Erika, a German Beauty

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                        Erika the Magnificent

Products made in East Germany had a reputation for shoddy quality and hideous styling, even if that wasn’t always the case. One notable exception was the high-quality Erika Modell M typewriter which was first manufactured during the 1930s by Seidel & Naumann of Dresden, Germany. During WW II production of the Erikas was halted for a while, but it resumed in 1946 after the war had ended and continued until 1991, when the GDR no longer existed. There were two major production phases of post-WW II Erikas: 1946-1965 and 1965-1991. GDR writers who used a typewriter during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were more likely than not to have typed their texts on an Erika made after WW II. The Erika M was produced by Seidel & Naumann unchanged for some time after WW II, with production ending in 1949 following the creation of Seidel & Naumann VEB Dresden (nationally-owned company) by the new East German government.

The Erika M machine is a manual typewriter, with glass-covered QWERTZ keys. All Erika model typewriters were designed to be portable, and this model came inside a leather case, with a cleaning brush attached to the interior of the lid. In an online typewriter review of the Erika M (1936), vintage typewriter enthusiast Daniel Marleau asserts that Erika is “in a class by herself.” (December 22, 2015). Below are some passages from his tribute to Queen Erika, a magnificent machine. 

By the 1930s, typewriters were firmly established in the workplace. While American portables were viewed as the less capable offspring of their office parent, it seems the German typewriter company Seidel & Naumann had focussed their efforts on perfecting the portable without an office standard looming over it.

And perhaps for this reason they named their typewriter Erika and made it the most visible label on the machine. Moreover, it’s in a unique type style that speaks to the brand rather than the company. Most other typewriter companies made sure you knew who made their typewriter. And if their typewriters had names, they usually said more about their function than their form: Smith Corona Silent, Royal Quiet Deluxe, Remington Quiet-Riter.

Olympia didn’t even bother to add a name label to most of their typewriters, since they were often obscure letter number combinations like SM3. Not exactly something that inspires. Olympia probably decided they’d let their typewriters do the talking. After all, they are superb machines.

But a name says much about what a company thinks of their product. The Teutonic roots of the name Erika suggests something that means noble. And among the Erika line of nobility, the model M is Queen, from her one-piece outer shell to her reinforced carriage rail and levers and silver-ringed glass top keys, she’s not only pleasing to the eye, but has a firm touch that retains a lightening quickness. This is not a typewriter that lives in an ordinary office, she’s meant to grace the desk of a writing aficionado.

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Some have suggested the M, in the Erika M, stands for Meisterklasse, or Masterclass. While this seems appropriate, I like to think of her as Erika the Magnificent. She’s also in a class by herself. There is no equal.

On December 17, 2014, Daniel Marleau posted an online typewriter review of the Erika Model 10 (1954). Model 10 is the one most people think about when they think of post-WW II Erikas. It was the second new model introduced after the war and was produced from 1952-1963. In his entertaining review, Marleau has high praise for the Erika 10 and the engineers, designers, and workers who crafted this top-of-the-line machine. As he points out, the Erika and similar German typewriters type like a dream; they are on a whole different level of class when it comes to typing actions and appearance.

If you’ve ever used a high-end typewriter, such as an Olympia, Hermes or the versatile Smith-Corona and thought a typewriter couldn’t get much better, think again. The Erika 10 takes the best these manufacturers have to offer and puts them into one of the finest typewriters ever made. It has the precise German engineering of an Olympia, the design flair of the Swiss Hermes and the simplicity of the All-American Smith-Corona. You’d think something produced in Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany would lack the refinement of its Western counterparts, but whoever was responsible for the Erika typewriter might have taken that as a challenge to beat the best that capitalism had to offer. Perhaps being behind the Iron Curtain afforded them a kind of free market exemption, allowing them to craft the ultimate weapon of words. For these workers, engineers and designers, the one allowed act of artistic expression in a life of grey oppression was when they stepped into the Erika factory. While other companies fretted over profit margins, Erika was under no such pressure and it seems they escaped the demands of Soviet-style quotas, where quantity trumped quality. Human appetite for luxury exists in all societies and for the privileged nomenklatura in the Eastern Bloc that apparently extended to typewriters and Erika was there to fill that need.

This Erika is designed for writing, Marleau, himself an author, explains: “Lots of writing. Putting it on a shelf and looking at it would feel like an insult to this thoroughbred.” He goes on to describe the experience of writing with an Erika 10, which he maintains is without equal:

The keys seem to float on the wings of angels, where the merest whiff of thought moves your fingers to rapture. If a typewriter could be a muse, Erika would be her name. And if writing is your desire, she will inspire you to new highs. She’s a beauty to look at, for sure, but not to the point of distraction. After all, she’s there to work. And in the case of Erika, beauty runs in her bones. 

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There’s nothing wrong with most other typewriters, they work, they get the job done, but when it comes to that elusive feel, the Erika has no equal. I’ve used dozens of typewriters, all in the quest for “The One.” That journey just ended. If you’re serious about writing and typewriters, stop looking. Get an Erika 10.

Now let me relate how I became acquainted with Erika, the German beauty, in the fall of 2012. It occurred in connection with a book I was in the process of publishing with the Ch. Links Verlag in Berlin, Germany. On November 20, 2012, I received via email graphic artist Nadja Caspar’s cover design for my forthcoming memoir, Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin. Als Amerikaner unterwegs in der DDR-Literaturszene (From Oberlin to East Berlin. An American Travelling in the GDR Literary Scene). It featured a bright yellow Erika posing boldly on a bright blue background. The retro appearance of the typewriter appealed to me right away, as did the blue and yellow color combination, since these also happen to be the University of Delaware’s school colors. Furthermore, I liked the depiction of a typewriter that had been so closely associated with East Germany and probably used by every GDR writer mentioned in my book. I could not have been more pleased!

In April 2013, not long after my book was published in Germany, two writer friends came to Newark and the University of Delaware for a visit. One was Fred Viebahn, a German-born writer I had met in East Berlin in the mid-1970s. The other was his wife Rita Dove, a prominent American writer who had received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995. I have known them since the late 1970s when the three of us were living and working in Oberlin, Ohio. Of course I gave them a copy of my new book, a few copies of which the publisher had just sent me. Fred took a look at the cover and fell in love with Erika at first sight. He expressed his affection immediately by locating a used yellow machine on eBay Germany and purchasing it. He arranged for it to be shipped to his mother’s home in Germany. I imagine that Fred has in the meantime transported the vintage Erika to their house in Virginia.

For persons born during or soon after WW II, as I was, the clickety clack of a manual typewriter evokes pleasant memories. The joy of the feel and sound of the typewriter is something special, and persons of my generation who are now senior citizens never fell out of love with it. What’s surprising though, according to an article in our local Wilmington, Delaware newspaper, is that the younger generation has begun taking a liking to typewriters once again. Carey Cranston, president of the American Writers Museum in Chicago, which features a popular section with seven manual typewriters and an electric machine that visitors can try out, is quoted as saying: “Typing for the first time is exciting, especially for younger people.” He says he’ll never forget the reaction of one fifth-grader discovering typewriters for the first time. “Wow, this is great! It’s an instant printer!” he exclaimed. (Katherine Roth, “Feeling the love, typewriters return,” The News Journal, July 4, 2019, p. 8A)

As I conclude this piece, I find myself wondering if the Erika typewriter is the finest machine ever manufactured in East Germany. Maybe, but who knows?