There have been some rather odd items portrayed on stamps in the nearly 181 years of pre-paid postage. It seems odd when we encounter one illustrating something that at any given time can be just an arm’s length away. My desktop at work, indeed every corner of my office drawers, can produce the object seen in the right-hand stamp on the pictured 1999 first day cover from Norway. That is, the lowly paper clip — an object so common that we never give it another thought except when we have papers to fasten and then their retrieval eludes us.

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. 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.

Historical references describe fastening papers together as early as the 13th century. During this time, people put ribbon through parallel incisions in the upper left-hand corner of pages. Later, people started to wax the ribbons to make them stronger and easier to undo and redo. This was the way people clipped papers together for the next six hundred years.

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.

In the shop of Mr. Snagsby, the law-stationer in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, we get a glimpse of the clerk’s 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. In 1835, a New York physician named John Ireland Howe invented the machine for mass-producing straight pins, which then became a popular way to fasten papers together although they were not originally designed for that purpose; straight pins were designed to be used in sewing and tailoring, to temporally fasten cloth together.

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. 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.

What enabled the shift from the pin to the clip was the development, in 1855, of low-cost, industrially produced steel, which has the right balance of strength and flexibility to make tracks, pipes, wire, and nearly every other piece of 20th-century metal infrastructure. Manufacturers could use the new supple steel wire to draw in space, making strong, rust-free hooks, safety pins, clothes hangers, and paper clips. In the last quarter of the 19th century, patents were issued for nearly every shape of steel wire that could be imagined to be useful.

The paper clip we think of most readily is an elegant loop within a loop of springy steel wire. According to the Early Office Museum, the first patent for a bent clip was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay in 1867. This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric, although the patent recognized that it could be used to attach papers together. Fay received U.S. patent 64,088 on April 23, 1867. Although functional and practical, Fay’s design along with the 50 other designs patented prior to 1899 are not considered reminiscent of the modern paperclip design known today. Another notable paper clip design was also patented in the United States by Erlman J. Wright on July 24, 1877, patent #193,389. This clip was advertised at that time for use in fastening together loose leaves of papers, documents, periodicals, newspapers etc.

The most common type of wire paper clip still in use, the Gem paper clip, was never patented, but it was most likely in production in Britain in the early 1870s by “The Gem Manufacturing Company”, according to the American expert on technological innovations, Professor Henry J. Petroski. He refers to an 1883 article about “Gem Paper-Fasteners”, praising them for being “better than ordinary pins” for “binding together papers on the same subject, a bundle of letters, or pages of a manuscript”. Since the 1883 article had no illustration of this early “Gem”, it may have been different from modern paper clips of that name.

On 2 January 1999, the postal service of Norway released a pair of self-adhesive stamps in a new series portraying Norwegian inventions. Scott #1214 pictures one of the successful Gem clips while the background shows a German “Patenschrift” issued to a Norwegian, Johan Vaaler (1866–1910). Vaaler received a patent for his design from Germany in 1899, as Norway had no patent laws at that time. He was granted an American patent in 1901. The patent abstract says, “It consists of forming same of a spring material, such as a piece of wire, that is bent to a rectangular, triangular, or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions.” Vaaler was the first person to patent a paperclip design.

While similar to the Gem clip, Vaaler’s design was less functional and practical because it lacked the last turn of the wire. Vaaler probably did not know that a better product was already on the market, although not yet in Norway. His version was never manufactured and never marketed, because the superior Gem was already available.

Long after Vaaler’s death his countrymen created a national myth based on the false assumption that the paper clip was invented by an unrecognized Norwegian genius. Norwegian dictionaries since the 1950s have mentioned Vaaler as the inventor of the paper clip and that myth later found its way into international dictionaries and much of the international literature on paper clips.

Vaaler probably succeeded in having his design patented abroad, despite the previous existence of more useful paper clips, because patent authorities at that time were quite liberal and rewarded any marginal modification of existing inventions. Johan Vaaler began working for Alfred J. Bryns Patentkontor in Kristiania in 1892 and was later promoted to office manager, a position he held until his death. As the employee of a patent office, he could easily have obtained a patent in Norway. His reasons for applying abroad are not known; it is possible that he wanted to secure the commercial rights internationally. Also, he may have been aware that a Norwegian manufacturer would find it difficult to introduce a new invention abroad, starting from the small home market.

Vaaler’s patents expired quietly, while the “Gem” was used worldwide, including his own country. The failure of his design was its impracticality. Without the two full loops of the fully developed paper clip, it was difficult to insert sheets of paper into his clip. One could manipulate the end of the inner wire so that it could receive the sheet, but the outer wire was a dead end because it could not exploit the torsion principle. The clip would instead stand out like a keel, perpendicular to the sheet of paper. The impracticality of Vaaler’s design may easily be demonstrated by cutting off the last outer loop and one long side from a regular Gem clip.

Events of World War II contributed greatly to the mythical status of the paper clip. During the war, Norwegians were prohibited from wearing any buttons with the likeness or cipher of the exiled King Haakon VII on them. Patriots wore paper clips in their lapels as a symbol of resistance to the German occupiers. Those wearing them did not yet see them as national symbols, as the myth of their Norwegian origin was not commonly known at the time. The clips were meant to denote solidarity and unity (“we are bound together”). The wearing of paper clips was soon prohibited, and people wearing them could risk severe punishment.

The leading Norwegian encyclopedia mentioned the role of the paper clip as a symbol of resistance in a supplementary volume in 1952, but did not yet proclaim it a Norwegian invention. That information was added in later editions. According to the 1974 edition, the idea of using the paper clip to denote resistance originated in France. A clip worn on a lapel or front pocket could be seen as deux gaules (two posts or poles) and be interpreted as a reference to the leader of the French Resistance, General Charles de Gaulle.

The post-war years saw a widespread consolidation of the paper clip as a national symbol. Authors of books and articles on the history of Norwegian technology eagerly seized it to make a thin story more substantial. They chose to overlook the fact that Vaaler’s clip was not the same as the fully developed Gem-type clip. In 1989 a giant paper clip, almost 7 meters (23 feet) high, was erected on the campus of a commercial college near Oslo in honor of Vaaler, ninety years after his invention was patented. This monument shows a Gem-type clip, not the one patented by Vaaler.

The celebration of the alleged Norwegian origin of the paper clip culminated in 1999, one hundred years after Vaaler submitted his application for a German patent. A commemorative stamp was issued that year, the first in a series to draw attention to Norwegian inventiveness. In 2005, the national biographical encyclopedia of Norway (Norsk biografisk leksikon) published the biography of Johan Vaaler, stating he was the inventor of the paper clip.

If the paper clip can be a symbol for endless drudgery, it can also be twisted, pulled apart, and used as a tool. In this capacity, many of the practices to which it is best suited are the opposite of the commercially productive, sanitary, and morally meaningless act of clipping together papers. Paper clips can be used to pick locks, clean under fingernails, and hack into phones. Straightened out, they are used by office workers to distract themselves from the monotony of their intended use. Nearly every reader of Joshua Ferris’ novel of office life, Then We Came to the End, becomes part of his collective narrator as they read the sentence, “If a stray paper clip happened to be lying around we were likely to bend it out of shape,” and every white-collar underling must find familiar David Foster Wallace’s description of office life in The Pale King: “The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into, &c.”

The paper clip, which possesses inexpensiveness, interchangeability and consistency, has also been used as a symbol for the numerous: a Tennessee school collected 6 million paper clips to symbolize the Jews killed during the Holocaust, a project documented in a 2004 Miramax film. Its affordability can be a symbol of humble beginnings: In 2005, a Canadian named Kyle McDonald took a red paper clip and began a series of online trades that eventually netted him a house (not to mention a blog, a book, and a lot of public speaking gigs). A philosophical conceit called the “paperclip maximizer” is an artificial intelligence that, programmed by humans solely to manufacture as many paper clips as possible, eventually takes over the Earth and increasing portions of space in its quest for material, leaving trillions of paper clips with no one to use them.

The simplicity of the paper clip has allowed it to become a graphic symbol on the digital desktop. For many a 21st-century office worker, it is more often encountered as the “attachment” icon in an email program than in the physical form of a bent steel wire. As we move further and further toward a paperless society, that loop-the-loop form might become more familiar in two dimensions than in three. This semiotic doppelganger, like the clip’s colored plastic and novelty-shaped variants, is likely to accompany the original, not replace it. Office life, despite plane flights and email, just isn’t all that different than it was 100 years ago, and it’s likely to be largely similar in another 100 years. The paper clip—which is just exactly good enough—is likely to be around to see it, Norwegian or not.

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