The reference librarians of ASK NYPL recently received a very interesting question about Virginia Woolf.
“Virginia Woolf typed all her major works and other writings on a typewriter. But what brand of typewriter did she use?”
I immediately recalled the one brand of typewriter that dominated the Anglo-American market for typewriters in the years that Woolf was most prolific as a published author (1915-1943): the Underwood — but that the Remington was also quite popular in that day. This kind of question calls for a more difficult form of research — it was not the kind of information that would be found in any conventional print or electronic resource, nor would simply Googling it ever yield the answer. I initially decided to contact those who I thought might be most aware of Woolf’s personal habits: the members of The International Virginia Woolf Society. In turn, their suggestions sent me back to the catalog of The New York Public Library. I also decided to do some research in the Library’s vast holdings and explored the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature’s finding aid to the large cache of her papers.
In answer to the patron’s question, I found that Woolf alluded a number of times in her writings to her “Portable Underwood,” but nowhere more explicitly than in her letter of October 28, 1928 to her nephew, the poet Julian Bell. After some extended discussion of Bell’s poetry, there appears in Woolf’s personal handwriting (the strongest possible evidence), this statement: “This spelling is the spelling of a Portable Underwood — not mine!”
Nicolson, Nigel, ed. A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III: 1923-1928 (London: The Hogarth Press (1937) on page 550.
However it should be noted that, at times, Woolf would borrow her husband Leonard Woolf’s Remington Portable. And he was quite fond of that Remington, to which he referred to many times in his own writings. One can even see a photograph of it — another form of documentary evidence — in the third volume of his autobiography, The Journey not the Arrival Matters on page 188 (photograph of Leonard's Remington on facing page.)
Underwood Elliott Fisher Co. - Man and woman posing with giant typewriter, Digital ID 1685575, New York Public LibraryAlthough the specific answer was quite difficult to obtain, the general field of possible responses was actually quite small. As I surmised, Underwood held the vast majority of the Anglo-American market for typewriters (Woolf’s American contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner also both used Underwoods), and the Remington Typewriter Company (that after a merger in 1927 was known as Remington Rand) was a significant player in the typewriter business, as well at the time that Woolf was most active in her writing.
Of course, I wished the patron all the best for her interest in Woolf and her typewriter, but I also thanked the patron for providing ASK NYPL with such an interesting question!