry in the Lost Knowledge Catalog in MAKE Volume 17 was inspired by this charming piece on U.S. Office Machines, a three-gen typewriter shop in LA:

  4. There is a difference between Spirit and Mimeo tech, Mimeo is an ink pass thru tech where Spirit is a Solvent liberates ink from that master. The detail explaining the confusion? The terms mimeo and spirit became time blurred to those who only saw the output.

    And you still can get Spirit stuff at:

  5. A disposable fountain pen?

    Do yourself a favor, buy a box of a dozen Hero 329s, give some as gifts and keep some for yourself. They’ll be $5 a piece and they’ll write better.

  6. I love my Varsity pens! They are great disposable throw into the purse pens that I don’t feel bad about losing. And now since they sell them at Border’s, I don’t have to go especially to the paper shop to buy them (which is good as I try to spend all my money there). Plus, all your friends will think you are “fancy”.

    It means I can leave my Safari at home for writing letters and notes and not worry about misplacing it.

  7. I do so agree. Despite having 4 computers of various ages and sizes in the house we also have 3 typewriters (and another to be collected tomorrow) plus a load of fountain and quill pens.

    You might like to take a look at my Offline Mechanical Blog, whose recent outing can now also be seen online at

  8. Varsity pens are the only pens I use at this point. And they can be easily refilled by carefully yanking the head off with pliers and filling with fountain pen ink.

  9. Wonderful idea for articles.

    I bought an old Arrow just last year. Works like a charm and once you know how to re-ink the ribbon, the lack of readily available replacements aren’t a worry.

    It makes me feel one step closer to being ready for the apocalypse.

  10. I really, really never got into Pilot’s Varsity disposables. I used one for about 15 minutes back in high school when I was instructed to only use ink and they’re a) cheap and b) still a fountain pen. The only thing is that they’re fountain pens to a certain value of fountain pen.

    What they ACTUALLY are is a container of ink attached to a nib so sharp it can cut rock. The bend in the nib’s pleasant for a modern pen but at the same time it’s a bendy nib and that screws up some people used to ballpoints. I found that the weirdly effective cutting device on it was a good way to scrape lose paper fibres in to your ink channel and effectively creating a thick and watery felt tip pen, the best way to get that gunk out was to pick it out with your bare fingers (the nib would also cut cloth and tissue).

    I say this as a Parker 51 user so I’m very picky but I found the Varsity would just catch on paper fibres and end up looking italic stubby marker. I went back to refillable, not disposable pens as quickly as I could. I still have the Varsity pen in a jar on my desk, still with most of the ink in it about 8 years later and I’ve never had a wish to use it.

    NB: It may have improved in the intervening years since my abortive attempt, I’ve never checked.

  11. Jim, from, read this piece and responded to the question of sew & vac shops:

    “I read with interest today your treatise on Boing Boing, including the part referring to the once ubiquitous, now slowly fading sew & vac shop. My wife and I are the elderly (61) proprietors of such a “Mom & Pop” shop, although we don’t sell vacs. We’re relative newbies in the business, having been at it only 21 years. However I can still answer some of your questions.

    “Why are sewing machines and vacuums sold together? Well actually they are no longer a “peas and carrots” combo, but back in the 20s and 30s both appliances used the same motors. It was easy to sell both devices from the same shop, and there was at least one company (Singer) that briefly made both types of product. We’ve never sold vacuums, but I have friends in the business who still sell both. Sewing machines are somewhat seasonal, as sales fall off in the summer. Vacs tend to pick up the slack at such times.

    “Why Mom & Pop? I don’t know of many other retail establishments that are operated this way. Maybe a few convenience stores, but not much else. In our case it was my wife who started the business, after being frustrated and angered by the chauvinistic attitudes of the male-dominated stores in the Dallas area. This was 1984, and the industry was already in decline. The decline was due to the fading interest in garment sewing, as well as lack of knowledge in how to do it. She was unique at the time, in that she offered classes at her shop. Eventually all the sewing shops had to do this simply to survive. The industry might have died entirely, had it not been for the introduction of computerized embroidery machines in the early 90s. That’s kept them going, but still declining. There are only 4 major manufacturers left, and at least one of those is probably not going to survive more than a few years.

    “We are somewhat atypical from the usual s & v shop. Every machine sold comes with new owner classes at no cost, and we don’t sell service contracts. We also don’t write paper receipts or use an adding machine. I set up our point-of-sale system myself, writing all the code for it. (Disclosure – I was a computer programmer and consultant prior to coming into the store full time.) In some ways we are the sewing equivalent of an Apple store, albeit a little less than .005% as profitable. Another area that sets us apart is customer demographics. Most of our competitors are focusing on the 50+ market, grandmothers who are into embroidery and quilting. About half of our customers fall in that category, but we are aggressively pursuing the 30 and under market of newbies who want to learn to sew. This is a growing market, typified by the folks found at The manufacturers have been very slow to realize this, perhaps too slow to ensure their survival.

    “Well I’m sure that’s way more than you ever wanted to know. I’m old, I tend to run on. As a “senior” I fondly remember the used Smith-Corona typewriter I bought for $50 in the early 60s. It was my first “word processor,” and I learned a lot keeping it in good repair. My father still has it, and uses it.”

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