A Shortage of Typewriters Threatened America’s War Effort in the 1940s
The government got pretty desperate
by ELLIOT CARTER
Tens of thousands of people found employment in Washington, D.C. during World War II in newly-created defense jobs. According to WETA public television, “between 1940 and 1945, the number of civilians employed by the government almost quadrupled”
This army of office workers, many of them “government girls,” arrived to find a city lacking in office supplies and equipment. Typewriters were a particular problem — the government needed 600,000 of them for use in Washington, D.C. and overseas. Some offices explored the idea of working ’round-the-clock on shifts to minimize wasted typing time.
The government had asked typewriter companies to retool their factories to support the larger war effort. Underwood and Smith-Corona produced rifles and the Royal Typewriter Company produced airplane parts. Unfortunately, this coincided with the huge spike in demand for their original products — and led to the great wartime typewriter shortage.
“Something drastic must be done,” The Washington Post reported at the time. The War Production Board “has sharply curtailed typewriter production and federal agencies are howling for tens of thousands of new typewriters.”
Shortages of raw materials also wreaked havoc with office operations. According to a Social Security Administration history, paper clips and rubber bands were used “over and over until they gave way from exhaustion, and then the steel and rubber were recycled.”
The pre-war New Deal government had embraced a trigger-happy approach to public relations, carpet bombing the media press releases on the accomplishments of public sector programs. Wartime conservation brought that to an end.
“One of the results of the defense program, beneficial or damaging depending on how you feel, is the fact that there will be fewer press releases from the type writers of government press agents,” The Washington Post noted. “The reason for it is a threatened shortage of mimeographing paper. Several department heads have ordered their information staffs to cut down on press releases to save paper.”
The government leaned heavily on a public campaign — “Forty-Two Keys to Victory” — to fill the typewriter gap. Typewriter-heavy industries such as Hollywood and the media were pressured to contribute one out of every four machines.
Companies did their part by running advertisements to drum up support for the program.
“This we now realize, is the true meaning of total war … and we are for it, lock, stock and barrel!” the Royal Typewriter Company decreed in an ad featuring a typewriter in front of an American flag. “It may be an inconvenience to you, may even be a sacrifice on your part, to do without a new Royal Typewriter. But … if the Axis Powers were to win this war, it would be a long, long time before you could buy any new typewriter!”
Local dealers such as the United Typewriter Co., located at 813 14th Street N.W., were prohibited from selling or renting their products from March 1942 until April 1944.
If you enjoyed this article you might also like this story about the time an anti-aircraft gunner accidentally machine-gunned the Lincoln Memorial. This story originally appeared at Architect of the Capital.