I am not going to bore you with the history of the Caligraph Typing Machine. If you have come this far you already know that Caligraphs were a common typewriter made by the American Writing Machine Company from 1880-1ish to the early 1900’s.   The Company tried mightily to compete with Remington for top share of the typewriter growing market, but the design just did not have the ideal solution to what the market needed although it did provide useful service and made the company quite a bit of money. Eventually, over a span of twenty years, was not only beaten by Remington, but it also by a plethora of new designs in the 1890’s.   The Caligraph was a well known name in typing for those twenty years but their main relevance perhaps was that due to their aggressive marketing and competition with Remington, they made Remington better and of course there is the  basic work they did in churning out a great volume of documents, reports, and correspondence that helped shape the late 19th Century.  The Remington No.  2 just had more right answers than the Caligraph but that didn’t mean the machines did not produce a quality product.   The Caligraphs were a significant part of our early typewriter heritage and deserve collecting interest.

The purpose of this article is not to praise the Caligraph, nor is it to bury it.   No amount of fandom is going to pretend that it was a superior machine to other types. However, I would point out, solely in the interest of  fairness, that a 1894 a survey of American typewriter usage showed about 60,000 Caligraphs  in operation to about 160,000 Remingtons with other up an coming typewriters beginning to challenge the Caligraph for the number two slot.   But by 1900, Caligraphs were rapidly slipping into obscurity.  That said, the Caligraph typewriter, forced by law to call itself a “writing machine”,  is a fascinating piece of Victorian era workmanship and a very collectible, if still relatively common, if unnoticed,  artifact today.  Sellers protestations claiming they are “rare” should be ignored. There are some misunderstandings regarding Caligraphs that seem to be contributing to confusion in collecting circles.  This article, while it won’t have all the answers, is going to try to provide easily digestible information that will hopefully increase general knowledge of the Caligraphs, at least in determining manufacture dates, models, and serial numbers, in order that collecting will be more enjoyable.   Perhaps it might prevent a purchaser or two from making a mistake as well as help sellers correctly market their wares.

There is no question Google Books has provided much of the data not to mention input  provided by enthusiasts. Nothing I write here will be from secondary histories, I hate repeating others conclusions but I will posit my own theories and guesses. I looked to primary sources, or at least close to primary sources as I could find: mainly articles written in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the machines themselves, and also advertisements that appear in many of the magazines that abound in Google Books.  And of course, there are a great number of machines pictured on the internet with both informative but also greatly misleading descriptions.  And there are restored machines that clearly have mistakes in restoration that muddy the waters. Of course,  nothing here is set in stone, I will undoubtedly make changes as I learn more from the input of others and my own continued research. 

Let’s assume you already know a little about Caligraphs.  It’s not that hard to glean data from the internet but many times the data is corrupted or hidden due to errors or ignorance of the folks marketing these machines and there don’t seem to be many “die hard” Caligraph collectors out there.  Most typewriter collectors own a number of different machines, but I think specialists might now become more prevalent as interest rises. Most people read articles like this because they have one they want to know more about  or are thinking about buying one.   Perhaps someone has told you that what you think you have, you don’t, or you are agonizing over the proper decal to purchase to finish off or begin your “restoration”.  That is a common situation with Caligraphs.

One of the most common mistakes that many  people make is that they think their Caligraphs were all made in the early 1880’s when in fact few surviving Caligraphs exist from that early period.  At the time of their introduction, typewriter construction was still semi-experimental and the magic formula had not yet been invented to take the business world by storm.  Many of these early production examples would become discarded or quickly replaced as more efficient models stepped into replace them.   The Sholes and Glidden of the 1870’s may had gotten the attention of the business world but it would take the Remington No. 2 and the Caligraph No. 2 to actually get the snowball rolling irresistibly downhill.

You can read in other places  about the American Writing Machine Company and Remington and the personalities that in many ways changed the world by providing  lubrication for progress with paper, words, and numbers that caused the industrial revolution to roar into the twentieth Century.  For our purposes, lets discuss  identifying and attempting to date the models of the Caligraph writing machines.   I will not be getting into the idiosyncrasies of the machines, the purpose of this article is to help you initially identify the machines and it is not concerned with characteristics like fonts and keyboard layouts although with the Caligraphs the number of keys is critical in identifying the various models.  

pageshot of 'Browne's Phonographic Monthly and Reporters' Journal - Google Books' @ 2020-03-16-0228'47

Caligraph 1 small 1881

In 1880, the first Caligraph appeared. The No. 1. Collectors seem to like calling it the “small” No. 1.   A light machine of ten pounds, 48 characters (six rows of eight keys), and a normal style “round” platen, it typed in upper case only.  Unfortunately it was too lightly built to be competitive, especially in the business world.  However, the design  had  development potential. but it still was not ready to take on Remington’s classic design.   Both typewriters had some basic connection to the Sholes and Glidden, both were upstrike, invisible writing machines,  but already they were taking divergent directions in terms of motive power, platen shape, slug shape, and shifting carriage/or not and the number of keys. The Remington had a shift key to permit fewer keys with more characters, the Caligraph did not use a shift and relying on one key for one character.  American made a run of these “writing machines” but they just were not robust or reliable enough.  Known serials range  from 184 to 1509 and as a result, production would have most likely been for a very short period.

Cali17 001 - Copy

caligraph no 1 ebay 13

However, American  did not rest, it answered the shortcomings of the No. 1 in 1881 with the a new larger and heavier writing machine, the “Ideal” Caligraph No. 1 (some collectors appear to call this the “large No. 1”.   This machine was more robust and heavy than it’s predecessor and it’s front portion extended  out longer, although it still retained the 48 keys with upper case characters only.  A striking visual difference was the platen. So as to create a more uniform strike, the platens of the Ideal No. 1  were polygonal, that is,  flat facets were shaved onto a round platen giving the platen a distinctive multi-faceted effect.   Known Serials range from 1686 to 4023.  The range of serials suggests, at least until new serials are known that would prove otherwise,  that the Ideal No. 1 took up where the smaller original No. 1 left off.  It appears these new machines may have only been manufactured 1881-1882 although American left the No. 1 Ideal in it’s advertisements into the 1890’s.  One explanation is that sales were very slow, perhaps due to the success of the next incantation of the basic design.

caligraph 2 1881

The No. 1 Ideal was a significant improvement over the smaller No. 1 but American knew that they needed lower case letters also to go with the capitals if they were going to compete in the business world. Following very close to  the Ideal Caligraph No. 1  was what became the flagship of the American Writing Machine’s production line for ten years, the Caligraph No. 2.    In appearance this machine was similar to the Ideal No. 1 , but it was far more capable.  The significant identifying difference between the Ideal No. 1 and No. 2  was that the No. 2 was larger,  having to host 72 keys.   The large number of keys, still in six rows but with twelve keys per row,  now allowed for both upper and lower case letters and did not need a a shift key.  With this machine American had a true mass producible typewriter, err, writing machine (sue me).  The No. 2  was aggressively marketed to the business community and would get in Remington’s face and challenge it  where a growth market was by now clearly recognized.  Known serial numbers so far for the No. 2 finally show a commercially profitable  machine in terms of production with observed serial numbers running  from 5592 to 38287 and with a unverified 1895 government document (unverified as to the accuracy of the  document) stating the existence of a No. 2 with serial number 5543.  Production ran approximately for ten years from late 1881 (there is confirmed sales of No. 2’s at or just prior to December 1881)  to either 1890 or a few years later. It is not confirmed if production ran concurrently with the model that followed it. The serial numbers suggest that American did not want to start No. 2 serials over with low serial numbers so unless a low No. 2 pops up it appears that the No. 2’s started with serials that followed Ideal No. 1  production which stopped. The open question now is how high Ideal No. 1’s went and how low No. 2 came down to meet them.  Around 5,000?  Only time will tell as more Caligraphs are identified and documented.  What is relevant to collecting is that if a Caligraph has a number that crosses the line to Ideal No. 1 production that appears to have ended in the 4000’s and has more than 48 keys, you might want to look a little harder at it and examine it closely for an asterisk * in front of the serial…more on that later.  Considering the comparison of serial numbers and the numbers claimed to be in circulation,  American has been  suspected of running up the numbers to appear more successful than they really were. Their claims in numbers in use appear inflated,  but it appears highly probable around 33,000 No. 2’s were manufactured with numbers running from 5,000 to over 38,000. At 80 dollars per machine that computes to well  over two million five hundred thousand dollars, which was the about same as the price of construction of the first steel battleship of the United States Navy, the USS Texas, commissioned in 1895.  Adjusting for inflation that is over seventy one million dollars in 2020.

caligraph 3 1881

At this stage what may be a unicorn makes an appearance.   It is known through a drawing in an 1881 trade catalog page above  provided by collector-historian Peter Weil  as well as to period acknowledgements and ads proving it’s existence. Yet there is no known example extant.  Perhaps  this article will help smoke one out.  It may be the rarest of all Caligraphs and most collectors don’t seem to be aware of it (if you have one, call me FIRST and I will offer you a token sum for it).   Calling it a unicorn is a misnomer, it certainly  existed to fill a  niche market for a extra heavy duty “manifolding” machine, one that could produce numerous carbon copies.  To work in this market it  had a keyboard of 54 characters (numbers were apparently  added to permit fractions) and it was called the No. 3 and featured  six rows of NINE keys.   Not much is known of it, only that it appeared early and then eventually disappeared.   If there is one survivor it would be surprising as it probably had no secondary use after whatever business it was used in no longer had a use for it.  Certainly it would be of significant collector interest, but that is if course relative. Some machines are very rare but so insignificant historically they create little interest in the collecting community.  As for serial numbers…we need a single surviving machine or a confirmed reference to give us a clue if they were included in the No. 2 serial range or had their own serials or perhaps filled the gap between the Ideal No. 1’s and the No. 2’s.

1886 Advertisement. 1886  Advertisement1888 Advertisement.

caligraph2 speed

Many typewriters can be dated due to known references to serial numbers when a machine is purchased.  Not so with the No. 2’s.  We know about when the No. 2’s were started but so far not one record has turned up confirming a particular date in which we can peg the dates of  manufactured or sold  No. 2’s. About all that can be done is estimate yearly production with division of the known serial numbers. We do not even have a serial start date number for the machine. We know the machine’s production started sometime circa 1882, probably around serial number 5,000. We know the production ended 1890-94.  One clue about dating No. 2’s is the type of keys they used.  When first introduced, No. 2’s use the same type of metal ringed keys as the No. 1’s. However, sometime after serial  13,995 they started appearing with ebonite/vulcanite keys with paper characters covered by a celluloid cap.  Serial 17077 has the “new” type keys.    So it is possible that initially No. 2 production started out strong, perhaps went through a downturn and then caught up again with typewriters using the new type (2nd type) keys.  These 2nd type keys are usually brown with age due to the celluloid deteriorating. The second type key was used into the 1890’s, but sometime in the early 1890’s a third type key was introduced, a solid vegetable Ivory key with engraved numbers, (and then possibly with the Caligraph Number 4 (perhaps with late 2’s and 3 Specials)  hexagonal shaped vegetable ivory keys rather than round).   One No. 2 serial number 37295 has the third type solid rounded keys so production probably did continue possibly as late as 1894 (note that all No. 1’s despite still advertised in the early 1890’s still show only 1st type early 1880’s metal keys). However, this does not help much in identifying types because the keys seem to be associated various periods of production rather than models, so I will leave the keys at that.    With the advent of the Caligraph 4 in late 1894 it is almost certain that production of the No. 2 had ended as the Caligraph 4 signaled the end of the following development to the No. 2.  I am deliberately avoiding any reference to a No. 3 (except for the unicorn above)  at this time; the reason will be made apparent three paragraphs down.

British caligraph spain for article

American aggressively pushed the Caligraph in front of the  the public eye as much as possible.  One way to do that was to go to venues and engage in contests so as to publicize the machine. No doubt any failures would not be recorded by the Company but successes were another matter.   A Caligraph 2 went to the Paris Exposition in 1889 as Caligraph attempted to tap into foreign markets. A production or an outlet facility in England was established  and there is mention of Spanish sales, the above Caligraph 2 Coventry marked came from Spain.  The French Caligraph drawing shown below  suggests that the name Caligraph was on the machine at the Exposition but there is a question of whether this was just a marketing “marking” or something different from the typical Caligraph red curtain (or banner?) decal.    The majority of Caligraphs today are seen with the familiar red curtain (or banner?)  decal and there is a question of when  the shield became “standard”.  Clouding the situation is the issuance of attractive matching decals that are used in restorations or to replace missing original decals.  Decals are just not definitive in dating or identifying models as a result of increasingly accurate replica decals.   

1889 Advertisement.  It appears Caligraph’s nose was getting longer.

paris exposition 1889

From a French Caligraph article circa 1888-9:

caligraph pageshot of 'Genie Civil -

In a February 1892 advertisement  a  company going into the new business of refurbishing and renting or reselling used typewriters listed the used typewriters it wanted to buy and was specific as to the serial number ranges that would get the best or the least money.  It can be assumed that the earlier the serial number meant the older and less desirable the machine.  The company, TYPEWRITER HEADQUARTERS,  listed the following serial number ranges for the Caligraph 2 that it would buy and the prices it would pay:   “Caligraphs (No. 2) above 30,000, $35; above 20,000, $18; above 15,000, $22; above 7,000 $19;  Caligraphs (No. 3) $37”.   This advertisement only proves one thing, that the No. 2 production was at least in the 30,000 serial range at the end of 1891 if it was continuing at all.  However, it also suggests that the Company was only willing to go back in time with Caligraphs only so far.   It is an open question if the No. 3 Caligraph reference was to the old No. 3’s with 54 keys, our current unicorn, or perhaps just to used a new type Number 3 that started production in 1890.

caligraph no. 2 labeled for article

  • Caligraph 2 serial no no special characteristics

Photo of serial number courtesy Eric  Lukomskiy

With the final sentence of the last paragraph  things are now going to start getting confusing.  While  Caligraph No. 2 was at least a relatively successful machine and Caligraph was still in business with profitable sales, improvements to the Remingtons and new machines from other competitors, including one from the originator of the Caligraph, Yost,  were coming on the market to cash in on the demand for new and more effective typewriters, especially business typewriters. While there were still some resistance in state and local governments that still preferred the grace of the hand written word, business and the national government was clearly in tune with the advantages of the typewriting.   Remington especially had the largest market share, American Writing Machine was number two, although a distant number two, and it could feel the pressure from below from newer designs. However, American was not prepared or able to come up with an entirely new machine, so it opted to improve the No. 2 in such a manner as to justify an improved model as well as perhaps reduce production costs.    The result was, drum roll….the New Caligraph No. 3 “Special” with 78 keys, which was unleashed to the market in 1890.  So the reign of the No. 2 ended in 1890, it’s exact production end date is unknow (1890-1894?) but it would still remain on the books along with the Ideal No. 1, perhaps as a manufacturing ghost but still being sold due to excess inventory.

caligraph 3 ad new special

At some risk, I will try to make the transition from the No. 2 to the New Caligraph 3 Special easy.  If you browse the internet you will find references and pictures of purported Caligraph No. 3’s with 72 or 78 keys, most of which lay claim to be early production Caligraphs and dating to the early 1880’s.  Well to misquote a line for a film or television show I can’t completely remember or I just made up, “Ain’t no way no how!”.  If you remember one thing in this article, it is  thar’ weren’t no Caligraph No. 3’s with more than 54 keys in the 1880’s, all No. 1’s had 48, all No. 2’s 72, and all 3 Special and 4’s, 78. I admit I have heard mention of a wide carriage No. 3 in 1889 but I have not confirmed it and it may have just been close to concurrent with the No. 3 Special of 1890, the only way to tell would be to see one.  There is also a mention of a wide carriage No. 2 about the same period but Caligraph did not seem to push them in their  national advertising. 

caligraph 3 special characteristics

What was so special about the New Caligraph No. 3 Special?  Several improvements, mostly relatively subtle and not helpful for instant identification EXCEPT for two exceptions, 78 keys (instead of 72 keys for the No. 2) in six rows of 13 (the No. 2 having six rows of 12) and for the more mathematically challenged (it can get tough counting those keys) the quick difference was the  lift frame/support around the platen which was  a single  curved rod rather than two rods attaching to a perpendicular cap as could be seen on the No. 1’s, 2, and the unicorn 54 key 3.  This will jump out at you immediately, and if you see the curve think 1890’s, not 1880’s. One explanation for the curved frame/support around the platen was that the 3 Special had an easy change platen system, a softer one for regular use and a harder one for serious manifolding.  It is also advisable to use the term 3 Special when discussing 1890’s production rather than merely 3, although by the later 1890’s “3” was being commonly used for the 3 Specials.

caligraph 3 special serial number lighter

But what about those low, low serial numbers?  The lowest serial number I have found so far for the New Caligraph 3 Special is *377.  The low serial number can trap the unwary into thinking it is an 1880 or 1881 machine unless they are aware of the existence of an asterisk.  The asterisk de facto means a new serial range in the decade starting with 1890 for the No. 3 Special and the follow on No. 4.    Serial numbers I have noted on these machines are (I would appreciate it if you sent me yours) *377, *608, and *5404.  These are all 1890-1894 serial numbers as this machine was made for about four years when the Caligraph 4 came out in a last ditch attempt to modernize the design with a fully rounded platen and a few minor improvements.   There is one invisible fly in the soup, however. In 1892 American came out with a Caligraph No. 3 Special “Brief” typewriter, especially made for legal paper and increased manifolding, I can only assume it may have had a longer carriage.  If one appears, we will know more but it probably was still in the serial number range for the regular Caligraph 3 Special. Another fly that has turned up is a what appears to be a late Caligraph 3 with what appears to be an original decal marked as a 3 with serial number 10,574 and no *. This may be an overlap with the No. 4 production utilizing remaining parts but we need to see more Caligraphs of this mid 1890’s era.

caligraph 4 1895

It was estimated in 1894 that approximately 60,000 Caligraphs were in circulation as compared to about 161,000 Remingtons; 37,000 Smith Premiers followed as did other types. The numbers seem to be pushing a bit for Caligraph, but Caligraphs had made rather extravagant claims of customer use, although it does appear their typewriters were widely used.    In 1894 American made improvements on the 3 Special  to keep up with the Remingtons and other newer generation typewriters that were making it look seriously obsolescent. The No. 2’s were history now. The Caligraph No. 4 was the embodiment of all that was good about the Caligraphs with some new features (one major one being a smooth platen) but it appears it wasn’t  much more than a spruced up No. 3 Special still with 78 keys and the serial numbers appear to show that they picked up the Caligraph 3 Specials but it “appears” they dropped the *.  I think one could say the No. 4 was a bridge to their next effort, The “New Century” model which was sufficiently different enough to not cause identification confusion with it’s older associates.  The start date on serials for the 4’s  is currently iffy as more 3 Special and 4 machines need to be examined to determine the 1895 transition number from 3 Specials to 4’s.   In any event, it appears that No. 4 serials run from at least 8574 to 14501 from known numbers of examples. Many of the No. 4’s turn up in government reports so the government may have still been a good source of revenue for American.  This suggests the total number of Caligraph 3 Specials and  4’s  produced from 1890-1898? to be around 15,000 in total. One begins to see a picture of Caligraphs not being produced in the numbers suggested by American, with about 53,000 perhaps from 1881 to 1898 with revenues from production totaling about $4,500,000 over this span.  This may just reflect the US market, but although there were foreign sales through the branch “factory”  in Coventry, England, little is yet known about these machines.  What appears to be a 4 selling out of Germany is serial number 10,574 (no *).

Ready for a test? Naw, you read the article, you don’t need no stinkin’ test. Have fun with your Caligraphs.

Acknowledgements:   Special mention must be made with my thanks for information provided by Collector Eric Lukomskiy  and Collector/Historian Peter Weil.   However,  neither gentlemen is responsible for the poor writing, including the  wild  conclusions and theories that I have put in the article, that is solely on my head.  An additional acknowledgement  is made to Mike Brown and the Typewriter Exchange Newsletter for the serial number data pertinent to Caligraph No. 1’s.

Al Sumrall

Copyright Alan K. Sumrall 2020





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