Jim started the conversation politely enough though I thought, when he asked me about the Burns, that he was simply quizzing me with obscure typewriter trivia (several people already had). My responses were snarky, a bit loud and probably rude. After I insinuated that Jim did not have a Burns he proceeded to take a piece of paper from the envelope he was carrying. It was an original stock certificate issued by The Burns Typewriter Company to Theodore J. Venneman, Jim’s grandfather, on January 8, 1895. Well, that was all the proof I needed. There were about 200 people at the reception that evening but, when Jim produced that stock certificate, I was like a horse with blinders on. My focus was on Jim and his Burns, and nothing else.
The Story of My Burns
The One that Didn't Get Away
Jim: Have you heard of a Burns Typewriter?
Me: Of course!
Jim: Well, do you have one?
Me: No. Do you?
Me: No you don’t.
That exchange took place on March 13, 2014. It was a Thursday evening and I had just delivered a speech at the opening reception of my typewriter exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art. I was schmoozing with the crowd, a lot of whom were former employees of Royal’s and Underwood’s factories from a couple towns over, when a much taller fellow approached me with a legal size envelope in hand. His name was Jim Venneman.
After being so rude to Jim (in public, no less) he probably should've never spoken to me again. But Jim did. We exchanged contact information and he emailed me that night. Among other things, he wrote that he was not interested in selling the Burns but I was welcome to examine it, photograph it and even borrow it. I did, in fact, photograph it for Peter Weil’s story in ETC No.108. The Burns serial numbered 20 was Jim’s. I requested of Peter that the owner be listed as anonymous for his story because Jim has a very unique surname. Some of you collectors would probably have called every Venneman in the phonebook to try and hunt him down. I know I would have.
Over the next couple years I met with Jim and his wife, Ellie, a few times. We spoke on the phone and exchanged several emails. I learned from Jim that Theodore Venneman was just 23 years old when he took delivery of his Burns typewriter and stock certificate. At the time, he was a carpenter’s apprentice. As such he probably did not have the money to buy the typewriter nor the company stock, let alone both. It’s possible that the typewriter came with the purchase of stock but even that would still have been too much for Theodore to afford. Jim thinks his grandfather bartered carpentry labor for the items. This is very plausible because years later, when Theodore helped build Shea’s Movie Theater in Buffalo, he was again compensated partly with company stock.
When he acquired the Burns, Theodore lived on Hoyt Street in Buffalo, less than a mile from where the typewriter was made. He married in 1899 and he, his wife and The Burns all resided on Hoyt until 1907, that’s when they all moved to the new home Theodore built for them on Amherst Street. Eventually the typewriter was passed down to Jim’s father, Bob Venneman, who would use it to type up his college papers. After Bob died in 1998, the Burns moved from Buffalo to West Hartford, CT where Jim lives.
It’s rare for any typewriter, let alone such a rare 19th century example, to come with such complete provenance, which The Burns stock certificate provides down to the day. The icing on the cake is that the typewriter is in such stunning cosmetic condition and perfectly functional. Jim actually used it in a pinch to type up some papers in the 1970s. That’s right, he used a blindwriter in the 1970s! He states that he had to replace the drawstring and trim ribbon from an adding machine to get the Burns to work.
There’s also a bonus: the metal cover. It’s the only cover known and it has a secret. After further examination, it appears to have the necessary cutouts for latches (three sets per side) but no latches were ever affixed. There is no evidence of wear that would suggest otherwise. Also, there is no wear to bottom of the cover to suggest that there was ever even a base. Jim Venneman certainly never saw one.
In March of this year I called Jim. I was feeling emboldened and lucky for some reason. I came right out and asked Jim if he was ready to part with his Burns. He said no. We talked a little while longer until we ran out of conversation, said our good-byes and hung up. The following day, at 10:45 in the evening, I got an email. Something had changed and Jim was ready to let go the Burns that had been in his family for over 120 year. Yes, I was persistent and maybe I was a little lucky, but sometimes timing helps too. He had just read about seven Ty Cobbs baseball cards that were found in an abandoned home. Jim stated, “The real reason I agreed to let you have the Burns now is that you called me at the same time the … story about the 7 baseball cards was on every news outlet. I very much liked the Burns, so I wanted to ensure it went to a good home after me. That is your home, for as long as you keep it. And, I am sure you will ensure it eventually goes to another good home. After seeing these articles about how the baseball cards were almost put in a dump, I realized that when I die, someone cleaning out the house might just put the Burns in a tag sale (best scenario) or, much worse, in a dumpster - thinking it was just an old hunk of metal.”
Next month, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in mid April, this Burns left the Vennemans and came home with me.
Comments and questions are always welcome. Maybe yo have a Burns of your own? You may email me at Antikey.Chop@gmail.com