By Robert Messenger
Next Valentine’s Day will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch, in Barcelona, of the iconic Pop Art portable typewriter, the Olivetti Valentine.
It wasn’t until just before Christmas 1969 that the Valentine started to be heavily advertised in Britain and the United States. Interestingly, given Ettore Sottsass’s original concept for his design – the “typewriter equivalent of a Bic biro” – the Valentine was being sold for 18 guineas (£297 in today’s money), the same price as an Olivetti Dora (the mechanics are, after all, the same) and three guineas cheaper than the Olivetti Lettera 32. The Adler Tippa S was priced at £20 9s 6p, the Hermes Baby 18 guineas, and the Imperial (Litton/Silver-Seiko) 200 and Brother 700 both for 15 guineas. The Smith-Corona Corsair was priced at £14 3s 6d, the Olympia SF 33 for 17 guineas and the Remington Envoy I for £19 8s 6d. Of all these models, only the Valentine can be said to have “held its value” over half a century. Indeed, second-hand Valentines are, on average, almost certainly worth more today than they sold for in 1969. And, unlike the other portables mentioned here, that value will also undoubtedly increase as the years go by. Still, though the original asking price hardly made the Valentine the equivalent of a Bic biro, 18 guineas seems from this distance in time to have been exceedingly good value.
The situation was very similar in the US, where a new Valentine could be bought for as a little as $US44.88 ($US312 in today’s money). This was as much as $10, or 22 per cent, below Olivetti’s recommended retail price. But, unlike Britain, in the US Olivetti used very different language in advertising the Valentine. It was referred to as an “anti-establishment portable”, a phrase largely unknown in the UK at the time but one which neatly chimed in with the turmoil in the US in 1968, mostly centred around the Presidential election campaign pitting Richard M. Nixon against Hubert Humphrey. Olivetti went even further. The Valentine, it said, “Absolutely obsoletes humpy typewriters”. Humpy? I was around in the 60s, and can still remember them, but “humpy” is a word with which, in this kind of context, I’m not overly familiar. I know that in Australia it means an outback shelter. The Urban Dictionary tells me that these days, “humpy” means “beautifully sculpted”, but I feel sure that if that definition had been applied in the late 1960s, it would be in referring to the Valentine, not other typewriters.
Perhaps, however, the most interesting word Olivetti used in relation to the Valentine was “brightwriter”, a word I don’t believe has made it into any dictionaries. Obviously it related to the bright red colour the Valentine was mostly marketed in (the Valentine was also made in a lime green, mid-blue and off-white, but in nowhere near the numbers the Red Machine was manufactured).
But quite why Olivetti’s US publicists felt the need to add “brightwriter” to “Valentine” remains anyone’s guess. “Brightwriter” was also used, by the way, in connection with Henry Wolf’s series of adverts for the deep teal Olivetti Studio 45 semi-portable, featuring model Twiggy, musicians Pearl Bailey and Duke Ellington and New York high society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker (real name Aileen Mehle).
As for the Valentine, Wolf again led the charge, with his business partner Jane Trahey. The “brightwriter” was the subject of an extraordinarily innovative advertising campaign put together by Trahey-Wolf with New York marketing company Marden-Kane, to this day leaders in the field of promotional marketing services which include sweepstakes, contests (they even offer to judge them), instant win games, continuity and loyalty programs.
Full-page ads started to appear in LIFE magazine on a weekly basis from September 1969. I could say full-colour, except there wasn’t a lot of colour used - mostly just the bright red of the Valentine. The campaign started with a competition for school children to write an ad for the Valentine. All the machine’s technical attributes were listed, along with words like “un-humpy” and “anti-establishment” – the language of the whole ad was carefully and squarely aimed at teenagers. This was followed by “Olivetti’s Creative Xercise Contest” in which a typewriter had to be used to draw something (“anything”).
The most startling ad, however, was for “Olivetti’s insomnia anagram (a contest for teenagers who can’t sleep). How many flattering adjectives can you make out of the words: Olivetti’s Brightwriter, the Valentine.” In the centre of the page was a photo of the Valentine, surrounded by 86 blank lines for entries.
Now, I’m here to tell you I’ve run “olivettisbrightwriterthevalentine” through an online program and there are 15,338 adjectives to be had, although I’m not sure all of them would make it into Webster’s. But they include, at a glance, some words that seem almost spookily prophetic, such as “overbright” to “innovative” to “everlasting” and “entertainer”. I’m sure there are many hundreds more which might equally describe the Valentine. Why don’t you try?