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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

Downton Abbey Inventions: A Typewriter for Gwen

Downton Abbey series logo

The beloved period drama Downton Abbey was set in the early 20th century. During that time period, many novel inventions were featured on the show. Today, we may take for granted such modern conveniences as electric lights, electric appliances, or telephones. However, these items were exciting new inventions when first introduced.


This article is the first of a series of articles that will feature some of the inventions depicted on the show. For those of you who are familiar with the show, you may remember some of the scenes that will be discussed here. For those of you who have not yet seen the series, spoilers will be kept to a minimum. The focus, after all, is on the inventions.


Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey season 1 cast

Downton Abbey is an award winning British period drama television series, written and created by Julian Fellowes. In the United States, it aired on PBS, as part of their Masterpiece Classic series, which aired in January 2011 and ran for six seasons. Over the course of the series, the time period depicted covered 1912 to 1926 and was set at the fictional Yorkshire England country estate, Downton Abbey. This historically accurate drama series followed the lives of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his family. Intertwined in the lives of the aristocrats were the domestic servants, who faced as many trials and tribulations as the family they served.[1] The series was largely filmed at Highclere Castle, the family seat of the current owner George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. [2]


The Scene
Downton Abbey, Gwen & Anna

In 1913, head housemaid Anna was in her room, which she shared with fellow housemaid Gwen. Anna discovered a packing case on top of the cupboard. She asked Gwen what was in the case and then Gwen revealed it was a typewriter. They looked at the typewriter together and Gwen said she was taking a correspondence course in typing and shorthand. [3]



Downton Abbey, Gwen, Anna & O'Brien



Lady's maid O'Brien peered in on them and they blocked the view of the typewriter. O'Brien later told the butler, Mr. Carson, thinking it wrong that Gwen was hiding the typewriter.[4]





Downton Abbey servants

Later that day, the typewriter was brought down to the servants hall and a number of the staff remarked about it.[5]


Typewriters were not new in 1913, however, it appeared some of the younger staff had never seen a typewriter before. In the early 20th century, most typewriters were used in a business setting and not widely used in private homes.


Downton Abbey typewriter


Kitchen maid Daisy asked how it worked and footman William pressed one of the keys to illustrate how the letter printed on the paper. When questioned by her superiors, Gwen told all that she was training to become a secretary so she could leave service. [6]  




Why would Gwen want to leave service? She remarked that she was the daughter of a farm hand and was lucky to have a position as a maid.  [7] She wanted more. A role in service was not an easy life and involved working long hours. Working as a maid in a large country house likely resulted in higher wages than in other settings for that role.


Housemaids earned a salary depending on their rank. In 1909, annual housemaid salaries at a large country estate ranged from 14 pounds for a seventh housemaid (low rank), to 20 pounds for a third housemaid (middle rank), to 30 pounds for a first housemaid (high rank). [8]  Anna was head housemaid so Gwen ranked lower than Anna. It was likely Gwen was earning a low to medium annual wage.

 

1913 Ads for Typists in England

If Gwen worked in a business setting as a secretary or typist, she would probably work a shorter day and perhaps have time off on the weekends. She would have the potential to earn a higher annual salary. Help wanted advertisements from 1913 indicated an experienced typist could start at 65 pounds per year. [9] These factors were compelling reasons for Gwen to learn new skills so she could leave her current position.


Gwen's Typewriter

Downton Abbey, Gwen's Empire typewriter


The typewriter that Gwen purchased was The Empire Typewriter (model no. 1). This model was introduced about 1892 and was produced by the Williams Manufacturing Company in Montreal, Canada. In the United States, it was sold under the name Wellington. [10]





US Patent 630,060 Typewriter



Wellington Parker Kidder received a patent in 1899 for his type-writing machine. The typewriter design illustrated in this United States patent is similar in design and function to The Empire Typewriter, model no. 1. [11]




1903 Ad for Empire Typewriter

In 1903, the price of an Empire model no. 1 was a little over 13 pounds [12]  and this price remained the same through 1911. [13] The Empire was a reliable and cost effective machine, being sold at about 9 pounds less that other machines on the market. [14] The purchase of a typewriter was a considerable investment for Gwen. She remarked that she spent almost every penny she had saved.[15] It was not indicated if Gwen purchased the typewriter new or used, but, either way, it likely cost a good portion of her annual salary.


Early Typewriter History

The history of the typewriter in America had its beginnings as early as 1829 with the patented invention of a typographer. Development of the concept continued when Charles Thurber of Worcester, Massachusetts invented a type writing machine in 1843 having the first movable carriage. These early inventions failed to become popular. A number of inventors continued to develop the concept throughout the 1850s and additional typewriting machines were introduced with improved features. Alas, these machines also were not successful as the machines operated slowly or did not produce the desired results. Elements from each failed design were instructional to future inventors. [16]


US Patent 79,265, 1868 Typewriter

L. Latham Sholes invented a machine that was the first success. He and his associates, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, were issued a patent in 1868.[17] Further development of the machine continued and it attracted the attention of E. Remington & Sons (the Remington Arms Company) of New York. This company manufactured firearms during the Civil War and was equipped with the correct machinery to manufacture intricate small parts necessary for typewriters. The typewriter was initially sold as the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter and after Remington later secured the rights, as the Remington Typewriter. Remington continued to produce and refine typewriters through the 1870s and 1880s, however business owners were slow to adopt this new invention. Some customers found a typewritten letter to be offensive to the recipient. Other customers who purchased units returned them, seeing no business value in the machine. Sales firms made a push to change the minds of consumers and hundreds of units were placed in prominent business offices free of charge for the purpose of securing endorsements as to the machine's merits.[18] This strategy worked.


1912 Ad Remington Typewriter

By the turn of century, the success and wide adoption of typewriters in the United States, Canada, and England paved the way for numerous manufacturers to enter the market. Many American based companies also had sales offices in England.


By 1903, there were many typewriter models being sold in England by these manufacturers: Remington Typewriter Company, Yost Typewriter Company, Smith Premier Typewriter Company, Royal Bar-Lock Typewriter Company, Empire Typewriter Company, Densmore Typewriter Company, New Century Typewriter Company, Williams Typewriter Company, Blickensderfer Typewriter Company, Oliver Typewriter Company, Ideal Typewriter Company, and Fay-Sholes Typewriter Company. [19]


The Empire typewriter was a popular brand in England. In an advertisement posted in a London magazine in 1911, Empire stated that 1,500 Empire typewriters were supplied to the British government. The advertisement also stated: "The fact that H.M. Government and such wealthy firms and corporations as Bovril Ltd., Canadian Pacific Railway, London & North-Western Railway, &c., are extensively using the new Empire Typewriter (We call it "Empire No. 2") goes to prove that these firms bought the Empire on account of its merit alone, and not because they were saving several pounds on every Empire Typewriter they bought."[20]


By the early 20th century, typewriters were widely used in business settings and both men and women worked as typists.


Concluding Thoughts

As with many inventions that have been replaced by newer technology, typewriters are now a distant memory. Few remember the sound of the keys striking, the slight smell of the machine working, and feeling the impression of the letters upon the paper. While typewriters are now a thing of the past, in the early 20th century they were a commonplace and necessary piece of business equipment that improved the efficiency and tasks performed by those who used them. Did Gwen make a good investment? Did her dream of becoming a secretary come true? Watch Downton Abbey and find out!




How to Watch Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey first aired on ITV in the UK and on PBS in the US.

It is now available on a variety of streaming services.


Downton Abbey episodes are available to stream on PBS


Downton Abbey episodes are available to stream on ITVX (UK)



For More Information

Highclere Castle, family seat of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon


Antique Typewriters, The Martin Howard Collection


Sources

Downton Abbey is a registered trademark in the United States, owned by Carnival Film & Television Limited, United Kingdom.


[1] "Downton Abbey," Wikipedia  (https://en.wikipedia.org : accessed 29 December 2023), para. 1-2.

[2] "George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : accessed 30 December 2023), para. 1. 

[3] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, 15 January 2011, Masterpiece Classic, Public Broadcasting Service, PBS  (https://www.pbs.org : accessed 3 January 2024). Note, currently on PBS, episodes are combined. Original episode 3 is now part of episode 2 on PBS.   

[4] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey.

[5] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey.

[6] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey.

[7] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey.

[8] "From Servants to Staff: How much?" 12 April 2017, Chatsworth (https://www.chatsworth.org : accessed 1 January 2024), para. 4.  

[9] "Clerks, Workpeople, &C., Wanted,"  The Daily Mail, Hull Packet and East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Courier, 20 June 1913,  HTML edition, archived, The British Newspaper Archive  (https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 2 January 2024), p. 1, col. 2.  

[10] "Empire 1 Typewriter," Antique Typewriters, The Martin Howard Collection, Antique Typewriters (https://www.antiquetypewriters.com : accessed 4 January 2024).

[11] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 4 January 2024), Wellington Parker Kidder, Type-Writing Machine, patent no. 630,060 (1899).  

[12] "Empire Typewriter advertisement," Page's Magazine (London), (July 1903), Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 31 December 2023), vol. III, no. 1, p. 11.  

[13] W. T. Stead, ed., "Empire typewriter advertisement," The Review of Reviews Illustrated (London), (January-June 1911), Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 31 December 2023), vol. XLIII, p. inset cover.  

[14] "Facts you should know about the actual cost of Typewriters," The Windsor Magazine (London), (November 1905), Google Books (https://www.google.com/books : accessed 4 January 2024), vol. 22, no. 131, p. xxxvi.  

[15] "Season 1: Episode 3," Downton Abbey.

[16] C.V. Oden, Evolution of the Typewriter (publisher unknown, 1917), HathiTrust (https://babel.hathitrust.org : accessed 30 December 2023), p. 9-18.  

[17] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 4 January 2024), C. Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule, Improvement in Type-Writing Machines, patent no. 79,265 (1868). 

[18] C.V. Oden, Evolution of the Typewriter, p. 19-26.  

[19] "Typewriters and Appliances," Pitman's Phonetic Journal For The Year 1903 (London), (12 December 1903), Google Books (https://www.google.com : accessed 4 January 2024), vol. 62, p. 987.  

[20] W. T. Stead, ed., "Empire typewriter advertisement," vol. XLIII, p. inset cover.  



Copyright 2024 - Debora Ellen Blodgett




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