The Perfection of the Paper Clip

From Slate:

It was invented in 1899. It hasn’t been improved upon since.

The paper clip is something of a fetish object in design circles. Its spare, machined aesthetic and its inexpensive ubiquity landed it a spot in MoMA’s 2004 show Humble Masterpieces. This was a pedestal too high for design critic Michael Bierut, who responded with an essay called “To Hell with the Simple Paper Clip.” He argued that designers praise supposedly unauthored objects like the paper clip because they’re loath to choose between giving publicity to a competitor and egotistically touting their own designs. Bierut might be right about his colleagues’ motives, but he’s wrong about the paper clip: It’s not all that simple.

Most everyday objects—like the key, or the book, or the phone—evolve over time in incremental ways, and the 20th century in particular revolutionized, streamlined, or technologized the vast majority of the things you hold in your hand over the course of an average day. But if you could step into an office in 1895—walking past horse-drawn buses and rows of wooden telephone switchboard cabinets—you might find a perfectly recognizable, shiny silver paper clip sitting on a desk. What was then a brand-new technology is now, well over a century later, likely to be in the same place, ready to perform the same tasks. Why did the paper clip find its form so quickly, and why has it stuck with us for so long?

Before the paper clip, there was paper. When it was developed in China in the first century A.D., paper was made from cotton and linen. (Some contemporary paper is still made this way; most currency is printed on it.) This rag paper was expensive to produce, so it was primarily reserved for permanent writing and sewn into bound volumes. Temporary writing—tracking Sumerian accounts payable or inviting a friend to a birthday party in Pompeii—was done in clay or wax tablets that could be wiped clean and reused.

In the 19th century, the invention of wood pulping and industrial paper mills made inexpensive paper widely available; the rise of commerce, bureaucracy, and literacy transformed it into masses of loose sheets of paperwork. The figure most responsible for the creation and care of all this paperwork was the clerk. As Adrian Forty points out in Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750, the clerk was a creature of uncertain status, someone who had attained a middle-class respectability but who frequently lacked both managerial responsibility and a middle-class salary: Think of Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, working endless hours for a thankless boss. These clerks were often surrounded by papers that had to be sorted into cubbyholes or tied into bundles with string. This was a new sort of of urgent but essentially meaningless work. (No wonder Melville’s famously reticent scrivener, Bartleby, was forever intoning “I would prefer not to.”*) And in the shop of Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, we get a glimpse of this tidal wave of 19th-century office supplies:

“Mr. Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper—foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers; in red tape and green ferret; in pocket-books, almanacs, diaries, and law lists; in string boxes, rulers, inkstands—glass and leaden—pen-knives, scissors, bodkins, and other small office-cutlery; in short, in articles too numerous to mention…”

Here in Mr. Snagsby’s inventory we find the most direct precursor to the paper clip: the straight pin. As Henry Petroski notes in his book The Evolution of Useful Things, the pin-making industry was illustrative of the industrialization taking place prior to mechanization. The first chapter of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations features a passage describing the manner in which the manufacture of iron pins took advantage of the division of labor, with one man drawing the iron wire, another straightening it, a third cutting it, and so on. Smith noted that 10 individuals engaged in 10 different parts of the process could together make about 48,000 pins a day, whereas a single individual working by himself could not make even 20. By the end of the 19th century, this process was so efficient that a half-pound box of pins could be bought for 40 cents. But while iron pins were cheap, easy to use, and disposable, they had the obvious downsides of rusting and piercing, leaving stains and holes in the papers they pressed together.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Slate