The collector

Nis Kildegaard’s staplers and typewriters.


I lived in Edgartown for six years beginning in 2006, and met Nis (yes Nis, not Nils) Kildegaard at our library. Since 2012 I have lived in Chilmark, and I don’t get down to the new Edgartown library very often. On a visit some months back while hunting for a new audiobook, I headed upstairs and perused the offerings, but instead became fascinated by and fixated on the collection of staplers surrounding Nis Kildegaard’s desk. I was not ready to do an interview at that moment, but Kildegaard agreed to share his collections, which not only included the staplers but also a few scattered antique typewriters. The bulk of Kildegaard’s typewriter collection remains boxed and stored at his home, because, he said, “they take up too much space.”

Kildegaard began his collection tour with a 1908-ish typewriter he bought at a yard sale in 1981, and learned from the sellers that it had once belonged to the Edgartown Post Office. When you look at the keys, you can see Street Address, County, and special tabulators.

Kildegaard said he’s originally from Iowa, and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He was living in Indiana when the ownership of a tiny newspaper changed hands. He interviewed, and got the job as editor. “It was a three- or four-person operation where we basically did everything, and I learned a lot,” he told me. “I was able to get a little taste of the old linotype letterpress printing before they went to offset lithography.”

I wondered what Kildegaard’s first typewriter was, and he told me, “In college [at Yale], all my roommates had typewriters and I didn’t.” He provided the stereo, and borrowed whomever’s typewriter was free for his work. As a college graduation present, he received a German-made Adler typewriter he still owns, and used all through his “Indiana years.”

Kildegaard moved to the Island in 1980, leaving his job at the Washington bureau of the New York Times, where he worked as Scotty (James Barrett) Reston’s assistant. He joined the Restons as an editor at the Vineyard Gazette, which the family had purchased in 1968. He was there for 24 years. “When I came to the Gazette, everyone was working on typewriters,” he said. “Computers were just beginning to come into newsrooms back then, so everyone had a Royal typewriter at their desk, [skipping the IBM Selectric period and] going straight to computer terminals.”

It is “the process of tinkering and fixing” that engages Kildegaard. “Some people will go home and do the New York Times crossword, and I’ll get out my tools and spread them out on the picnic table in the backyard and fix a typewriter,” he says. “It’s soothing, and there’s closure figuring out the puzzle aspect.” Unlike the magic of computers, Kildegaard says of typewriters, “You can see this key connects to that hinge, that hinge connects to that lever, which swings the platen and leaves an impression. There are 44 keys, and if one isn’t working, you look to the key to the left or the right and figure out how’s this one different than the one that works. The satisfaction is having this old thing and making it work again.”

Kildegaard’s collection grew from his first purchase at a New York City thrift shop on 23rd Street for just $3 or $4 — an “as is” purchase that he had working in no time. He believes he has around 40 antique typewriters, mostly portables, because they’re easier to store. One thing interesting about typewriters is that their patent numbers are on the bottom, and by looking them up, you can read about who designed them.

Moving on to the staplers, mostly displayed atop the shelving behind Kildegaard’s desk, he points to the Ace Fastener Corp.’s Cadet model, and adds, “They made the Pilot and the Glider too.” The “aesthetics and design speak to the period[s] in which the [staplers] were created,” he says. He pointed out one of the earliest models he has, and when an object has no precedent, Kildegaard says, “No one knows what it’s supposed to look like, but through use they develop common denominators, like the pusher on top.” He points out a Swingline made only for one year, “because it was too weird, it looks like a snail, and nobody bought it.” Of course he even has a “long-reach stapler for doing the fold of a magazine.” Pointing to his desk, Kildegaard says, “I use these with children to tell a story about America. The Scout 202 was made for many years, but this is a Scout 202V, a Victory stapler, made during the days we were conserving metal for the war effort, they built these with wooden bases. Swingline did the same thing. They’re made out of much cheaper metal.”

I see something that looks like pliers, and Kildegaard says they’re in fact “plier staplers.” He has one that was used for film negatives, another for a florist or a grocer. Bostitch, as in Boston Stitching Co., made a great many “last a lifetime” staplers. He even has a “sideways stapler,” a bit of a triangle, that would have been used at a print shop. Then Kildegaard grabs a Hotchkiss: “The dominant stapler in the country. They eventually became part of Swingline. Hotchkiss was so successful getting their products around the world, in fact, the word for stapler in Japan is ‘hotchkiss.’”

A Danish Folle stapler is also included in New York’s Museum of Modern Art collection. Staplers, I learn from Kildegaard, “used a lot of different kinds of staples until WWII. If you collect staplers you have to collect staples.” Kildegaard pulls out a box filled with a variety of antique staples. Then he shows me a stapler that doesn’t use staples but has a coil of brass wire that doesn’t rust, made by the Bates Co. in Orange, N.J.; it was used by the Library of Congress and by law offices. Unlike regular staplers which take “a cartridge or stick of staples, this thing takes a continuous coil and pulls it through, or it cuts it and gets ready for the next one. It went out of production in the mid-’60s.”

Racine, Wis., Chicago, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut were all places that produced staplers. “One niche in the ecology of staplers was not to be the best,” according to Kildegaard, “but the cheapest.” He has one made in Sweden, then mentions miniature staplers, showing off his Swingline Top. “There’s craftsmanship, and a lot of ingenuity in designing these things.” Next he points out a “James Bond’s stapler hidden inside a fountain pen, the Duo-Fast stapler.”

Kildegaard’s stapler collection was pulled together over five years, and he no longer is on the hunt, but he admits never spending more than $20 on any stapler. He grabs “the Speed King, the first stapler that opens this way, a front-loader, and the old way fell by the wayside.” El Casco was a manufacturer of revolvers in Spain, and they manufactured handmade staplers.

There’s a really cool portable typewriter made for use in WWI which folded into its case on the end of a bookcase display. Someone who was halfway between the guns and their own men in war would set up his typewriter on a mini tripod and listen for which way the bullets were going, type up notes, which would be relayed on horseback to the artillery, who would reset the positions of their guns.

Over the years Kildegaard has also had the honor of caring for and fixing typewriters for Vineyard writers, including John Hough, Dionis Coffin Riggs, Dorothy West, and Ward Just, who sadly lost his favorite typewriter in a fire, but Kildegaard procured a replacement. Former Island writer Ted Hoagland swore by the German engineering of his Olympia typewriters. “When Hoagland finished a manuscript I’d get called and come over with my brushes, solvent, air compressor, and oil if it needed it, and get it ready for the next novel,” Kildegaard said.

When I first stopped in, Kildegaard was very excited that a new tool had arrived. He admits he doesn’t get many new tools, but he had needed “a captive spring tool” and was thrilled he now owned one because “typewriters are filled with little springs that make the gizmos go, but if you have this tool you can grab the itty bitty end of the spring and save hours.” Kildegaard tells me, “Staplers are only about 100 years old. Before staplers, office workers would stitch paper together with needle and thread. If it was really fat, they’d use a woven red tape and bind it together; that’s where the phrase ‘cutting through red tape’ comes from.”

As we wrap up our visit, Kildegaard tells me a favorite story: “I had a colleague at the Gazette many, many years ago, whose typewriter broke down. She took it to the dump and left it there. She spoke [with him] about now needing a typewriter at home, preferably a Smith-Corona.” He promised to be on the lookout for one. A few months later someone brought him a typewriter they’d found. He repaired it, and gave it to his colleague, who exclaimed, “That’s my typewriter!” Her Social Security number engraved on the bottom proved it.

And if you’re an “Office Space” aficionado, you may know the film launched a line of red staplers. There are online websites offering more history of typewriters and staplers, or just stop by the Edgartown library to see Nis Kildegaard’s stapler collection in person.