In Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, Ben Bryant’s life was changed when he met Miss Webster and she, in turn, introduced him to her neighbor, Mr. Reynolds. It was due to Mr. Reynolds that Ben got his first glimpse at what he called a “writing machine.”
What Ben actually saw was a typewriter, probably a machine like the Remington 1886 model here (click on the images to see a larger version). Like most machines of the time, the keys struck upward against the paper. The machine also had four rows of keys: two rows of upper case letters and two rows of lower case letters.
Mr. Reynolds happily showed him how it worked.
“She’s a beauty,” Mr. Reynolds said, seating himself before her, “a regular beauty. I’ve never worked one who behaved quite so well; some of them get rather confused in their minds after being knocked about on the railroad for a few weeks, especially if they are not carefully packed; but this one is as clear-headed as she was the day we left home. Did you ever see one work, young man? Then we’ll start her off.”
Mr. Reynolds spoke of the little creature as though she were alive, and really it almost seemed to Ben that she was. He bent over her with parted lips and quick breathing, amazed beyond measure, when after the lapse of a few seconds the performer lifted the roller, and revealed in neat print the words:
“John quickly extemporized five tow bags.”
Mr. Reynolds had to lift the roller to show Ben what he had typed. Early typewriters required “blind typing” because the roller and mechanics of the machine blocked the typist from seeing the page as it was typed. By necessity, accurate typing was a treasured skill.
Ben’s intelligent and perceptive questions prompted Mr. Reynolds to let Ben try the typewriter himself.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Where is the ink?”
“Not a bit of ink about it,” Mr. Reynolds declared, enjoying the puzzled face.
“Then it isn’t a self-inker? But it prints with ink! Is that a ribbon running through there? Why, it rolls itself up on those wheels, and the ribbon is inked, or colored, or something; I begin to understand. But where are the type?”
Mr. Reynolds silently lifted the roller, then the ribbon, and pointed to the type with his finger, at the same time going through a pantomime which told Miss Webster that he considered the boy’s intelligence and curiosity worthy of response.
Before long, Mr. Reynolds invited Ben to sit down and type out his mother’s name. Ben did just that, and took to the machine so quickly, Mr. Reynolds offered to teach him how to use the typewriter in exchange for helping him with his work. Ben jumped at the chance.
Ben learned to use the typewriter by fashioning a template of the keyboard, which he used to practice typing at home. He told his friend, Rufus all about the experience:
“I wrote mother’s name. I’m going to learn to write on it; that is, if I can spare the time; he offered me the chance. He wants some work done, and he says if I will give him two evenings, part of the time, I can write on the machine the other part and learn how. Isn’t that a good chance?”
“Humph!” said Rufus. “A dirt cheap way of getting a fellow to work for you, I should say. Of what earthly use does he suppose it will be for you to learn to write on that machine? In two months at the latest he will take it away, and you’ll never see another, and what good will your knowledge do you?”
“How do you know I’ll never see another? Perhaps I’ll have one of my own, some day.”
“Oh, well! Perhaps I’ll have a balloon and take a ride in it to the moon some day, but I don’t believe I will.”
“I don’t either,” said Ben, with a good-natured laugh, “because you wouldn’t know how to manage one; if you ever had a chance to learn, you would say ‘What’s the use?’ and let it slip.”
“I know the difference between chances and shams, I hope,” Rufus said sharply. “I call this a sham—to get a fellow to work for nothing. He offered it to me, and I let him know what I thought about it—at least I hope he understood.”
“I think he did,” Ben said significantly. “Good-night, old fellow! I’m at home, and, as the man in the paper said, ‘I wish you were.’ Just because you hate to walk alone so badly, you know, and have been walking out of your way to keep me company.” And Ben went in at the kitchen door, confirmed in his resolve to learn to run the writing machine, if possible.
When Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant was published in 1890, typewriters were in use in many offices, but at $95 to $100, their cost prohibited most individuals and many small businesses from owning a one.
A few years later, the cost had dropped to more affordable levels, fueling Ben’s ambition to someday own his own typewriter, and use it to make his living.