At Amherst, 'Clack Clack Clack' Drowns Out 'Tap Tap Tap'

Kate Berry

Clara Yoon taps out a note to a friend in September at a late-night letter-writing social at Amherst College. The event was so popular that the college will do it again this week.
December 04, 2011

Manual typewriters are enjoying a comeback at Amherst College.

Like most American institutions, the college has a thriving party scene, where students who want to socialize can knock back a few drinks and grind the night away to pounding bass lines.

"But we also have a large part of the population who really aren't inter­ested in dancing in a dark basement," says Crista Reed, assistant director of student activities. So this fall the college started "Amherst After Dark," a 10 p.m.-to-2 a.m. program meant to provide consistent social options for students who want to stay out late and remain sober.

As one of September's activities, Ms. Reed proposed a "letter-writing social," hearkening back to her own days as a "slightly dorky undergrad" at Roanoke College who eschewed late-night parties in favor of things like writing letters to relatives and high-school friends. This fall Ms. Reed ordered three manual typewriters, some hand-cut quill pens, stationery, postcards, postage stamps, and even wax cartridges for a hot-glue gun so that students could art­fully seal their letters without using open flames.

She was expecting 150 to 200 students to show up. She drew 350.

"I was elated by the response that Crista got to this event," says Rohan Mazumdar, a senior physics and economics major. "It's filled a huge gap." Mr. Mazumdar says he wrote a letter to a faithful correspondent back in his native India, and a couple of postcards to friends at Amherst.

"A lot of folks were writing to friends," says Ms. Reed. "We had a lot of international students writing to people back home. And we had a couple people writing to professors, so that was really sweet."

Erika Sologuren, a junior majoring in environmental studies, arrived early enough to snag one of the manual typewriters. It "was actually a little challenging, because I'd never used one before," says Ms. Sologuren, who eventually figured out the mechanics of the device. "It had this old-timey feeling to it."

Ms. Reed says most of the students needed brief tutorials on such things as carriage returns and indents before they could use the typewriters. "If you hit too many keys at one time, all of the hammers get locked up," she says. "That happened to one of the students, and they freaked out: 'I broke it!'"

So popular were the typewriters that Amherst has made a couple of them available for regular checkout in the campus game room, says Ms. Reed. "Most after­noons I hear someone clacking out a letter in our atrium, and the bell dinging," she says.

This Thursday Ms. Reed planned to reprise the letter-writing social, folding it into a previously scheduled "craft night" that is also part of Amherst After Dark.

Mr. Mazumdar, who plans to attend, says he won't repeat the mistake he made at the September social. This time, he'll bring along the address of his grandmother, who writes him regularly via snail mail and who, he says, would appreciate hearing back in kind.