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How to buy a WWII-era German typewriter for reenactment

I collect typewriters and use them a lot. Many people have asked me how to go about buying a usable WWII era German typewriter for use at reenactments and for making reproduction paperwork.

I’m going to preface this by stating that a lot of this information is going to be directed towards people in the USA. If you live in continental Europe, it is likely you can find a usable wartime or pre-war German machine somewhere local. While it is not impossible to find a German machine locally in the USA, it’s not easy.

What kind of typewriter would be best for you to buy? The most important thing is that it has German keyboard, with Umlaut vowel keys on the right hand side. You will need these keys to make convincing reproduction documents. Keyboards intended for the German market have “QWERTZ” in the top row of letters (as opposed to the English “Qwerty”). Beyond this, you need to make sure that the machine works. Sometimes keys were switched around after the war, so familiarize yourself with the German keyboard and look closely at any prospective purchase.

If you are buying a machine to use, it needs to be functional. How can you tell if a machine works? Ask the seller to test it if you can’t try it out yourself and the seller doesn’t say if it works. If all the keys go up and down, the space bar works, the carriage advances when a key is pressed, and a piece of paper can be loaded in there to type on, the machine will almost certainly work though it may need some tuning up and cleaning. These things were built to last. Sticky keys are an easy fix, with cleaning. The rubber platen has usually hardened with time, this is normal. The easiest fix for this is to load in 2 or 3 sheets of paper when typing. The extra sheets act as a cushion so you don’t make holes in the paper when typing. If you love the typewriter you can have the platen recovered with new rubber.

Portable typewriters are easier to move around and often come in an original case that will protect them. These are most appropriate for field impressions. On the other hand, full size standard typewriters are the best for typing on. They were more sturdily built than light portables. They are most appropriate for office impressions and are ideal if you are buying a machine to use at home- if you have the space. They are heavy!

Where to look to buy a typewriter? Most of mine come from eBay, lots from German eBay, though shipping from Germany is expensive. I’ve heard of people scoring them on Facebook Marketplace but I have never been so lucky. Etsy has typewriters, which may be more expensive than eBay, but that may be cleaned, restored and sold by specialist sellers who know how to ship these sensitive machines. There are some Facebook groups for typewriter collectors, but usable Third Reich era German machines are not often offered. Typewriters are very easily damaged in shipping. When buying online, it is best to buy from a seller who regularly ships typewriters, even if the price is more expensive. If you buy a typewriter from someone with no experience shipping these, you are going to have to give them some tips on how to ship safely. There are a few web sites you can find with tips specific to shipping typewriters, you can send the seller a link. Transatlantic shipping is extremely rough on these. Finding one locally is better, even if the price is more expensive.

How much should you expect to pay? Many classic prewar German typewriters are very common, looking at the worldwide typewriter market. These include Erika, Continental, Rheinmetall, Olympia Simplex/Progress/Elite, Triumph, Adler, Torpedo, Groma N or T, etc. You can buy many of these on German eBay for less than 40 Euro. Shipping to the USA (at the time of writing this, January 2020) is 76 Euro for parcels under 10 kg, this would include many portable typewriters. Standard typewriters will be over 10 kg and will cost more to ship. So all in, you are looking at around $150-ish for a portable typewriter, shipped from Germany to the USA. You can buy machines for these prices fairly regularly. Of course, there is the matter of shipping and the associated risk of damage. Professional repairs on top of shipping can easily push your total costs to $300 for a machine you really paid less than $50 for. There are some sellers on US eBay or Etsy that are based in Europe but that sell these machines regularly and who understand how they have to be shipped to ensure they will arrive safely. These sellers generally offer machines with Buy it Now prices much higher than typical German eBay end prices. But you can still get machines from them for under $300 shipped. And if you are lucky you can find German machines here in the USA. Some sellers will ask a lot but there are deals to be found on eBay, it’s not totally unusual to win a German prewar machine for less than $100 and then pay $45-$80 for shipping on top of that.

Generally speaking: if you’re paying $100 or less, total, it’s a steal for a working machine. Anything under $200 is a good deal. $300 is about the most you want to pay if you’re just looking for a representative working example you can use. If you are paying more than $300 there should be something very special about the machine.

The Olympia Robust in field gray was issued to the Wehrmacht in a special wooden crate. One of those in the crate is worth very easily $250 or more plus shipping. If it also has the SS key, in the original crate, it’s worth up to $1500.

I have bought a several SS typewriters for $500 or less. I consider those deals. They are out there, if you’re lucky. Prices up to $1000 for SS machines are more common, some have been fetching $1300-$1500.

If it types in Fraktur it is very rare, much rarer than an SS machine, and easily $1000.

What about ink ribbons? Almost all German typewriters from the 1920s-1940s used the same standard ribbon. Only the spools were sometimes different. They still make these ribbons today. If your machine has a dried out ribbon on old metal spools, you can buy any standard typewriter ribbon and wind the new ribbon on the old spools. New plastic spools to fit most vintage machines are still made, too.

How can you figure out if a machine is appropriate for use? Every typewriter has a serial number that in most cases can be used to provide a precise manufacture date, you can find databases online that will enable you to look up the year of manufacture. Typewriters from the 1920s were definitely used by the Wehrmacht, you don’t need to find a wartime made machine.

Typewriters are a lot of fun to use. When new they were very expensive. They can be found today for a fraction of what they cost in the 40’s, when you factor in inflation. Good luck!

Some German typewriters from my collection can be seen here.