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A Writer’s Arsenal 100 Years Ago

Writers, whether novice or seasoned, need and use an arsenal of material while crafting their words into a novel or book. Today, using any reference is only a click of the mouse away. Most all writing software, Word, Scrivener, and a host of others, all have built-in spelling and grammar check and often can point out errors as you type. But what did writers do one hundred years ago? How did some of the great authors of 1919 like Jack London, Franz Kafka, L. Frank Baum, H. G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf conduct research, check spelling, and find that elusive fact?

As we all know, there was no internet in 1919. In fact, not every household owned a car, something we take for granted today. In order to visit their local library or historical society to conduct research, they had to walk to a nearby bus depot or trolley stop, which meant their scheduled time for research was based on the hours of the establishment. Not every home had a phone, so mailing letters (today known as snail-mail) to various institutions in order to get information pertaining to what you’re writing about was the only option.

A writer’s desk looked different. A majority of desks today are a flat tabletop with precut holes for wires, a file drawer, a small front drawer for either pens and pencils or for a computer keyboard, and a monitor or laptop sits on top beside a printer. Most homes even have a room dedicated as a writing office. In 1919, a desk was small (although some had a large rolltop desk), maybe one drawer for supplies, and a typewriter with a stack of paper set to the side. The desk was usually located in the kitchen corner or in a living room corner, sometimes in the bedroom. Depending where you lived, you likely had your desk near the fireplace for writing during the winter months.

Besides the typewriter, there would be a dictionary, a thesaurus, a rolodex, phone (if you had one), and maybe close by on a shelf would be an encyclopedia set. Their desk drawer would be filled with pens, pencils, an extra typing ribbon, a bottle of white out, a book of stamps, a letter opener, and a small screwdriver for fixing the typewriter (if need be). Hard to imagine back then that a mere one hundred years into the future, a dictionary, thesaurus, rolodex, phone, and encyclopedia would be only a click away. And the typewriter, extra ribbon, white out, and letter opener are practically no longer needed.

Some things haven’t changed. In 1919, there were plenty of typewriter repair shops, and today almost every plaza has a computer repair shop. We still use paper to read what we now call a hard copy of our story. We still use a thesaurus, dictionary, and other reference materials, but instead of an actual book, we use the internet.

We can only imagine if London, Kafka, Baum, Wells, Woolf, and a host of other writers had the technology of today, what volumes of work would be on the shelves of libraries, bookstores, and in our writing offices.

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