direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing

Beans, Trees, Socks, Calculators: All Into The Funnel

DAV has granted me membership to the Commanders Club.

The fundamental logic of customer acquisition mail is like starting my snowblower this morning. Gas up, pull out the choke, prime the cylinder and yank the cord. After a moment’s belch of smoke, I can turn off the choke, and the machine settles into a nice, steady RPM.

In direct mail, the sales funnel is a similar process: first overwhelm your prospect, at some expense, then convert them to a repeat with a follow up, and then funnel them into a steady revenue stream.

So I have kept track of my personal response funnel with a few regulars.

Arbor Day will reforest my yard, many times over.

Arbor Day
They are looking for a conversion. Last time I wrote, I reported to you that I had giddily responded to their acquisition piece, ordering 10 spruce trees, and 2 lilacs, with the hope of getting a year’s supply of coffee beans. Well, the coffee beans got me, but I didn’t get them. However, I did get a follow-up mailing, profusely thanking me for the spruce and lilac order. In this mailing they furnish a colorful mail order tree catalog, a newsletter, member card and a free red maple tree with my order.
The tree is 3-4 feet high.
I haven’t the heart to explain I have 17 trees on the lot now. I am still wondering where to put the spruces and lilacs.

Paralyzed Vets sees me bagging my groceries at attention.

Paralyzed Veterans of America
This should be a win back. I haven’t responded to them in the last few years, so they are gracing me with a patriotic tote bag. Actually, they have forgotten who I am, or was, and are introducing themselves. This is a gap in their database. The tote is enclosed, shrink-wrapped.

American Legion’s zip strip. A lesson here: it tears best when with, not across the grain of the paper envelope.

American Legion
This is a win back, delivered as a questionnaire. It comes in a large orange flat, 10″ x 13″, opens with a ‘zip strip’ and presents a set of rhetorical opinion questions which are, as designed, hard to say ‘no’ to. I haven’t given to the Legion in a couple of years. The labels they offer as a freemium unfortunately misspell my name.

A modest, business-like presentation from the VFW. The solar calculator works to 7 decimal places.

Veterans of Foreign Wars
This is a conversion kit, and I am flattered that they have already made me a Gold Circle member. I don’t think I quite deserve that. However, they do, and have sent me a 12″ x 14-1/2″ flat containing a monogrammed desktop calculator, pen and notepad. The calculator works, and my traditional test is ‘PI‘, 22/7 = 3.1428571 which goes to the 7th decimal place. With PI, that’s far enough. They optimistically ask our mailman to deliver to our front door. Good luck with that!

DVNA equips my office with everything but a lawyer.

Disabled Veterans National Foundation
This 12″ x 14-1/2″ faux kraft flat is like a postal trunk sale. It is an acquisition piece. Inside I get the motherlode: a pocket calculator in its own wallet–goes to the 7th decimal place– two pens, a monogrammed 15 month calendar, with silver-edged pages, three greeting cards and envelopes, and a check made out to me drawn on the Bank of America for $2.50. I am verklempt.

DAV’s renewal kit bespeaks lower cost. They have me now.

Disabled American Veterans
This is a renewal notice to the DAV’s Commanders Club. A kraft #9 stuffed with a member card, a small note pad, some tastefully designed stickers, a prayer card, and a certificate stating I am an Illinois Silver member. The preferred ‘ask’ is $50. This kit is confidently on cruise control.

Father Flanagan’s “Acknowledgement”: I envision Spencer Tracy suggesting I try a little harder.

Father Flanagan’s Boys Home “Boystown”
This 8-1/2″ x 12″ kit is as thick as a breadboard. It is not an acquisition piece, because I am a repeat donor, so I put it up to their attempts to get a bigger gift from me, like $60. They send along a wall calendar of the cosiest Sam Trimm bird paintings I have ever witnessed, plus a 30-page puzzle book–21 games, answers on the back page–, a pocket calendar, a one-page, at-a-glance calendar, a 16-page daily planner, a Certificate of Acknowledgement–which I don’t want to over analyze, but I think it really means ‘you can do better’– a second 2018 calendar, with a personalized street sign, two sheets of address stickers, and of course, a letter displaying some gift certificates worth $60 that I should fund.

My Aunt Betty would have liked these.

Father Flanagan..Again
I did not respond quickly enough to the kit above, so Father Flanagan sent me a 6 x 9 reminder stuffed with blank greeting cards. I should point out to the folks at Boystown that these cards are pretty close to what my sadly belated great aunt would have mailed upon occasion, rest her soul. They have hearts, flowers, birds, and butterflies. Again, I should not over-think this, but it’s possible Father F believes I am my aunt.

Lakota designed hosiery. We all need socks.

St Joseph’s Indian School
I have difficulty thinking I am not a “renewal” with these folks. But darn it, they are still working me up with a shiny, red-foiled, hard sell on a ‘triple-up’ mailing. An anonymous benefactor will triple my gift. They would like $25 which will balloon to $75. While this is reminiscent of the stock market, up until last Monday, I am even more impressed by the very snazzy pair of socks which they have included for me. Many may have lost their shirt on the Dow Jones this week, but by golly, I have my socks.

I have to return to snow blowing.  My feet are warm.

Thanks for reading!  If you are interested in these organizations, especially their financial efficiency and clarity, you can check them out at Charity Navigator, Give.org or at their website:

Arbor Day, The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign wars, Disabled Veterans National Foundation, Father Flanagan’s, St. Joseph’s Indian School.

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Culture, direct mail, Environment, Government, Marketing

Don’t Leave The Lights On

Got a light?

Just a few days ago we received a handy tool from ComEd, our power supplier. We have a light bulb guide.

ComEd’s 3 steps to lighting your home.

What seems like 10 years back, somebody governmental decided unilaterally that we should do away with those high-energy-consuming incandescent bulbs which we have been using since Edison. No longer would we squint in the warm glow of a 60-watt bulb while reading the newspaper.

This was because someone, probably in Shanghai Xiangshan, thought we were better off screwing mini-helical fluorescent bulbs into our light sockets. Touted as energy-saving devices, the ‘cool light’ replacements would use less electricity, and last 5 times longer. Incandescents all but left the market, unless you looked in an old variety store off a back road.

So we were prodded into changing out all the old bulbs.

The bright idea: mercury infused fluorescence!

Once all the houses in America were transitioned over to the helix models, then the mercury sleuths woke up, and said we could not dispose of the bulbs. Because after all, they do burn out eventually, and to my disappointment, faster than claimed. But who’s going to China to file a complaint?

Terrific!

So now the incandescents have returned, like swallows to Capistrano.

From watts to lumens. At the speed of light.

But at the same time, another Edison protege has risen, to suggest disposing again of all incandescents in favor of LED bulbs.  The light-emitting-diode bulbs are very efficient indeed.  Not only do they use less power, but they are also blindingly brilliant.

ComEd has taken the initiative in nudging the switch along by mailing us a helpful little card.  On one side, it converts incandescent strengths to LED, which is like shrinking a bagel to a Cheerio.

It goes from watts… remember him? ..to lumens, which is like from energy consumed to instead, brightness delivered.

A Canadian bookmark for the 1970s, still in use today.

But before I go any further, I just want you to consider a similar transition from ancient Canadian history.  Back in 1973 the federal government, of course, decided to change from Imperial measure…remember the Queen?… to metric.   This was purportedly to rationalize and expand Canadian exports to the non-U.S. metric world of commerce.

I think the real reason was to hoodwink the car-owning public.  We shifted gas prices from 45 cents a gallon to 15 cents a liter overnight– without a shred of understanding.  To further bamboozle the public, the government then commanded that car fuel efficiency should shift from mpg, miles per gallon to… kilometers per liter?….no wait for it,  liters per 100 kilometers!

What the heck is that?

Lenticular: lighting your home, as Kelvin would like it.

Not un-coincidentally, while this huge shell game was in process, the Feds decided to start a government-owned company called Petrocan to sell us gas for our cars!  They bought up all the Sunoco stations, changed the signs, and raised the prices like great Caesar’s ghost.  We didn’t have a clue.

So back to ComEd, which so far is not a government entity.

Lord Kelvin

The other side of the ComEd lightbulb card is a lenticular lens which shows you what your home will look like using LED lighting.  It’s pretty clever, and a great device for direct mailers to use.  When you wiggle the card, it changes the brightness of the living room pictured on the card.

You have three exposures: DAYLIGHT, SOFT LIGHT and BRIGHT WHITE.  Below each setting a number tells you what the bulb’s color temperature is, in…Kelvin?…remember him?

Of course you do.  Water freezes at 32′ Fahrenheit, or 0′ Celsius, or 273Kelvin.

Anyway, we now have a card to buy the right bulbs, defined by lumens and Kelvins.

The only remaining question, how many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?

 

Thanks for reading!  Please illuminate your friends by sharing!

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Agriculture, Culture, direct mail, Fundraising, Wildlife

The Forest, The Trees, Or The Beans?

It’s not a secret any more that I enjoy reading direct mail. Not much of a life, you might suggest. Still, it guarantees a walk to the mailbox everyday, and a chat with our favorite USPS mail carrier.

My current discovery revolves around the offer I could not refuse, straight from the Arbor Day Foundation.

These good folks in Nebraska City, Nebraska are on a mission to blanket the country in a thick, variegated quilt of forests.  So when they selected me to represent a small portion of the people in Illinois, I was hard pressed to decline.

Why?

Premiums often trump the original product offer for appeal.

It is a fact that in many successful direct mail offers, it is not the product that gets the sale, but the premiums which come along with good behavior.  Good behavior in this case is responding quickly, and munificently.  In other words, pay up, fast.

The survey is a powerful engagement device, selling all the way.

In return for my promptness, albeit somewhat stingy in retrospect, I might receive Arbor Day’s special rainforest, cool-shade-grown coffee for a year.  Wow!  I am supporting Starbucks right now, but I can be swayed.

It was with this initial buzz on my coffee nodes that I rushed to complete the Arbor Day Tree Survey, carelessly pushing aside any concerns about what would happen next.

The Arbor Day Tree Survey for Illinois is an excellent example of powerful sales rhetoric.

It helps that I am a tree lover.  We live on a third of an acre, and have 17 trees.  I feel rich, and enjoy the annual blooms, the blossoms, the pollen, the seed drops, and the mounds of leaves I rake.

Arbor Day is celebrated nation-wide, thanks to the Foundation’s efforts.

I think the survey deftly gets all the right answers from me.  It lulls me into a positive frame of mind.  I race through the harmless queries.

They ask, ‘have you ever climbed a tree?…when you were a child, did you ever play under or amongst the trees?… did you ever collect leaves, acorns, or pine cones for a school project–or just for fun?’

These questions are softballs, and I hit them all out of the park.  “Yes!  I climbed a tree!  I lived in a tree!…I built a small condominium in a tree!..Yes! I played under a giant Beech as a child!…Yes! I just finished a vast collection of leaves with my grandson!  Yes!  Yes! I did all of that!”

Sophie’s Choice: pick one. But how?

These are soothing thoughts.  For a moment, I slip into a gauzy reminiscence of TV’s defense lawyer Ben Matlock, asking woodsy questions in his unassuming, folksy manner.

But that reverie is smoothly swept aside by a troubling vision of Patrick Jane, the thoughtful, boyish, enigmatic Citroen-driving sleuth in CBS’s TV show, “The Mentalist”.

The questionnaire asks,  ‘Which ONE of the following is the single most important function of trees:    Providing shade?  Providing oxygen? Being a source of beauty?  Absorbing carbon dioxide?  Filtering water? Saving energy by cooling our homes? Providing habitats for birds and animals?’

Like, how to choose?  This is some kind of arboreal Sophie’s Choice, with the bark left off.

The motherlode of premiums: plant your own forest!

Really, the questionnaire does focus the reader to the countless benefits provided by a our forests, here and around the world.  So kudos to Arbor Day for the survey approach.  It segue’s to some opinion questions, and then asks for a donation which opens the gates for premiums.  Big premiums.

Because I have asked for them, I will be receiving 10 Norway Spruce Trees, 2 Fragrant Purple Lilacs, a copy of The Tree Book, and a Rainforest Rescue Calendar.

And the coffee, for a year, I hope.

It turns out that the coffee offer is part of a sweepstakes.  The fine print is found on the inside of the envelope.  500+ words in 10-point sans serif type, arranged in block paragraphs with no indents.  My hopes of those rainforest-cool-shaded coffee beans are evaporating like dew drops on a hot car hood in July.

The 10 x 14 envelope costs extra, but its impact, complete with faux label does the job: it gets opened.

Speaking of envelopes however… I do applaud the package.  It measured 10×14 inches, for no good reason other than to dominate the mail box, and to get my attention.  It was printed to look like brown kraft.  A knockout on the face presents the image of a label, but looking closely I find it is a varnish over the original white stock, masterfully done.  This kit looks impressive, official, and urgent.

The power of data-driven variable imaging: customization.

Inside, there is a personalized letter, and it has a personal note referring to the spruce trees, just right for Libertyville, IL.

Alongside, I find a set of address labels, which are pretty much table stakes in fundraising, but they are optimistically entitled, “Arbor Day Foundation, 2018 Supporter”.  That must be me!  Their 2018 calendar further alerts me to Illinois’ Arbor Day being April 27th.

The mandatory address labels of fundraising, but tastefully designed.

So, I wait.  The trees are coming next spring.  The book and calendar, who knows?  The coffee, fearfully a long shot.  What I do know is that with every delivery, there will be a further prodding and arm-twisting for a gift.

While I am desperately trying to find a place to plant those trees, I’ll give it a thought.

Thanks for reading! If you would like the full appraisal of the Arbor Day Foundation, it is available here, at Charity Navigator.

 

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direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, Thank You, USPS

Their Appointed Rounds

The United States Postal Service closed out their fiscal year September 30.  Never mind that the rest of the world goes by the annual calendar; the USPS wanted to beat the Christmas rush.

All in, the giant continues to perform well, within the confines of its quasi-government walls.  I wish the rest of the Federal government departments spent as much time looking after their own performance and expenses as does the USPS.

But from the latest Revenues Pieces And Weights report, here are a few glimmers of surprise and excitement.

  1.  It is a $69.6 billion dollar enterprise.  In the Fortune 500 list, it hovers around #37, bigger than Target, and smaller than Procter & Gamble, both good neighbors.  Like both of these companies, the USPS is an indicator of the USA’s pulse rate, though we will admit that it has slipped a bit.
  2. In 2017, the USPS revenues fell $1.8 billion.  We know why.  The Web, social media, email have all disenfranchised much of the USPS core business: first class mail and standard mail.
  3. First class mail continues to fall, $1.9 billion.  Compared to last year, it delivered 2.5 billion fewer pieces of mail, a drop of 4.1%.  Why? Because we receive our invoices, checks and statements electronically.  We pay electronically too.
  4. Standard Mail, now called Marketing Mail, dropped 2.6 billion pieces, about 3.2%.  Why?  Last year was a mail-infused election year.  It was distinguished by huge volumes of mail, from you know who, despite his predilection for Twitter.
  5. Overall, in its market dominant categories, that is, where it holds monopoly rights, revenues fell just over $4.0 billion.
  6. In the open competitive markets, ie., parcels and packages, revenues were UP over $2.2 billion, a 12.5% increase.  Wow! Who knew?

The Web Taketh, And It Giveth

Here’s what I find impressive about the USPS.  Despite the constant nagging of the digital futurists who want to write the Obit for the post office, it continues to hold its own.  In an environment where Internet media are running rampant, the USPS has found a broad new niche: parcel delivery, a $20 billion business.  If anyone should be worried, it will be the brick and mortar retail stores. Ask Sears.  Ask Toys R Us.  Ask Amazon.

American consumers have taken to the Web in all respects, but at day’s end, they need physical product delivery, and the USPS has risen to serving that need.  After all, they were coming by our house anyway.  Their two main competitors are UPS and Fedex, the latter using the postal carrier to make the “last mile” delivery.

Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Gloom of Night…

Postal carriers are the only American entity which visit 157,000,000 addresses every day.  They delivered, all in, 149 billion items in 2017.  They lifted 24 billion pounds, or 12 million tons, of physical product: mail, checks, magazines, parcels and yes, live bees and plants. The USPS has over 500,000 career employees and another 140,000 part-timers.  While this may seem like a wildly aggressive employer, I put it to you that the postal employee actually delivers, a claim many can’t make for other government institutions.

So hats off to the USPS.  It continues to fight the currents, and with astonishingly little help from its political friends, it far surpasses its governmental cousins.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to take a look at the USPS 10-K for 2017, click here!

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Culture, Mystery

Gone To Press

Self-published books are easier that ever, thanks to digital technology.

A few months back I sat in a shaded bedroom with a gaggle of kids all waiting for a bedtime story. Not being that spontaneous, I resorted to an old campfire story game to get these primary schoolers ready for bed. Yesterday I published the entire story “Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest” in paperback form.

This was not in the plans, actually.

The kids, count six of them, all huddled on two bunk beds staring at a flash light in the middle of the floor, which was our token campfire. I led them on a tiger hunt. In this story game, there’s lots of slopping in swamps, swishing through tall grass, crunching over rocky terrain, jumping away from gators, all in pursuit of a hungry, giant cat which is trying to eat us. Much slapping of hands, raspberry sounds and other bodily noises punctuate the dangerous trek.

The story was begun to put them to bed. But that’s not where it ended.

The scene is reminiscent of the new movie “The Battle of the Sexes” starring Steve Carrell and Emma Stone.    There is a delicious moment early on where his character, Bobby Riggs, is noisily and boisterously guiding his son, jumping from one $5,000 couch to the next one in his wife’s expensive and stately living room, all the while loudly warning of the perils of falling off the couches and into the jaws of the gators which swarm the Persian rug below them.

Anyway, in our story, we dumped the tiger in favor a more evil and ominous foe, Magu, who was a powerful monster with a ruthless disposition. Magu threatened the livelihoods of all the kids, and it was their job to get Magu. To compound our perils, enter Roarg, a dragon, who is equally horrific to think of, and before I knew it, we were into a saga.

Chapter V: Trouble On The Mountain. Illustrated by Finn Brown.

After about 15 minutes of much noise and screams and action, I said we would continue another time. Magu and Roarg were in deadly conflict, on the mouth of a volcano, I think, or on a mountain top, or maybe in an ocean whirlpool.

The kids all collapsed, and I figured that was the end of it.

Not so!

Our grandson continually prompted me on every following visit to continue the story…up to the point that he knew it better than me. I felt I had to write it down.

Over the next few months every time we spoke, he brought up the tale, and asked how it was coming along. Well, I took action, and some 15,000 words later, I completed the suspenseful, adventurous and comprehensive tale of Roarg– A Dragon’s Quest.

Self-publishing is easier now than ever. I contracted with a publishing site called http://www.blurb.com, and without a lot of error successfully printed up my book.  As a side item, did you know that there are more than 1,000,000 new books released every year?  Publishing sites like Blurb and Shutterfly make it possible.

Roarg is a good story, complete with danger, suspense and a clever ending.  I have tested it out on our two 11-year-old grand daughters, and they were thumbs up.

If you have kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces or even a nice young neighbor who is a reader, this is an exciting and fast moving tale. You can get a copy of Roarg at blurb.com.

And think of this too, you actually know the author!

Thanks for sharing! I hope you like the book!

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direct mail, Economics, Education, Fundraising

What It Takes To Raise A Buck

The Dream Catcher: the ultimate gift.

It may be a function of age, but we receive a fair share of fundraising direct mail. Occasionally we get kits that amaze us for their content, with the underlying question, how can this possibly make money?

St. Joseph’s Indian School uses a donor acquisition package that pushes the boundaries, but based on their frequent use, this kit makes money. But it still amazes.

A personalized lift note accompanies the letter.

The key to powerful direct mail is rolled up in this slogan: List-Offer-Format-Copy. You can figure it out. But a subset of “Format” is fundamental to understanding good design: Size-Cards-Labels-Diecuts-Personalization.

Take a look at St. Joe’s and how they go beyond the formula.

The 9×9-1/2 Flat kit is hard to ignore.

Size
The envelope is 9×9-1/2. No wait, it’s not an envelope. It’s more like a bag, a catch all, and it’s a half inch thick. Not normal! Right away, we are talking a Flat, not a letter. Odds are it weighs more than 3.3 ounces, so no kidding, this is a small trunk in the donor’s mailbox. Despite its bulkiness, it is still machinable, but I’ll bet the USPS would love to be rid of this mini-parcel bouncing through their multi-million dollar sorters. Remember, in direct mail, size counts.

The calendar is one of 8 personalized pieces.

The perfed donor form highlights what your donation will buy.

Cards
Many successful kits provide a card. It’s personalized, perhaps laminated or plasticized, embossed, and maybe delivered in pairs. Very common in retail, insurance, service and association mailings, cards convey belonging and entitlement. While St. Joe’s doesn’t have a card per se, they do include personalized memorabilia like calendar cards, and gift certificates.

27 address stickers, enough for every utensil in the kitchen drawer.

Labels
Do we have enough address labels? Maybe, maybe not. Until you have labeled all your electronic gear, computers, cell phones, 14 golf clubs, CDs, Vinyl, USBs, chargers, staplers, umbrellas, Christmas cards, 3-hole punch and entire library of Clive Cussler books on loan, you aren’t done. And beside labels, anything that is pressure sensitive, like Post-it notes, velcro and magnets counts as an involvement device that draws your reader in a tactile way to your mailing. St. Joe’s goes over the top to provide stickers and labels for the donor, their children and the next door neighbor’s cat.

Mood aubergine: more labels for every occasion.

Die-Cuts
Really a technical obsession for printers and origami artists, the die-cut is a subtle paper carving that uses perforations, kiss-cuts, windows and trimming to create a 3-dimensional or engineered aspect to your kit. The recipient will work those die-cuts intuitively, without thinking, to unfold and self administer a little presentation for their personal viewing. Again die-cuts precipitate movement and finger work, which is involving your reader.

The Post-it note doubles down on the ask.

Personalization
St. Joe’s knows how to attract the eye, and that starts with calling out to the reader repeatedly. 8 times in fact. Envelope, letter, donor form, certificates, address labels, stickers, calendar, lift note…no matter your persuasion, it is hard to casually throw out a piece of paper that has your name on it.

I offer an additional element that may trump the 5 attributes above–

A 24-page calendar with original art makes this kit indispensible.

Indispensibility
Above and beyond the formula I gave you, the appeal of the St. Joe’s piece is that you just can’t throw it out. Why? Because in addition to all of the features, the envelope is packed with gifts, and useful items: three shrunk-wrapped greeting cards, a note pad, a 24-page calendar with art, the stickers or course, and the piece de resistance: the Dream Catcher. Not to mention the 3 penny stamps affixed to the reply envelope. Almost impossible to throw in the bin…just can’t do it. Arrrgh!

So there you have a fully loaded kit.   But can it pay for itself?

The first rule of fundraising: donors don’t come free. So management knows they must develop their donor files, which is what this kit is for.

The note pad’s backer explains the mission and prayer of the Lakota community.

It’s a bit of a guess, but based on a nickel a page, this kit probably cost around $2.50 to print and assemble, plus the Dream Catcher…, maybe $3.00. Postage will be around 50-55 cents, based on a 6.4 ounce kit, automation rate, non profit.  Add in the lists, freight and data processing and it has to be $4.00 a kit.

Wow!  “Who has that kind of money?” fret the accountants, and by the way, a lot of donors, too.

But here’s the thing, because of its impact, its stopping power, this piece could have a 5-8% response rate.  Let’s say 7%.

Three tastefully designed greeting cards, individually wrapped, are an extra push for donation.

Then $4.00/7% = $57.00 cost per response.  And what is the average gift? They are asking between $8-$70.  Again say it’s $30.  So the net cost is $27 to get a new donor.  That donor will have a longstanding, profitable relationship with St. Joe’s and looking at the financial statement, there is about a 10% chance that the donor may make a final bequest in their will to the organization.

Overall, St. Joe’s has a fundraising efficiency of about 31%, according to their financial statement. 31 cents to raise a dollar.

This may seem higher than some of the nation’s largest, more well known non-profits.  But keep in mind that those have strong, pervasive brands, high impact causes like hurricanes and disease, and oodles of corporate in-kind support, too.

Thanks for reading!  Please share!

 

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Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

fullsizeoutput_4555

Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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