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From helmets to bookbinding, the roots of the staple
One thing we should separate here is the subject matter: The stapler and the staple have separate stories. Think of it like the tin can, except more extreme; just as the can opener wasn’t a thing until decades after we started canning things, the metal staple was a device that existed in one painstaking form or another many centuries before they were weakly riveted into term papers and TPS reports the world over.
Evidence of the basic concepts used in staples goes way back, with some of the earliest evidence coming from the ancient kingdoms of Lydia (parts of Turkey) and the Persian Empire (mostly Iran), where iron clamps with dovetail joint features—fairly reminiscent to staples—were used at times as a joiner in masonry instead of mortar, with one notable example of this that has survived to the modern day being at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, an example that dates to the 6th century BC.
Another ancient, but slightly more recent example, can be found in medieval armor that has been painstakingly forged into place. They could be particularly found in helmets, and tend to be given a different name, the vervelle. Despite the odd name, the functionality was roughly the same as the modern staple—it was a tool for connecting one thing to another through the use of metal, especially in large numbers. Except, in this case, the connecting factor was one piece of metal (an aventail, or curtain of chain mail) to another (a bascinet, or helmet).
(The vervelle also had a lot in common with the rivet, which makes sense; both are kinds of metal fasteners, and generally have a lot of overlap.)
The term staple appeared around the time that the vervelle did, during the 13th century, with roots in the term stapol, which refers to a post or similar item that’s fixed in place.
You might wonder, as I did, how the term came to be used for “staple food” or similar definitions, as it seems to be backwards from the other way that staple is used—it’s not fixed, it’s just common. As the 1881 book Old Yorkshire, a compilation of centuries-old terminology and “notes” about the history of the English county, explains, the terminology actually “flipped,” and staple originally had a definition much closer to metal kind of staple:
The world staple denoted a place where merchants were wont to store their goods, i.e. at a fixed place. It also had the meaning of a site of a market fixed by law, where the King’s Custom duty on wool, skins, or leather, was received. Staple is a term that has lost its original signification. It now means the established merchandise of a place; thus we should say lace is the staple of Nottingham. Our forefathers would have said Nottingham is the staple of lace, applying the word to the place, not the merchandise.
Even before the stapler mechanized it, the two-pronged metal staple was a versatile fastener, one that was particularly strong. This can be seen in its use in ceramics. Before glue became strong enough for the job, broken dishes would often be clamped back together with metal staples—making it a great way for the folks at Antiques Roadshow to detect the general period in which a vintage item was broken.
There’s even an entire blog about this general topic, designer Andrew Baseman’s Past Imperfect, which highlights vintage repairs on various items, many made with staples. They kind of have their own beauty to them, really.
But what about the kinds of staples that go into paper, say for your resume, or for that multi-page spreadsheet of pizza places you closely study every time you’re hungry? Indirectly, at least, you can definitely see the concepts of stapling in the art of bookbinding, which shares a similar context of bringing pages together—for example, the use of twine in the codex, the first form of bookbinding after the scroll, first found in wax tablets created in the Roman Empire during the first century AD. Julius Caesar, a solid 1,600 years out from the play that would define his popular persona, was said to be one of the earliest users of such a notebook. (But it’s entirely possible the Caesar part is apocryphal. More on that later.)
A kettle-stitched book, which shares some parallels with stapling. (liabucket/Flickr)
The kettle stitch and other similar stitches that are used in the central folds of books share much in common with the modern-day staple, even if their purposes are different. (Case-in-point on this front: Perhaps one of the most common ways to bind a magazine is through the use of what’s called “saddle stitching,” or the use of metal staples.)
The roots of the staple, the paper clip, and other forms of paper groupings, are said to date to around the 12th century, when academics took cloth or ribbon, not too dissimilar from the materials used in a codex or kettle stitch, to tie together the corners of pages. (Which may not have been made of paper; parchment was still in wide use in Europe around this time, with papyrus only starting to make headway.) Eventually, even wax was used, but these processes were said to be inefficient.
These binding processes, eventually, evolved into a concept that you’re likely more familiar with in metaphor form than in actual use: The use of red tape to keep sheets of paper bound, which was common starting in the 16th century, complete with roots in royalty—ministers working under Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, are generally credited with coming up with the approach, which was used for the most important kinds of papers, before it became generally associated with bureaucratic morass. (But it’s entirely possible the royalty part is apocryphal. More on that later.)
But simply wrapping ribbon around a pile of paper is inefficient; there were simply better ways to keep loose papers together. At some point, the metal staple and the sheet of paper were bound to connect.
The year that the Boston Wire Stitching Company was launched by inventor Thomas Briggs. Briggs invented a device that could bind small booklets together through the use of small pieces of wire—the process known today as “saddle stitching.” Briggs’ process, though he didn’t know it at the time, would create a path of innovation that would eventually lead to the wide use of the common desk stapler, as well as a simple but just-as-important invention: The “cemented strip staple,” a process of binding together hundreds of staples, making it so they don’t easily get lost or fall apart, and easily load into a stapler’s magazine. The company is still around today, under both a different name (Bostitch) and focus area (hardware, particularly fastening tools such as staple guns).
George W. McGill's fastener punch. (Google Patents)
Five things you didn’t know about staplers
- The root of the modern stapler can be found in the brass paper fastener, or brad. Nearly a decade after inventing this device in 1866, George W. McGill came up with the fastener punch, a device that punched a hole in a sheet of paper for the brad to go into. While it wasn’t a stapler as we know it today, it provided much the same function, and McGill was responsible for some of the earliest staplers, according to the Early Office Museum.
- The first staplers, such as the Novelty Paper Fastener, were very tedious to use, because they only accepted a single staple at a time. Eventually, this tedium was resolved through the use of magazine-style formats. Before staples were attached with glue or plastic, they were held in place by metal strips. Early machines produced by Hotchkiss, a brand of stapler so iconic that the Japanese word for stapler is a riff on its name, used this approach.
- The average full-strip stapler can handle piles of paper between 20 and 50 sheets in size. Smaller half-strip staplers can handle up to 20 sheets. Of course, if you want to maximize your stapling capabilities, there are ways to do so—this guy recommends putting surgical needles into your stack of paper so as to make it easier for the staples to go through.
- A number of very specialized types of staplers exist, including booklet staplers, which tend to be longer or more complex than traditional staplers because of the need to staple in the center of a sheet of paper, rather than in the corner. Of course, if you think investing in a giant stapler so you can reach the middle of the page is a waste of money, you can always, of course, pull off a stapler hack.
- Because I couldn’t not mention Office Space in this piece, I’ll point out that the movie’s infamous red Swingline stapler was not actually a real product at the time of the film’s release. At the time the film came out, Swingline did not sell a red stapler, which director Mike Judge wanted so the device had high visibility in the film. So he had one painted that way. The result was so effective that Swingline, responsible for the top-loading stapler, eventually came out with a red stapler of its own—a move that proved a massive success for the company.
The weight, in pounds, of the largest collection of staples, gathered by the company Access Imaging Solutions in 2012. That a document-printing company would be able to gather together the largest ball of staples ever seen, according to Recordsetter, makes a whole lot of sense. It sounds somewhat less tedious than the Guinness World Record for the longest staple chain, which was set in July and is an impressive 1,819 feet.
The staple and the stapler, together, represent a fascinating duo, one that has come to define the way that we organize paper, keep information sorted, and even bind some kinds of reading materials.
But a curious thing I kept running into repeatedly when researching this issue was the idea that royalty was somehow involved in the evolution of modern stationery, particularly when it comes to stapling. Julius Caesar used one of the earliest bound books; Charles V, the earliest examples of red tape.
Put it in jello. (dave_polak/Flickr)
And one other example that kept coming up was that the first stapler was somehow the product of a desire by King Louis XV to have a better way to keep his documents fastened. What’s fascinating about this finding is that it seems to have picked up notice only since the turn of the 21st century, perhaps gaining its most notice in a 2009 Mental Floss piece that seemed to break down the earliest stapler as an ornate piece of equipment, with individual staples forged from gold, and encrusted with precious stones.
That sounds like an awesome stapler, of course, but is it legit? One of the earliest pieces of evidence of this story I found came from a site called The Stapler Database, an early online repository of stapler-related information that dates to the early 2000s and is only available on the Internet Archive. Per that site:
The earliest stapling machine we know of was built during the 1700's for King Louis XV of France. Each individual staple was hand made and inscribed with the insignia of the Royal Court.
These comments, together, raise some questions, such as this: Where would there have been room for an insignia or diamond encrusted anything on a staple? And why did this information seem to only surface during the internet era? The author of this stapler repository said that they got their information from a combination of a typewritten document from Swingline and a website by ACCO brands, the owners of Swingline (and incidentally, the makers of the Trapper Keeper).
So what to make of this fact, which sounds interesting but seems not to hold up to a lot of scrutiny? Admittedly, it turned on my BS-meter. Fortunately, there was someone else who read about this and felt kind of the same way. Historian Mike Dash, an active Redditor, did a dig of his own recently, and found evidence that Louis XV’s stapler story does predate the modem, with a mention in a 1962 article about Jack Linsky, the founder of Swingline. Linsky and his wife, Belle, were notable fans of Louis XV’s style, having owned many items from the era that were donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and Linsky claimed to have a stapler from Louis XV’s time, but all the stuff about gold staples with insignias stamped on seems not to have made it to the modern day.
Dash suggests that Linsky might have had something from the time, but he might have also embellished the idea that it was a stapler, because, let’s face it, he had a commercial interest in selling the idea that staplers had a royal history.
“I think it's reasonably safe to conclude that the basic story originated with Linsky and that the accoutrements—not least the jewel-encrusted staples—are just inventions added by imaginative writers to make the story more interesting around 2000,” he wrote.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether all attempts to suggest royalty used predecessors to modern office supplies should be believed at all.