Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Corona 3 case, by volume

The Corona 3 is an amazingly long lived product. Not just the lifetime of the machines themselves, but the period of time it was being produced and sold (the life-of-type). A production run of more than 10 years for a consumer product with no major changes was I think fairly rare then as it is now, never mind a run of 29 years. This makes the Corona 3 an interesting item to take a look at.

So I looked at the serial-numbers lists that are available online (tw-db, typewiterdatabase and an article in an older issue of ETCetera). The numbers suggest sequential numbering, starting their numbering in 1906 and numbering sequentially right up to 1941. In that case, the serial-numbers should give the annual production volumes. (From these numbers, I've pegged the start of the '3' at 20,000 to get a ~6000 run in 1912. On the other hand, earliest reported serial number for a '3' is 12,172. There's more confusion on the numbers and volumes, e.g. from the serials the 1919 I get 81k and not 153k. The serials up to 1921 seem a bit suspect, ending with 999.)

Ignoring all the uncertainties and confusion and just taking the volumes from the serial numbers, these can then be plotted over time:

Putting this in a graph shows the meteoric rise of the little portable. It also shows that it's success comes to a rather abrupt stop, with some minor 'revivals'. Looking at this graph with some related events in mind, I've speculated a bit about some of the how and why.

I can just imagine that the introduction of the Remington Portable with a full keyboard was a nasty shock for Corona. Coming on top of Underwood entering the fray in 1919 with a 3-bank and Corona still busy seeing off the Baby Fox. Their numbers were heading for 100k/year and suddenly the year 1921 ends with 20% down. (There would be some lag, with production reflecting sell-in to the trade feeling a drop in sell-out  (from trade to consumer) a bit later, so the decline in sales may have started in e.g. late 1919.)

Plotting the volumes of these three early compact portables shows that the decline in sales of the '3' was not so much a decline in the market of compact portables overall, but much more likely due to the new competitors in the market.

The total of volumes shows a surprisingly consistent growth up to 1924 when 'Four' is introduced. The Underwood 3-bank would be superseded by their 4-bank, new manufacturers offering portables and the market generally moving on to bigger and better things. (Note that both Remington and Underwood serials are a bit dodgy as well, very round numbers. Also (to me) not clear between 3-bank / 4-bank.)

With competition in the compact portable market-segment now from both Underwood and Remington, Corona need to respond. These competitors are too large to drive off with advertising or price promotions. Trying to sue them into oblivion (Fox) would have been out of the question for the same reason (even if there had been a possible case). Even worse; their products compare very well against the little '3'.

If work had not already started on making their own 4-bank offering, it was doubly important to do so now.

In the mean time, a bunch of improvements is made to the '3' over 1921-1923. The machine is widened, with shift keys at both left and right and the carriage is also widened. Automatic ribbon reversing in 1922 (thanks to Mr Kernighan for pointing out that datapoint!) from serial number 500,000 (?) up, would have allowed for some 'news to the trade' to drum up sales. With these improvements the '3' compares a bit better to the competition.

Maybe this contributed to a slight rise again in '22, maybe the 10k less in '21 reflected the trade still having too much stock from '20. Who can tell...  Around that time (1923?) amongst other improvements an extra two keys are added.

They needed to live off their old product until they could introduce their own full keyboard portable with the 'Four' in 1924. Then in 1924 immediately the volume of folding '3' machines plummets. Advertising from then on is showing the new flagship product 'Four' model only.

On an aside; with their market (and likely their margins) under pressure, working on their own response, they would be investing in the new product and tooling. This probably means that the financial position of Corona would be at a relative low in 1924, with the launch-costs of the 'Four'.

With the introduction of the 'Special' in (I think?) 1929, the level is again at a respectable 20k, showing a drop off over the following couple of years as would be expected after a new product introduction. Adding a splash of color and fashionable paneling makes also the '3' product sell again (a little). Some examples from a quick image search:

(Source of images:,, etsy)

What is quite remarkable is the variation; a choice of both base and panels in colors, but also plain lacquered in one color with no crinkle panels. Again odd is that these are all marked 'Special' on the front panel but no longer have the automatic reverse. Seems Corona was having a ball with product-diversity. This is not good for cost control today, and my guess is this was not good back then either.

The year 1934 again shows a small spike in volume. This may be just the random fluctuations of a low-volume end-of-life product, or it may have been a new advertising push to counter the very low-cost market-segment. The price is by then also quite low, maybe this contributes to a bit of volume again.

However with the price now down to USD 24,50, even without any tooling cost amortization the margins would not have been great anymore. Material and labor still needed to go into the machine at about the same level.

Keeping a type in production over such a long period after 1924 with such small volumes (and margins) raises the question if that wasn't at least partially a sentimental, emotional decision.

Or rather; I suspect that nobody in the Corona company would ever dare to suggest to axe the folding Corona 3 - their core, founding product.

It happens :)


  1. That's a very good analysis and conclusion. Corona had practically invented the compact typewriter market and had carved themselves a heaping slice of it with that design. It had to have come as a large shock to lose so much of it all in a lump after 1919.

    I haven't yet gotten to updating the Corona page at yet - there's a factory serial number list in existence that I know about but have not yet obtained. The Underwood numbers should be pretty good though, as I went through them in January, updating them by comparing 7 different source lists. Remington we do have a primary factory serial number list for, and that's probably going to be my next update project.

  2. Excellent analysis, very interesting.

    I think there's no way to know how many #1 and #2 Remington portables were made. You can date them easily to the particular month made using the serial number, but the number produced per month is not known. Here is the serial numbering system:

    On my site I took a wild guess of 600,000 made, including both models.

    We could do an unscientific comparison of how many are for sale today on eBay, compared to how many Corona 3's there are; that would give us a rough idea.

  3. Tnx :) The folding '3' is a very iconic product; it being in production for so long is really intriguing. Looking at this made me wonder about the tie-up with LC Smith also.

    There are a cpl of sometimes conflicting sources on the '3' serials, but overall the image is fairly credible. The serials of Remington are 'dodgy' in that they have 20k for the first year and 15k from there. That is a very round number; my guess then is that a block of numbers is taken out for a year's production. This is then an upper ceiling to production rate, but no saying if 15k or 8,673 were made in a year. If a number is re-used with another month-prefix, then all bets are off… A rate of 15k per year seems low, but then again it was early days for Remington in portables.

    On the local auction site here, Remington 2 and Corona 3 portables show up regularly in roughly equal amounts. The Underwood 3-banks are I think a bit rarer. This would perhaps be more caused by how active Mr James Plant (importer of Underwood) was, than production numbers though.

    Will be interesting to see the pattern with more/better numbers; the portables market was really booming then!

  4. The numbers for Remington 1 and 2 on the Typewriter Database are from European sources and don't make much sense when compared to original Remington data (which I can send you if you like, drop me an e-mail). I think they are useless for determining American production in the '20s.