Toronto man's 'wild west of typewriters' collection dusted off in new documentary

While novels typically line rows of bookshelves in people's homes, for the last three decades a Toronto man has filled his shelves with an age-old machine and one of the original instruments for committing powerful stories to paper — the typewriter.

Martin Howard's unique collection features 80 vintage typewriters of 'non-standard design' from 19th century

Toronto man has Canada's largest collection of vintage typewriters

6 years ago
Duration 2:33
Martin Howard's collection of 80 vintage typewriters from the 19th century are featured in a new documentary called 'California Typewriter.'

While novels typically line rows of bookshelves in people's homes, for the last three decades a Toronto man has filled his shelves with examples of an age-old machine that helped bring so many books to life — the typewriter.

Martin Howard has been collecting vintage typewriters built in the 1880s and 1890s for 30 years. He owns about 80 machines, which he describes as the "wild west of typewriters" because they were designed when typing was still in its infancy.

"I knew I wanted to collect something mechanical from the 19th century," he told CBC Radio's Here and Now

"Most of us like old machinery, right? It's beautiful, it's sculptural and I was no exception." 

Martin Howard began collecting 19th-century typewriters in his late 20s. He now has 80 machines. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Now featured in a new documentary California Typewriter alongside other old-school mechanical typewriting aficionados, like actor Tom Hanks and musician John Mayer, the Birch Cliff resident takes you inside his collection. 

The so-called "Martin Howard Collection" is said to be the largest in Canada. 

Toronto vintage typewriter collector Martin Howard co-stars in a new documentary, 'California Typewriter,' alongside other aficionados, like actor Tom Hanks and musician John Mayer. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Howard's love of the unique machines began with his parents, who filled their basement walls with an assortment of tools from a different time, he explained. 

"I was captivated by that in my teenage years," he said, noting the yard outside his childhood home was typically filled with horse-drawn carriages and buggies his father restored. 

Martin Howard has also kept antique typewriter ribbons. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

While the phenomenon of collecting vintage items is credited for the recent resurgence of polaroid cameras and vinyl records, Howard was "bitten by the bug" much earlier.

"In my late-20s I realized I had to figure out what to collect," he said.

"I knew it was going to be something 19th-century mechanical — something not too large to bring into the house; something with great variety and design; and finally something not too collected by others because I wanted to get my treasure at a good price." 

Martin Howard scoured antique shops throughout Ontario for two years before he came across the first typewriter in his collection — the Caligraph 2. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Howard's first typewriter was the Caligraph 2 — built by the American Writing Machine Company in 1881. It was the first typewriter to hit the market with a full keyboard. 

"It took me two years to stumble across in an antique shop in Aurora," he said. 

"It's a beautiful machine, all open on the sides; you can look in and see the inner workings."

He paid $100 for it and spent the next three months restoring it. 

The documentary, California Typewriter, which follows the struggles of one of the U.S.'s last standing repair shops and five old-school mechanical typewriter buffs, premiered at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday night. 

With files from CBC Radio's Here and Now