Day 278: The Secret Origins Of Office Supplies

originally published October 4, 2012

I look around this office and a few things occur to me. Why so much beige? Who looks at these motivational posters and finds inspiration from advice like “eat an ice cream cone upside down”? And where did all this office crap come from?

That last question will serve as my launching point, as will Ms. Wiki’s kind and generous shove toward my first topic. These are the grandiose (well, often more modestiose) beginnings of some of the stuff around my desk.

Two aughts ago, the only way to affix a large amount of paper together was by drilling a hole and sewing the sheets together. Not so handy if you want to add or remove a single page.

Washington DC resident Louis E. Baltzley was watching his father work. His dad, Edwin, was a writer and inventor, and always had stacks of paper lying about. Louis developed a simple clip on a hinge, and suddenly Edwin’s manuscripts could be clamped and unclamped together in no time. Louis had invented the binder clip.

As a somewhat depressing side-note, Edwin never achieved the success of his kid; the only trace of him I could find online was a Canadian patent for a ‘paper clip’. I don’t know what Edwin devised, but it wasn’t the clip we know and love.

For the origin of that little guy, we have to wade into a global war over bragging rights.

First we have Samuel B. Fay, who received a patent for a clip to attach tickets to laundry (but also paper to other paper) in 1867. Then you’ve got the Gem Manufacturing Company in England who made a clip that may or may not be more similar to the one we use today. Lastly we have the thunderous pride of Norway, Johan Vaaler.

Johan invented a square clip that lacked the inner ‘loop thing’ that modern paper clips have. It was 1901, and experts (yes, there are experts on office supply history) have decided that, while Vaaler may not have been aware of the Gem clip from England, it was certainly in use before Vaaler’s invention. That didn’t stop Norway into turning him into a folk hero and adopting the paperclip as a national symbol after his death. I guess they don’t have a lot to celebrate in Norway.

Let’s give some credit to our European product pioneers though. Over in Germany a guy named Friedrich Soennecken, who had already invented the ‘round writing’ style of calligraphy, was enjoying the moderate amount of local fame and women that calligraphy invention draws. Then he jumped ahead of Mr. Binder Clip up there, and came up with a clever way to hold a bunch of papers together.

He invented the binder. And then, because his creation would have been pretty much useless without it, he invented the hole punch. All this happened in the 1880s, apparently before Norway had figured out how to clip two sheets together. Score one (or two, actually) for the Germans.

Perhaps the most essential ingredient in preventing office rage and spontaneous naps on industrial carpeting is the office chair. One of the first people to realize that wheels on the bottom of a chair can increase productivity and overall functionality was the same man who has baffled and angered so many people who don’t understand what a scientific theory is: Charles Darwin.

That’s right, Darwin helped in evolving the chair.

By the mid 1800’s, administrative offices were on the rise, and people needed to be mobile, I guess. They needed to roll from one desk to another, smacking books and looking triumphant, like Michael J. Fox in that shot from the opening credits of Family Ties.

Thomas E. Warren gets credit for the Centripetal Spring Armchair in 1849 – this had wheels, armrests, and a revolving seat. His earliest models were tastefully upholstered in red velvet. There weren’t a lot of early sales outside the US, because people felt the chairs were too comfortable, and therefore immoral and promoting a lack of willpower. People were generally quite stupid in the 1800s.

Richard Gurley Drew, who certainly was never teased as a kid because of his middle name, might be the most awesome inventor on this list. In 1923 he was hired by 3M, a sandpaper manufacturer, working out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Drew was shopping 3M’s product around some auto shops, when he became intrigued by the two-tone paint jobs on some of the cars. The local staff complained that it was especially tricky to apply the paint at the border between the two colors.

Drew went to work on the problem, and in 1925 he invented the first roll of masking tape. Problem was, the tape had adhesive along the outer portion on one side, but not in the middle. When it fell off during a test run, the painter snarled at Drew and told him to “take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to shove it!” By ‘Scotch’, the guy meant ‘cheap-ass sonofabitch’ or something along those lines.

The masking tape problem could be fixed. And by 1930 the ‘scotch’ term was applied to Drew’s next invention, a transparent cellophane tape. Luckily for him, the economy had plunged into a decade-long toilet, and people were happy to use tape to repair things for cheap. Drew and 3M became the definition of good timing.

I’m going to close with a banana.

Specifically, the abacà, which is a species of banana that grows abundantly in the Philippines. The leaves of the abacà tree were traditionally turned into something called Manila hemp (named after the nation’s capital). To be clear, this has nothing to do with actual hemp – though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone somewhere once tried smoking abacà peels to get high – but the end result of this stuff was often used for the same things people used hemp for: rope and paper.

And for whatever reason, that paper was chosen to become the standard for full-size envelopes in pretty much every office around the world. Most manila envelopes aren’t even made from manila hemp anymore; as long as the paper is brown, drab and sturdy, it gets the name.

Fantastic. I’ve looked around myself and found enough words to fill an article thanks to the vast wonder of minimal research on Wikipedia. So, who’s up for inventing the office hammock so I can have a nap?

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