Typewriter of the moment: Abigail van Buren’s IBM

“Dear Abby,” Abigail van Buren, sorts through letters asking advice. Newseum photograph, from publicity photo.

“Dear Abby,” Abigail van Buren, sorts through letters asking advice. Newseum photograph, from publicity photo.

News flash, on Facebook, from the Newseum:

Abigail Van Buren, author of the “Dear Abby” advice column, died Jan. 16, 2013. She was 94.

NPR’s e-mail added a couple of details:


‘Dear Abby’ Dies; Pauline Phillips Was Adviser To Millions

Writing under the pen name Abigail Van Buren, she wrote the world’s most widely syndicated column. The daily readership grew to more than 100 million. The column is now written by her daughter, Jeanne.

More at NPR.org:


What an incredible melange of history in that photo!  You can read about Mrs. Phillips at the NPR site, but consider just this photograph:

  1. “Dear Abby” which used to be regular reading in most households in the morning — literally millions of American households.  She and her chief competition, “Ann Landers,” could each by herself move the nation, to change habits, to question manners, to change behaviors with vaccinations or new medical procedures, and in a few cases, move legislation through Congress.  No one in newspapering or broadcast today has the clout this woman had, but rarely used.  Not even Rupert Murdoch with his empire, had so much clout as Dear Abby.  (Many of us were surprised to learn later that the women who wrote Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers were twin sisters — another one of those twists in real history that no one would believe in fiction.)
  2. Isn’t that an early IBM electric typewriter? Our local Fry’s doesn’t stock even electric typewriters anymore, nor could I find one in my last run through Staples and Office Depot (catalog sales, perhaps). IBM probably hasn’t made one 20 years, and not one like that one in at least 40 years — that is not a Selectric.
  3. Dial telephone.  Not just a land-line, but an actual, analog, dial telephone.  Without seeing any identifying characteristics, we can assume that her telephone provider was the AT&T regional company — unlikely that it was Continental, the only other major provider in the U.S. at the time.
  4. The Yellow Pages telephone book under the phone.  I think even Yellow Pages stopped printing those things; we haven’t had a good update on our white pages in years.
  5. Newspaper syndication meant EVERYONE had access to her columns — no internet.  A dime for the local paper, and you had Dear Abby.
  6. The fountain pen in her hand, perhaps for more than just signing letters (what do you say, Office Supply Geek?).
  7. No computer, which in addition to replacing the typewriter, would probably also replace the four-drawer file cabinet in back of her (a locking cabinet, perhaps a HON?)
  8. Is that flowered pattern the wallpaper in the place? They don’t make orchid wallpaper like that any more.
  9. Look at that stack of mail.  Each came in an envelope, stamped, for less than 8¢ (1st class rates topped a dime for the first time in 1974).  No e-mail; no electronic version to cut and paste from.  Each letter to appear in the column had to be retyped on that IBM typewriter.  Most high school students today have probably never sent a letter through the mail, and many have never received one, either.

The Newseum didn’t credit the photo, nor say when or where it was taken; I’ve not found more details yet. At the Newseum site, the photo is credited to Phillips-Van Buren, Inc., the company that runs the column.  I’m guessing 1970 at the latest, and this may be in the 1960s or even 1950s.

Some of us old timers get future shock just looking at that photo.  Can your students date that photo with the clues in it, history teachers?  Journalism teachers?  (Photos at OzTypewriters suggest this photo could have been made in the 1960s.)


Heck, it may be a 1950s typewriter (do you read German?):

Deutsch: Elektrische IBM-Schreibmaschine aus d...

Deutsch: Elektrische IBM-Schreibmaschine aus den 1950er Jahren Lizenz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  (Translated roughly, “IBM electric typewriter from the 1950 license.”)

6 Responses to Typewriter of the moment: Abigail van Buren’s IBM

  1. RB says:

    responses from 2013. fascinating as Spock would say. It’s the year 2021 in the midst of a pandemic that has stifled this nation. My guess this photo is from 1957, the year I was born. It says April 1957 on the yellow pages book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Sorry – no preview option in the cheap version. At least, there wasn’t. ::scurrying off to see if WordPress has added preview to the cheap version::


  3. Porlock Junior says:

    Oh goody, it does recognize URLs. One just can’t tell, there being no preview function. (*YWP)


  4. Porlock Junior says:

    Ah, the IBM Typewriter.

    Never used it myself: went off to college at the end of the 50s with a nice new Olivetti portable. But for the serious skilled user who stayed in one place, there was nothing like it. Of course it was built for the ages and had smooth, well engineered workings from the ground up. But it also had Features.

    The fanciest models, at least, had capabilities of fractional spacing and positioning aids that an expert could use to do layout impossible on ordinary machines. For years, my aunt would prepare the daily menu for her restaurant using all the capabilities. Like any technical expert, she enjoyed demonstrating how it worked; alas, in my youthful folly I failed to take notes.

    Come to think of it, a lot of the Whole Earth Catalogue was composed on these devices — pre-Selectric, I think — and naturally they got a good review in that publication.

    Great commentary, by the way. So many details to note.

    Speaking of newspapers, http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Pauline-Phillips-writer-Dear-Abby-dies-4204387.php .
    (Man, is it annoying that commenting systems fail to recognize URLs, or provide a shortcut for specifying them, or even a pop-up with summaries of the commonest bits of HTML gibberish, like, you know, link specifications! I ought to look it up now and refresh my memory, but I’d like to retain some fragment of my train of thought. But I digress.)
    This is from the San Francisco Chronicle, where the column started. They also have put up her very first column.

    And speaking of SF: we do have Yellow Pages around here, though they’re fading away. Also, they’re now controversial: Yellow Pages books, the real things, are distributed door to door, and so are various spin-offs, or rip-offs, and people are objecting to getting these piles of superfluous paper to be recycled. I believe that some efforts to suppress the waste have met with success.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Fantastic that, with the right expert, we can even get close to the fountain pen model she’s using!

    Thank you, Brian!


  6. Brian says:

    Personally I use a fountain pen every day, every chance I get. I’m not the best when it comes to vintage fountain pens, but it looks like she is using a Parker 51 there. Here is a picture for comparison:


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