One of my Sunday pleasures is reading David Segal’s bi-weekly “The Haggler” column in the New York Times. “The Haggler” tries to resolve reader-submitted 21st century horror stories of bad customer service. Virginia’s War History Commission could have used “The Haggler” in 1920 as they battled the Hooven Automatic Typewriter Company to repair their machine.
Created in 1919 by Governor Westmoreland Davis, the Virginia War History Commission’s goal was “to complete an accurate and complete history of Virginia’s military, economic and political participation in the World War.” The Commission consisted of sixteen leading citizens appointed by the governor including: Reverend Collins Denny; Brigadier General Jo Lane Stern, Adjutant General of Virginia; Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the Richmond News-Leader; State Librarian Henry R. McIlwaine; and Colonel Charles R. Keiley, Executive Secretary of the Second Virginia Council of Defense. Arthur Kyle Davis, president of Southern Female College in Petersburg, was named chairman of the commission. Local branches were created to collect records of their community’s military and civilian activities.
The commission needed a machine to create form letters for all of their correspondence with branch members. However, they wanted each letter to appear to be an “original” – not a mimeograph or carbon. After witnessing a demonstration of such a machine, Keiley purchased a Hooven Automatic Typewriter in February 1920 for $760 ($8,800 in 2014 dollars).
According to American Typewriters: A Collector’s Encyclopedia by Paul Lippman, the Hooven Automatic Typewriter, invented in 1912, “is controlled by paper rolls like those of a player piano.
A perforating machine punches holes in a roll. The roll is then run through another machine that automatically operates the keyboard of a regular typewriter.” The resulting letters appeared to be typed by an operator instead of a machine. Unfortunately, the Commission’s machine didn’t work as advertised.
On 17 March 1920, Keiley wrote M.M. DeVault, manager of the Washington, D.C., office of the Hooven Automatic Typewriter, “[w]e paid $760.00 for a machine that we have in our office and it is absolutely worthless.” A previous service call (“useless repairs” according to Keiley) did not fix the problem. “We want the machine to work else we would not have ordered it,” Keiley concluded, “but we want it for use and not as an office ornament.” DeVault replied on 19 March. He suggested that one problem could be fixed in a “matter of but about 30 seconds adjustment,” talked about his five years of experience with the company, assured Keiley that the machine is “mechanically perfect,” “[y]our machine is O.K.” and “was running perfectly” after the previous service call. DeVault’s dismissive and tone deaf response enraged Keiley. With a mixture of sarcasm and anger, Keiley responded on 23 March 1920:
If you call a machine “mechanically perfect” whose product results in a succession of A’s, all of which are light and out of line; in a succession of E’s, none of which is properly placed; in a succession of C’s which invariably overlap the succeeding or preceding letter; in a succession of O’s, not one of which is properly placed but each of which leaves a hiatus between it and the next letter; in a succession of misspaced [sic] I’s – if all these things suit you, I can only say respectfully that they do not suit me.
I also beg leave to say that I am not in the slightest interested in your experience in the last five years. What I want is a machine in my office that will do the work I have seen other machines of the same make do elsewhere….I might add for your information and possibly for your profit, that the bad working of this machine in actual practice has postponed, if it has not lost you, one other sale, and its continued bad working will probably result in the loss of several.
A 25 March service call fixed the problem with misaligned letters. However, Keiley wrote DeVault on 28 September, since March “we have not gotten $25.00 worth of good out of the machine.” The motor needed to be adjusted or replaced. “The motor is sparking and ‘missing,’” Keiley complained, and “has not power enough to speed enough to operate the machine.” Keiley was “sick and tired of having the machine write a dozen letters and then go all to pieces.” Keiley mockingly pleaded with DeVault for help.
Will you not take pity on us and come to the rescue? There are hundreds, yes, thousands of letters we are holding up because we cannot use our machine. Please find some means of solving our problem and let me hear from you by return mail. I cannot think that it is your intention to keep such bad advertising before the public or to allow your customers to suffer such loss as we are suffering through the purchase of what is, to us, a worthless piece of machinery.
There is no record in the files of DeVault responding. Presumably, the machine was repaired. In 1927, Arthur Kyle Davis offered to sell the Hooven to the Duplex Envelope Company. In a letter, he noted that the machine had only been used only occasionally since 1923. The Duplex Company wasn’t interested.
-Roger Christman, LVA Senior State Records Archivist