A Quest to Date the Sholes Visible

Updated: Dec 3, 2021



The Sholes Visible was the last of the typewriter designs that the well-known inventor Christopher Latham Sholes released to the world. When ours arrived at the front door, we opened the well-packed box to reveal a dirty typewriter in excellent condition - a new and exciting project! We marveled at yet another typing mechanism we had never seen before, finding more proof of the creative genius of inventors at the dawn of the typewriter age.


Pictured are the patent figures representing the type mechanism of the Sholes Visible from the original 1891 patent.

It was December 8, 1891, that the first patent for the Sholes Visible was granted, executed by George B. Sholes, one of Christopher Sholes’ sons (Sholes, 1891). The patent application was submitted on January 29, 1889, about one year before C. L. Sholes had passed away (Milwaukee, 1890). Louis Sholes, another of C. L. Sholes’ sons, helped to establish the C. Latham Sholes Typewriter Company in 1890 while the patent was pending, and incorporated the company on November 2, 1893 (Odell, 1904). A day later he incorporated the Latham C. Sholes Typewriter Manufacturing Company at the same address, 624 Wells Building, Milwaukee, WI (Odell, 1904). The former company was for the purpose of dealings in inventions and patents (Milwaukee, 1892), while the latter was for the purpose of manufacturing typewriters. It seemed that the intention was to manufacture the Sholes Visible typewriter (Inventor, 1890); however, there is no evidence that the Sholes Visible was ever manufactured by the Latham C. Sholes Typewriter Manufacturing Company. According to the papers, the patent had been on the market for “so many years” (Old Idea, 1900), suggesting that Louis Sholes had attempted for a while to license the patent, perhaps since its approval.


"Cycle King", 1900

It was the famous (at least to Milwaukee) bicycle manufacturer, August D. Meiselbach, who eventually purchased the patent with exclusive rights from Louis Sholes and the C. Latham Sholes Typewriter Company on March 17, 1900 (Meiselbach’s, 1900). That same year, Louis Sholes was reported to have been a member of the office staff (Local Notes, 1900a), and a “leading man” at the Meiselbach outfit (Short Items, 1901b). According to the papers, Meiselbach’s company had been experimenting on the machine since they purchased the patent (Large Stock, 1901), so it seems likely that Louis Sholes helped with early experimentation during his time there. On November 5, 1900, it was announced that the typewriter was complete and available for view by anyone who inquired (Local Notes, 1900b). Louis Sholes left for another company almost a year later, in October 1901 (Short Items, 1901b).


Note that the Sholes Visible should not be confused with the “New Sholes Visible”, invented by Louis Sholes and patented in 1906 (Sholes, 1906; Messenger, 2013). It was supposed to be released to the market in 1909 (Best, 1909), but there is no evidence that it ever successfully launched. Nor should the Sholes Visible be confused with the “Sholes Silent Visible” of 1915, which was invented by another of Christopher Sholes’ sons, Zalmon G. Sholes (Sholes, 1915). The Sholes Silent Visible seems to be linked to the Z. G. Sholes typewriter. A manufacturing facility was proposed to be built in Oak Grove, near Wilmington, DE, in November 1915 to produce the Sholes Silent Visible (Sholes, 1915); in 1915, the Typewriter Development Co. was operating out of the Du Pont Building in Wilmington, DE, where the Z. G. Sholes typewriter was being manufactured (Typewriter Development Co., 1915). It seems that instead of building a new facility, Zalmon G. Sholes bought out the Typewriter Development Co. through the Sholes Standard Typewriter Co. to market his Z. G. Sholes silent visible typewriter (More About Sholes, 1915), and perhaps called the typewriter by both names. On an interesting note, also in 1915, yet another of Christopher Sholes’ sons, Frank L. Sholes, sales director at the Rex Typewriter Co., advertised yet another typewriter, the Rex Visible (Best, 1915). Note from the pictures below that all these models looked more like standard typewriters than the original Sholes Visible.



A month after Louis Sholes left the company, on November 21, 1901, the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company was incorporated in Kenosha, WI, (Department of State, 1901; Happenings, 1926; Large Stock, 1901). The intent of this company was clearly stated, for “the manufacture of typewriters and other machines, tools and appliances, the buying and selling of machines and other commodities the purchase and sale of patents and interests in the same, and the purchase and sale of such real estate and personal property as shall be desirable on the first of such corporation when formed” (Department of State, 1901). The papers stated that they planned to sell the “Meiselbach Typewriter”. Given the proximity in timing to the purchase of the Sholes Visible patent rights, and given that there is no “Meiselbach” branded typewriter found, it is almost certain that the Meiselbach Typewriter is one and the same as the Sholes Visible, which was officially released to the market in 1901 (Meiselbach’s, 1900; Large Stock, 1901). A failure to find any evidence of the Sholes Visible being sold prior to this date, and a statement in the papers that the machine had never previously been on the market (Meiselbach’s, 1900), makes it more than likely that Louis Sholes was never successful in manufacturing the typewriter for sales, and the Meiselbach launch, ten years after the patent was granted, was truly the first.



At the time of the announcement, the company was gearing up to sell a large order; apparently they had acquired all but one part to ship a large order of typewriters, and parts had already been made for thousands of machines (Large Stock, 1901). Meiselbach expected to receive the last part to assemble machines for the first large order by December 1901, one month after incorporation. This provides two interesting pieces of information: 1) Meiselbach machinists did not machine everything themselves, and 2) they kept parts on hand, meaning that the assembly of a machine in 1902 could have been made up of parts manufactured and/or purchased in prior years. We can add to this the fact that they employed their own stripers (Help Wanted, 1902) as evidence that some work was performed in-house.



We started wondering about the year of manufacture of our own machine. The Typewriter Database (www.typewriterdatabase.com), our typical first point of reference, had no details matching serial numbers to years, so we looked to the data. We knew that at least one Sholes Visible, even if a sample, was manufactured in 1900, given the earlier announcement that the typewriter was available for view that year. After a search online and some help (special thanks to Greg Fudacz), we found that the earliest known serial number today seems to be 215 (G. Fudacz, personal communication, August 9, 2021), and there exist some known numbers in close sequence (2680 and 2684, 4441 and 4446) making it likely that the numbering system started at serial number 1, and that the numbers were sequential. This meant that a statistical method employing serial numbers could prove to be useful to date the Sholes Visible. During World War ll, allied forces had a similar dilemma; they wondered how many enemy tanks were manufactured by Germany. Using statistics, they estimated a solution using a method referred to as the “German Tank Problem” (German Tank Problem, 2021). Borrowing this method, we plugged in the numbers for the frequentist equation: [m + m/n - 1]. The results revealed that approximately 5507 Sholes Visible typewriters were manufactured, with a confidence interval of (5330 - 5890). If we assumed this method, we just had to figure out the ramp up and ramp down of manufacturing since 1900 to place the range of serial numbers in their proper years. You read earlier that thousands were planned to be ready for assembly by December 1901, but this could have been hyperbolic, and it was a forward looking statement, not actuals. Furthermore, we didn't have an end date to average out the number of typewriters per year, so it was back to history.


Notable Men of Wisconsin, 1902

The same day that August Meiselbach purchased the Sholes Visible patent, it was announced that he had purchased the Sieg manufacturing factory for speculative purposes only, and that he was moving out of bicycles altogether (Meiselbach’s, 1900). The same announcement states that Mr. Meiselbach also purchased the old Warner Pulley factory in North Milwaukee (Meiselbach’s, 1900), located at Western Ave., 2 blks, n. depot (Wright, 1896). There seems to have been some controversy as to where he would locate his typewriter manufacturing outfit. Whereas this article stated it would be located in the old Warner Pulley factory, most sources suggest that the Sieg Bicycle Factory, located on Pleasant Street in Kenosha, WI, was the site of the new typewriter works. The Sieg factory was located at the same address as the Visible Typewriter Company, the successor name to the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company (Talk of Merger, 1906; Talk of Merger, 1906; Polk & Co., 1907-1908). Furthermore, the articles of incorporation of the company state that the “principal office shall be located at Kenosha” (Department of State, 1901), and it is not Milwaukee, but Kenosha that is listed on the front of the Sholes Visible typewriter, which all point to the Sieg factory as being the location of manufacture. It is true that Meiselbach left the bicycle business. According to an article about August Meiselbach, bicycle manufacturing was one of the businesses that made the city thrive (Cycle King, 1900). He had contributed much to North Milwaukee otherwise as well, including erection of an electric plant and a Casino (Messenger, 2014). This loss to Milwaukee could indicate why the controversy in the papers occurred as Meiselbach worked to set up his new business.


Meiselbach's Bicycle Factory (Wright’s Directory, Milwaukee, 1899)

Prior to incorporation, Meiselbach was hit with a machinists’ strike on May 29, 1901. To combat employees plea for better wages and hours, Meiselbach threatened that he might close his Kenosha factory to send machine work to be done in other cities (Strike Grows Serious, 1901). Scaring workers to go back to work by threatening their livelihoods for good instead of trying to reach a compromise through profit sharing was a common technique from business tycoons at the time. On the one hand, you have employees momentarily breaking contracts by refusing to work in protest. On the other hand, you have an employer who can keep a contract stagnant for as long as he likes. When an employer sees that there are no better prospects for his employees, and therefore they would not seek other employment, he will likely choose not to consider using some of his profits to keep up with his employees' change in the cost of living or improvement in number of hours required to perform the same job due to expertise or automation since there is no reason to incentivize employees to stay, regardless of how difficult their current lives may be. At that point, the only recourse for employees would be to assume the responsibility of going without a paycheck, momentarily or for good, to protest such working conditions. It seems that Meiselbach's threats went heeded since the typewriter factory remained open for a few more years, and I did not find any changes in employee policy at the company.


From the Kenosha News, April 14, 1901. Read about the origins of Labor Day at the Wisconsin Historical Society website: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS248

As an interesting aside, one Herbert “Bert” Thompson, a former bicycle salesman, was caught embezzling around $600 from the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company while he was working as a confidential clerk and bookkeeper for Mr. Meiselbach (News of Wisconsin, 1901). He had been hired around March 1901 (Short Items, 1901a). It was alleged that Meiselbach had found the man “on the streets” and offered him a job (Milwaukee, 1900). Mr. Thompson served around four years in Green Bay Reformatory before being pardoned by Governor La Follette in 1905 (Kenosha, 1905a). Coincidentally, it was also Governor La Follette to whom one of the first Sholes Visible typewriters was reportedly shipped in April 1901 (Machines Ready, 1901). Note that only one month prior to that shipment, it was stated that typewriters were on back-order in the number of 500, and Meiselbach wanted to wait until 1000 had been produced before releasing the first model (Adding New Machinery, 1901). By the following month, May 1901, it was announced that 25 machines were complete and being turned out, 4000 had already been sold, and 1000 were in the process of construction (Miner, 1901). From this information, we can perhaps estimate that 25 were produced between 1900 and May 1901, and at least 1000 were produced in 1901.


No typewriter story would be complete without a factory fire. Luckily for A. D. Meiselbach, this one was small. As you can read in the article to your left, on November 26, 1901, a worker discovered that a staircase was on fire and called his co-workers to help put it out. The loss was reportedly “slight”, and the fire’s origin was left a “mystery” (Fire, 1901). Although damage was moderate, the fire seems to have been an ominous foreshadowing for the next events affecting the Sholes Visible typewriter and Meiselbach, both the man and the company.


On April 5, 1902, Meiselbach Company’s capital was raised from $200,000 to $300,000 (Department of State, 1903); however, four months later the superintendent of the factory, Elmer Weck, left for a better paying job in Chicago (Elmer Weck Leaves, 1902). Weck was one of the original incorporators of the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company, and had previously been superintendent for the Sieg Bicycle Manufacturing Company (Elmer Weck Leaves, 1902). This signifies that experience, if not talent, had left. In August, Meiselbach, likely with experience himself having come from bicycle manufacturing, took over as superintendent, but that did not last long. By April 3, 1903, the Kenosha News announced that A. D. Meiselbach had turned over control of the company to stockholders from Milwaukee (Meiselbach Out, 1903), including a well known attorney named Elias H. Bottum. On September 17, 1903, a real estate transfer occurred between August D. Meiselbach and wife, and the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company (Real Estate Transfers, 1903). Meiselbach went on to his next venture in automobiles (Will Build Autos, 1904) leaving one company with his name on it behind. According to the papers, Meiselbach had been experimenting on the typewriters, and others were not satisfied by his results. Bottum was the third of the three original incorporators of the company (Happenings, 1926; Miner, 1902), but as an attorney who seemed pretty prolific in the law profession (Against the Indiana Co., 1905; Court of Appeals, 1905; Grand Trunk, 1905), he was perhaps more interested in the legal dealings of the company, and likely less knowledgeable about the manufacturing work itself. Claims were that the factory would produce and put on the market more typewriters than before, with an unstated assumption that the model was ready and would not undergo anymore tinkering. On August 19, 1903, an ad for the Sholes Visible mentioned a “1903 model” (Belknap Hdw. & Mfg. Co., 1903), possibly signifying that the company had something new and different, which would have gone well with the change in management and messaging at that time.



But, was the 1903 model really different? Upon review of our own machine in comparison with pictures of other machines around the Internet, it seemed the answer could have been ‘yes’. We looked closer, and it seemed that there were actually quite a few differences between machines. We started gathering as much information as we could, attempting to catalog models with accompanying serial numbers and pictures. Given that more differences seemed to appear every time we looked, we attempted to narrow the list to those features immediately identifiable, and came up with the following list, hoping to find a pattern:



We had noticed when we unwrapped our machine that the “Sholes” on the paper plate was off-centered. An early theory for this was that the extra space was designed for a sticker decal that did not arrive in time to produce a large order, which would have been evidenced by a series of machines in a row with the off centered plate. When we lined up the model features in chronological order, there was no such pattern. We did see that every time the sticker was on the back plate, A. D. Meiselbach was printed on the front of the typewriter, and likewise, machines without a paper plate sticker always had pinstriping on the front. Whereas we originally thought the pinstriping was for those machines awaiting decals and had to be made quickly, this strong coincidence points to the higher likelihood that the pinstriped machines were sold onto a market that did not want the Meiselbach brand on the typewriter. It is possible that Meiselbach had intended to sell those machines to a third party vendor. It is interesting that the only known off-brand Sholes Visible, the Bonita Ball-Bearing Typewriter, also had pin-stripping on the front rather than the Meiselbach decal (Rehr, 1996). So, we had our theory for the pin-striping and sticker, but we could think of no reason for the off-centered Sholes decal on the paper plate.



We continued looking across the data, and noted two clean breaks in the pattern. The earliest typewriters had long ribbon spool stems that touched the top of the frame, lacked a long carriage return lever, had a spring on the back of the machine, and the side paper fingers were short with a flat center finger. This model lasted until somewhere between numbers 2303 and 2445. Let’s estimate it at 2400 to round it out. The next set had ribbon spool bars attached to the back of the frame, so they did not descend all the way down, a long carriage return lever, no spring on the back, and the side paper fingers were long with a more rounded center finger. This second model lasted until somewhere between numbers 3390 and 4004. We can call that break around 3700. The final change was more subtle. The character pointer had a double point as opposed to the original single point, and the ribbon guide was rectangular, as opposed to the older oval shape. This would be the third model. This puts the initial run at around 2400 machines, the second at around 1300 machines, and the third at around 1800 machines. If we assume this third model was just a minor evolution over time (likely there were many given repeated reports of experimentation right up to the end), then this second model had around 2900-3100 manufactured.



From earlier, we believe around 25 were made January 1900 - May 1901. At least 1000 more were made in 1901 to fill that first order. We found an article that claimed that the plant had the capacity to manufacture 200 models per week in 1901 (Machines Ready, 1901); however, this would have been over 6000 machines before the end of the year, which was more typewriters than we predicted were manufactured in the full life of the typewriter, so we assume their capacity was higher than actual output. That same article mentions that the first typewriter churned out was that day in April, 1901. If we take the 1903 model theory to be true, then one could say that about 2400 were made 1900-1902, while about 3000 were manufactured in 1903 and beyond. As you will see, it would make more sense that the first years of manufacturing were top-heavy, while the last years had fewer models. It would have been physically possible for this break to have occurred, as such. It is also possible that some of the “1903 models” were actually manufactured toward the end of 1902, which also would have been physically possible based on capacity, but now we are stating unprovable hypotheses based on the data at hand. As such, it is impossible to state more than a hypothesis as to which years were for which serial numbers from the early years. As to the later years, the question still remained as to when production likely stopped, so it was back to history once again.


You might remember that after Mr. Meiselbach left in April 1903, the company announced that it would put more typewriters on the market than ever before. Ironically, in October 1903, the company laid off a large force of workers supposedly to complete the patterns of yet another new model that had been in the works for the past year (New Model, 1903). Although originally tempted to believe that these patterns were for more improvements to the Sholes Visible, we discovered that the Visible Typewriter Company of Kenosha, WI, the successor to the Meiselbach Typewriter Company, manufactured a different machine altogether. The Imperial typewriter, first patented by Herbert Hess in 1900, and later revised and re-patented in 1903 by Hess (Hess, 1900a; Hess, 1900b; Hess, 1903), donned the name of the Visible Typewriter Company, Kenosha, WI, when it was released around 1907. Furthermore, the newspaper stated that new dies and tooling would be required for the new model (New Model, 1903), which suggests a pretty drastic change. This also sounds like perhaps the employees were laid off to make cash available to purchase capital if the company was strapped for cash, with the intention to add employees back as soon as the new model was ready for assembly line work to mass produce. It seemed that the intent was to sell out of the old model and only move forward with the new one meaning that around 1903, it sounds like the company was readying itself to stop manufacturing and selling the Sholes Visible typewriter.


It is puzzling that Hess’ 1903 patent was actually assigned to the Visible Writing Machine Company of Jersey City, New Jersey (Hess, 1903). There seems to be no direct legal link between Visible Typewriter Co. and Visible Writing Machine Co., and no sale of the patent shows up in the newspapers. Agent George W. Flacke, Jr. filed a certificate for the Visible Writing Machine Company to become a corporation of New Jersey on January 7, 1901 (Secretary of State, 1901), eleven months before Meiselbach incorporated A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Co. in Kenosha. The company was located at 1 Montgomery St., in Jersey City, NJ, and was intended as a manufacturing company (Secretary of State, 1908). They had an office at 80 Broadway in New York at least by 1902 (Trow, 1902). Among the directors was E. B. Hess, brother of Herbert Hess, so you can imagine the link with assignment of the patent. Note that there was a Visible Writing Machine Company also listed in London. It appeared to be a distributor for Royal Typewriters, to which E. B. Hess was associated; however, this London company was advertised later than the lifespan of the New Jersey company, so we can rule it out as related.



But why would a manufacturing company in possession of a patent (Visible Writing Machine Company) want to outsource manufacturing to another company (Visible Typewriter Company), and at what point did the two companies begin their relationship? Perhaps money problems had something to do with the decision? By 1904, the New York location was listed as “inoperative” (Trow, 1904), and in December of that year, their capital stock decreased from $500,000 to $5,000 (Secretary of State, 1905). Visible Typewriter Company of Kenosha wasn’t founded until 1905, but is it possible that Bottum saw an opportunity in the Imperial typewriter patent when he took over at A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Co. in 1903? Perhaps Visible Typewriter Company decided to break from advertising the Sholes Visible so the new company name wouldn’t be associated with the older machine. Uncomfortably, this is all conjecture, but it would fit. It is interesting, however, that the Imperial wasn’t manufactured until 1907, as evidenced by a journal article about the machine (What’s Going On, 1907) and newspaper ads (Pitts, 1907) exclusively in 1907. So, what happened between 1903 and 1907?


The layoffs at the Meiselbach company in October 1903 would turn into the beginning of a hiatus in manufacturing. We find out in the papers of June 1904 that the plant had not been in operation since October 1903, except to repair machines sent by customers and to continue experimenting on the new model (News Notes, 1904; Seeks New Trade, 1904). Experimentation continued through October 1904 (Local Items,1904). Again, it is unclear to which typewriter or model this referred. Whether they were experimenting on the Sholes Visible or the Imperial, it seems that if any new Sholes Visible typewriters were made during the last part of 1903 to 1904, it would have been at a rate less than full capacity.



It seems that tinkering with the new patterns was finally successful. Mention of a new model ready for the market was made in January 1905 (Local Items, 1905); however, again, no mention as to which new model this mention referred. In April, it was mentioned that a few men were still working in the factory, turning out a few machines, and that a new model would soon come out (After Big Plant, 1905). This provides evidence that some production occurred in 1904, not of the new model, so of the Sholes Visible. That said, another article mentioned that the plant had been shut down for a year as of September 1905 (Resume at Once, 1905), so any production would have been between June and September 1904 if the papers were accurate. More than likely, a few machines were assembled, but not very many over the course of those years. If we assume around 500-1000 were made 1904, possibly through some of 1905, and the break at 2300-2400 signaled a new “1903 model”, it puts around the same number manufactured in 1901-1902 as were manufactured in 1903. This is feasible from a plant capacity perspective. It is also possible that the "1903 model" is not indicative of the full year of manufacturing, but referred to that way due to the break in design occurring around or in 1903. After adding the new break in the table based on serial numbers and reviewing the data again for any pattern, we noticed that if our hypothesis is correct, the originally noted off-centered logo on the paper plate occurs in this third production time. It seems that after lay-offs and a hiatus in manufacturing, this could have been a manufacturing accident during a time when morale was low. We may never know.


Notable Men of Wisconsin, 1902

At the same time that new models of typewriters were being mentioned in print, it seems the Meiselbach company continued to struggle financially. In April 1904, the factory was listed for sale for unpaid taxes in Kenosha County (List Grows, 1904). In May 1905, a new sales manager and secretary for Meiselbach Co., Charles E. Hughson, was hired (Jottings, 1905). Meanwhile, the Kenosha County treasurer, who possessed the tax title to the factory of the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company, sold it to the cashier of the First National Bank (Kenosha, 1905b). This exchange seems to have been part of the reorganization of the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company to the Visible Typewriter Company (Talk of Merger, 1906). On May 15, 1905, the Visible Typewriter Manufacturing Company was incorporated in the state of Wisconsin by John H. Hurley, Bernard C. Rolorr, and Joseph F. Kaminsky (Department of State, 1941), and some familiar names took over as the officers: president and general manager Wollheim, Vice President E. H. Bottum, and Secretary and Treasurer C. E. Hughson (Resume at Once, 1905). On September 16, 1905, the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company was reorganized as “Visible Typewriter Co.” (Year’s Harvest, 1905). This same month, the Visible Typewriter Co. stated that they would hire 100 men, with an additional 100 needed before winter’s end (Big Demand, 1905), and that the A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company would pay off its debts (Resume at Once, 1905). Two months later, a real estate transfer occurred between the Meiselbach and the Visible Typewriter Companies (Real Estate Transfers, 1905). The reorganization was complete. Visible Typewriter Manufacturing Company was formed for the purpose of “the manufacture and sale of various utensils & tools and appliances and the purchase and sale of such real estate and personal property as shall be desirable on the part of such corporation when formed”. The capital stock was the same as A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company, at $300,000, but the principal office was listed as located in Milwaukee (Department of State, 1941) instead of Kenosha. Among these announcements of the new Visible Typewriter Manufacturing Company, we finally have more solid evidence to suggest that the experimentation on the new model under Meiselbach was for the Imperial: the papers state that the “Meiselbach model” would be abandoned in favor of a new model for which they believe the experimentation phase is over (Resume at Once, 1905). Given that it is known that the Imperial Typewriter was manufactured by Visible, it is clear that the Sholes Visible was associated with Meiselbach, while the Imperial, and associated models, was manufactured by Visible.


One might think this would close the books on the Sholes Visible. Interestingly, both companies’ names can be found operating at the same time. There seems to be no direct evidence that the former company failed, per se, just re-organized at a time when they owed quite a bit of debt that was allegedly paid off. The Sholes Visible typewriter is shown in the 1905-1906 Polk’s Wisconsin directory as its own entry, and as manufactured by A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Co. (Polk & Co., 1905); A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Company was listed in Polk’s directory in Kenosha, WI, in 1907 (Polk & Co., 1907-1908). To further complicate things, during the 1905 reorganization, an ad appeared for a “new” typewriter named the Bonita Ball-Bearing Visible Typewriter, sold by the Pacific Hardware and Steel Company of San Francisco (University of California, 1905). This “new” typewriter was, in fact, the same design as the Sholes Visible. Given that the “Meiselbach Typewriter” was sold in California for the first time in 1902 (Local Items, 1902), it is unclear whether this was a new manufacturing agreement, a way to get rid of excess inventory to make way for the Imperial, or a rebranding effort for a now supposedly defunct Meiselbach Typewriter Company.


Ad from Sunset, v. 11, pt. 2, 1903, https://babel.hathitrust.org/

Pacific Hardware and Steel formed on January 1, 1902, from the consolidation of Miller, Sloss, & Scott and George W. Gibbs Company in San Francisco (Firms Pool Interests, 1901). It is unclear if the company was part of a larger and older firm located across the country. Ads for a Bonita Ball-Bearing Sewing Machine had been around since at least 1902 (Local Notes, 1902; Lee, 1902), and an ad for the Bonita Ball Bearing Lawn Mower showed up in 1906 (Western Hardware, 1906). One antique sewing machine enthusiast noted that the Bonita sewing machine was simply a poorly selling Moldacot sewing machine (Emma, 2017). Given this information, Bonita appears to have been a generic brand offered by Pacific Hardware for other going-out-of-business models. Given that a few sources indicate the Sholes Visible did not do well in the market, it is possible that Pacific Hardware and Steel purchased these machines resale under their own brand name, especially in light of the reorganization at the time the first ads appeared. One might imagine that if this were simply an offloading of inventory, one would not see any serial numbers after the Bonita; however, we see that the only Bonita known had a serial number in the middle of the list. This would mean that quite a few Sholes Visible typewriters were manufactured in 1905, which is unlikely given the history of the factory. It is plausible that the Meiselbach business in California in 1902 mentioned earlier used Pacific Hardware, newly formed, to distribute the Sholes Visible, and the Bonita brand wasn’t used until Meiselbach reorganized, or that the Bonita typewriter had been on the market for a while, and the ads are simply lost to history. As you can see in the ad above, Pacific Hardware and Steel advertise themselves as distributors, not manufacturers suggesting this was not a new manufacturing agreement as posited earlier. Perhaps Pacific Hardware had purchased older, previously assembled models, either never sold if the factory did not employ FIFO (first in-first out), or returned and refurbished, and fit their own paper plates to the back? This would result in older serial numbers than would be expected for the year of final assembly, which would explain the anomaly in the pattern in serial numbers vs. date of the Bonita ads, but there is no evidence to back this last hypothesis. In any of these cases, we do see the typewriter marketed in 1905, making it possible that manufacturing of the Sholes Visible, or the Bonita, extended into 1905.


It seems that the Visible Typewriter Manufacturing Co. started with money issues of their own after the reorganization. On May 26, 1906, factory workers walked out in protest due to the failure of management to deliver a paycheck for some time (Talk of Merger, 1906; Kenosha Typewriter Employees, 1906). Management stated that ready cash was unavailable to pay the men due to it being tied up in large contracts (Men Quit Work, 1906). According to the workers, the company had been manufacturing typewriters for a Chicago jobbing and retailing firm that had cut a deal with Visible so that the majority of factory output went to them, selling typewriters at such a low price that they couldn't turn a profit (No Change, 1906). Payment eventually came in June 1906 (End of Year, 1906).



It just so happened that Sears, based in Chicago, advertised a typewriter named the Burnett in their catalogs of Winter 1905, Spring 1906 (Sears, 1905; Sears, 1906), and later. Now, the Burnett looked remarkably similar to the Imperial, as Robert Messenger points out (Messenger, 2014). Although the front of the machine bears the name of the Burnett Typewriter Company of Chicago, there seems to be no record of any such company through either city or corporate directories, or in any search across other online sources. Furthermore, in one of Sears’ ads about the Burnett, it is stated: “We have a contract to take every Burnett typewriter the manufacturers make. The Burnett is manufactured by an old established typewriter concern whose machines are widely known and used.” (Sears, Roebuck, & Co., 1905). This information is consistent with the possibility that the Visible Typewriter Company of Kenosha was manufacturing for Sears at the time, which means the large contracts mentioned by the managers during the walk-out and the Chicago concern could have referred to Sears. Although the description in the Sears ad could also have referred to the Visible Writing Machine Company of New Jersey to whom the patent of the Imperial was assigned, due to downsizing in 1904, it is more likely that the Visible Writing Machine Co. sold the rights to manufacture the patent of the Imperial to the Visible Typewriter Co. of Kenosha, and the first brand of this typewriter was the Burnett. This timing would match the timing of the of Meiselbach to Visible, and would account for the delay to launch the Imperial if they could only produce enough typewriters to match Sears' demand at the time. To provide some evidence beyond appearance that the Hess patents were covering both the Imperial and the Burnett designs, Robert Messenger shows an Imperial Typewriter with Burnett Typewriter Company written on the front of the machine (Messenger, 2014). This could suggest that the Visible Typewriter Company manufactured under this alternative name, or that Burnett was actually a manufacturing company that I just couldn’t track down. There was some talk in May 1906 of a potential merger between Visible Typewriter Company and a typewriter company in another city (No Change, 1906), but it is unclear what happened with these plans, and in September 1906, Manager Wollheim declined to respond to the rumors (Ready for Work, 1906). I suppose this could have referred to a merger between Burnett and Visible, or even between Visible Typewriter and Visible Writing Machine Companies, but again, I was unable to find further information around this topic.


On Oct 31, 1906, the property of the Visible Typewriter Company was transferred to a trust bank in Chicago to secure a $200,000 loan (Company’s Property Transferred, 1906; Trust Deed Filed, 1906). It seemed that although the Visible Typewriter Co. was trying to assure stockholders that they were turning things around, creditors alleged that the company had attempted to defraud them (Fraud, 1907), and things went downhill from there. In September 1907, the Visible Typewriter Company filed for involuntary bankruptcy (Receiver Named, 1907; Kenosha Typewriter Sued, 1907), and the articles of incorporation in Wisconsin were officially forfeited on January 1, 1908 (Department of State, 1941). Through to the end, experimentation with the typewriter models was said to have continued. Sigmund Wollheim, president of the Visible Typewriter Company at the time, bought the tools and dies under the pretense that the patents owned by the company would be valuable (Open New Fight, 1908). Once again, there was no indication as to which patents he purchased, nor what he did with them. By this time, the patent of the Sholes Visible typewriter would have been coming to an end, unless further work had been done to extend its lifetime, so it is likely he was referring to the patent of the Imperial typewriter. If we had further information about what he did with the patents, it might indicate the relationship between the Visible Typewriter and Visible Writing Machine Companies, or the relationship between the Visible Typewriter Company and the Triumph Visible Typewriter Company, which we will come to in a moment. Coincidentally, the charter for the Visible Writing Machine Company of New Jersey was declared null and void on March 15, 1907 (Secretary of State, 1908).


It seems the patent of the Imperial lived on through a third brand, the Triumph Perfect Visible. In 1907, Francis J. Dorl was heading a newly formed Triumph Visible Typewriter Company of New York. Typewriter Topics captures that the machine they were turning out, the Triumph Perfect Visible, is the same machine as that made by the factory in Kenosha (Triumph, 1907), making the clear connection between the Imperial and the Triumph Perfect Visible. (Thanks to Robert Messenger for pointing me to this source.) Triumph Visible Typewriter Co. first appeared in the New York Directory in 1907 at 21 Park Row, Rm 807 (Trow, 1908). The skyscraper building, Park Row, was considered the tallest in the city, and in one source, even in the world until that year, when the Singer Building, housing the Singer Manufacturing Company, took over as tallest building. It seems the Triumph company was listed in the New York directories until 1917 (Trow, 1909; Polk & Co., 1917), mentioning one J L Dorl as president as late as 1916 (Polk & Co., 1916).



So, what happened to the Imperial? It seems to have been sold only in the last year of the life of the Visible Typewriter Company, seemingly exclusively through a third party distributor, Joseph A. Pitts (Pitts, 1907), who was a well known young entrepreneur at the time (Trust Deed Filed, 1906), and then disappeared from the history books.



Looking back at the history of the Kenosha factory, it seems that several owners had only survived a short time while housed in that unlucky building, including Lane Manufacturing (Industrial Kenosha, 1952), Sieg Bicycle Manufacturing, A. D. Meiselbach Typewriter Manufacturing, and then Visible Typewriter Manufacturing (Receiver Named, 1907). Earl Motor Company, which leased space in the building in 1907 (Makers and Dealers, 1908a), stayed on through their own reorganization to the Petrel Motor Company (Interesting News, 1908). In December 1908, the factory was finally sold to the Badger Brass Company (Giles, 2007; Makers and Dealers, 1908b). Hopefully this last company had better luck than the previous occupants!


Thanks for taking this journey with us. We started with Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the first commercially viable typewriter in the world, and landed on Hess, the brother of a man closely associated with one of the most well known typewriter manufacturers in the world, Royal. We also managed to uncover a new mystery around the Burnett Typewriter. We hope our theories around the years of manufacture of each of the Sholes Visible typewriters will assist you in your own journey to find out more about this interesting machine. If you have a Sholes Visible or more information about anything in this article, particularly the Burnett, we’d love to hear from you.


References


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