Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

The Oliver Typewriter Company of Canada

The patented Oliver Typewriter was developed by Canadian-born minister and inventor, Thomas Oliver. A million “Visible Print” machines were sold for business and home use.

Sm-OliverTypewriter1An Oliver Number 9 Typewriter

A minister needs to compose a lot of sermons. He needs to be able to read with confidence and grace at the pulpit to his awaiting congregation, not stumble over illegible hand writing, even if it is his own. The Reverend Thomas Oliver solved his legibility problems by taking tin can strips (or so the story goes, according to Shannon Johnson in the Oliver Company History) and constructing a typewriter.

Born in Woodstock, Ontario in 1852, Thomas Oliver moved to the State of Illinois as a young man after the death of his mother. He became a minister in the town of Epsworth, preaching in a Methodist church. Needing a more legible way of writing his sermons, he invented a mechanical means of putting words to paper.

Oliver Keys Struck Front of Platen

There were other typewriters at the time – one of the first mechanical typewriters was patented in the USA in 1868, but it had a major difficulty – the keys struck the paper at the back of the platen, therefore the typist could not see the words until the page had scrolled along. Oliver’s typewriter used a novel approach, something he called “Visible Print”. The keys struck on the the front of the platen and the letters could be seen fresh on the paper as they were typed. For his modern machine, Oliver’s typewriter was awarded US Patent No. 450,107 on April 7th, 1891. With a group of investors fronting capital of $15,000, Thomas Oliver leased a building to manufacture the typewriter. In 1895, the Oliver Typewriting Company was incorporated.

The Canadian Oliver 3

Produced with keys in banks on each side as if wings, the typewriter earned the nickname, “iron butterfly’. The machines were sold in olive green shades (what else, of course!) or in a nickel coating. Customers could choose black or white keys for the three rows of letters. The “Canadian Oliver 3” specifically featured black keys, according to the Anglo-Boer War Museum, and a shiny nickel body. There were no numbers or lower-case type on the first typewriters; a fourth top row for numbers was added in 1931. There was a handle on each side for ease of picking up the portable typewriter and moving it wherever it was needed.

Located initially in a two-room office in Chicago, Illinois in 1895, the Oliver Typewriter Company constructed its own building on North Dearborn Street. However, this was just the office building – the factory was in another town, Woodstock, Illinois. A happy atmosphere must have made the workday pleasant for workers. There were women’s and men’s baseball teams and a company band.

Oliver Typewriters Sold Door-to-Door

Sold for home use by door-to-door sales men, the company used word-of-mouth to advertise the Oliver Visible Print Typewriter. The machine cost a pricey $100. By 1910, Thomas Oliver’s company decided to eliminate the sales teams and lowered the price by half to $50, said Bookrags, selling from branch offices in New York, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Minneapolis and Nebraska.

At its peak, the Oliver Typewriter Company employed 875 workers in the Woodstock factory, manufacturing 375 typewriters a day. Changing sales tactics to a mail-order scheme in 1917, the branch offices were closed. The American-based Oliver Typewriter Company was sold in 1928 to the British Oliver Typewriter Company of Croyden, England; during WWII, all Oliver machines produced were for the British government. The end of the trend-setting Oliver came in 1959 when production ceased. Over the life of the company, over one million Oliver Typewriters were sold, enjoyed in both homes and businesses.

As typewriters changed to meet new demands in the early 1900s, Thomas Oliver developed new designs to keep up with trends. Holding 65% of the company stock, he earned the goodly sum of $3,000 a year. On February 9, 1909, Reverend Thomas Oliver suddenly died of probable heart disease. He was only 56 years old.

This article was first published on  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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