By Robert Messenger
A shiny black Remington Model 2 portable typewriter used by Agatha Christie would seem an unusual inclusion in an Egyptian collection. But what’s more unusual is that the collection is in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden in Holland. Christie, apparently, left the typewriter behind after one of her trips to Egypt in the 1930s, and it somehow found its way into the vast collection – made up mainly of ancient Egyptian art - acquired by the Leiden museum.
Notwithstanding these odd circumstances, there is a strong typewriter connection with Leiden and its surrounding area. Indeed, Remington itself once controlled typewriter plants in Zeist and later, in 1952, in Den Bosche (also known as ‘s-Hertogenbosch). Halberg, Royal and Imperial typewriters were made on Oosterkerkstraat in Leiden and, after Litton Industries also embraced Triumph-Adler, many of the better known German-branded portables were made on Rooseveltstraat in Leiden. These included the much-admired Contessa semi-portables.
The United States, Germany and Japan are recognised as the countries which produced the largest numbers of typewriters. Britain is probably not far behind this group. At the other end of the scale are countries such as Poland, Portugal and Pakistan. Holland’s position on this list is far higher than many typewriter aficionados today realise.
Holland first began to manufacture foreign brands in 1942. Remington had lent its Torpedo factory in Frankfurt to the Nazis for the duration of World War II, and needed to move typewriter parts out of the immediate range of Allied bombers (which did hit hard in Leiden). It did so by setting up production in Zeist, near Utrecht. The Torpedo 17 portable was made there.
Royal took over the Halberg factory in Leiden in 1953 and after Royal and Imperial were absorbed by Litton Industries, the first non-British Imperial portable emerged from Leiden in 1965. This model, best known as the Royal Skylark, was also called the Imperial 1000. Production of Imperials and Royals moved from Holland to Portugal in 1967, when Litton ended production of the Imperial Messenger in England and the Royal Safari in the United States (along with the Cole Steel). When Litton acquired Triumph-Adler in 1969, the Adler Tippa S was made in Leiden from the following year.
A university city since 1575, Leiden has been one of Europe's most prominent scientific centres for more than four centuries. Albert Einstein was once a student there. It is also a city with a rich cultural heritage, notably as the home town of Rembrandt. In the 16th and 17th centuries Leiden developed an important printing and publishing industry. From the 17th to the early 19th century, Leiden was the publishing place of one of the most important contemporary journals, Nouvelles Extraordinaires de Divers Endroits, known also as Gazette de Leyde. Leiden's reputation as the "city of books" continued through the 19th century.
Perhaps it should also now be remembered as a “city of typewriters”.