Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Vintage accessories: Cotton typewriter ribbon

I'm quite stingy about using new ribbons on my typewriters, although I have built up quite a stock of Pelikan brand spools over the past few months, ordered in bulk from various Swiss stationery suppliers. For one, I like to squeeze as much use as I can out of the ribbon that comes with a typewriter, unless it is practically transparent and thus unusable. Even then, I shall admit I have briefly flirted with the idea of spraying WD-40 on the ribbon to get some more use out of it, a tip I read on the PTF forum some time back.

However, another reason I cling stubbornly to the old ribbons is that they are better quality: some of the brand new nylon ribbons are quite greasy and smudge all over the place (thanks for nothing, Pelikan), and the flimsy plastic spools do not inspire much confidence. I find it rather elegant to be able to fit a stately '50s typewriter with metal spools, and fortunately we have harvested enough empty ones that we can transfer the ribbon onto sturdier spools if desired (or necessary due to different sizes or ribbon posts).

The Kores box pictured above is an eBay find from a few weeks back - there I was, browsing through the auctions, just checking out one thing or the other, and this auction for "new old stock" purple typewriter ribbon leapt out at me. I have a fondness for colored (i.e. non-black) typewriter ribbon, which has proven impossible to find locally, and doesn't seem to be manufactured anymore in Europe.

This came from France, and there were four sealed ribbons remaining (out of a box that originally contained six). Each canister contains one metal spool with the ribbon wound around it, and the typist has to provide their own second spool. Inside the plastic box, the ribbons are sealed up with gold foil.

It was my first time opening up a new cotton ribbon, and perhaps it was because this one had several decades to properly soak into the fabric, but there was none of that smudgy greasiness that I have noticed with new nylon ribbons. I installed it on the Swissa typewriter I showed last week, and you can see it in action here and here. The ribbon typed beautifully right out of the box, and I look forward to using the others on my other typewriters - or, in a bid to be frugal, I might just transplant it from the Swissa.

I've been trying to figure out just when this ribbon was made - what do you think? I'm guessing that since this was intended for Underwood typewriters, it might date from before the Underwood-Olivetti merger, thus late '50s or so? That seems rather old to have relatively contemporary packaging (plastic boxes in cardboard box instead of single metal boxes), but then again I am not an expert on ribbon boxes in general.

Getting this was a nice change from the usual typewriter acquisitions, and I shall keep an eye out for more "new old stock" on eBay from time to time... I am especially keen on finding blue and green ribbons as well. From this brief and highly unscientific test, my conclusion is that cotton > nylon.


  1. Those are beautiful boxes.

    I read somewhere that ink really soaks into the cotton fibers, but just pools around nylon, so cotton ribbons may create a better impression. Haven't done a scientific test of this.

  2. Dear Adwoa, I regret to inform you that you are now officially lost... once you start collecting typewriter ribbons, there is no cure to our collecting fever! Yours truly, doctor G.

  3. Richard - That makes perfect sense. My other gripe with the Pelikan nylons is that they are completely inconsistent: one can be dreadfully slick and shiny when first opened, and the next works fine. There's no way to tell.

    Georg - Too funny! You seem to be having incredible luck collecting fantastic ribbon boxes, I have not spotted a single one (at least in person). Thankfully, I am not so much collecting the ribbons as seeking out new and differently-colored ones to use. I shall keep you informed if it gets out of hand!

  4. Yeah, those nylon ribbons are pretty hit and miss when purchasing new stock. I have gotten one that was pretty dry throughout the length. I've gotten another one that is over-inked and was a real mess to get installed. I've had a couple that are really good throughout except for the last 8" or so before the spool. There have only been about two or three, out of probably 15-20 I've bought, that are solid throughout...

  5. That is a great find. I never thought about the fact that the quality of older ribbon could be better. I usually buy new ribbon but then transfer it to old metal spools.

    Speaking of old ribbons, is there a method for re-inking them?

  6. Snohomish - the discussion about re-inking old ribbons is a bit of a hornet's nest, from what I have gathered on the PTF. The general conclusion, as far as I can tell, is that there is no easy way to do so that is worth the trouble. I thought (as you probably do) that it would just be a matter of soaking the spent ribbons in some off-the-shelf solution, like stamp pad ink, but it would require soaking and drying a few inches at a time - sounds messy! I don't think there is anyone who does this on a regular basis.

  7. Hi. I need two metal ribbon spools that would work in my 1956 Olympia SM3 De Luxe. Do you have two you can sell me? I do not know much about the ribbon it self, but if you had a spool with some black ribbon on it, that would be great. I can pay pal you?

    Great collection you have. It is history i your hands.

    jack Portland Oregon

  8. Hi everyone,
    I'm french so please excuse me if my sentences are wrong. I saw that this post is old but i just find a similar box in my dead grandma house and i seek informations to sell it. I want to put it on ebay but i dont know how much does it cost! My box is the same of yours out side but not inside. In mine, the ribbons are sealed in little golden box and it's "pour emploi sur remington, noir et rouge fixe 13mm"
    If someone can tell me how much can i sell it that would be great!
    You can contact me on:, i can send you some pictures.


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