A Brief History of Staples

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People have been writing words on paper for a lot longer than they've had convenient ways to firmly bind those pages together. As families wrap up their back-to-school shopping, let's take a look at the evolution of staples.

Attached at the Clip

Before staplers came along, we had tried just about everything, from sewing and gluing to clamping and skewering. Around 1200 C.E., though, an industrious group of medieval academics became the first to adhere pages using ribbon and wax, and while that practice has long since fallen by the wayside, they were also the first to bind them at the upper-left corner, as we do today.

In the 18th century, French toolmakers constructed a handmade stapler fit for a king "“ King Louis the XV, to be exact. Legend has it that the ornate staples it used were forged from gold, encrusted with precious stones, and bore his Royal Court's insignia.

Less fancy but more practical was the American "paper fastener" patented in 1866 by the Novelty Manufacturing Company, a precursor to the modern stapler. Of course, one key difference was that it held only one "staple" at a time.

Trouble was, the machine would clinch the metal into the paper "“ achieved by pressing down hard on a large plunger "“ but it wouldn't fasten it. That had to be done by hand—a laborious process, to be sure. It wasn't until 1879 that a machine hit the market that both inserted and clinched a single preformed metal staple. It was called McGill's Patent Single Stroke Staple Press, but since it required constant reloading, it didn't exactly spur the stapling revolution.

The Fastening and the Furious

hotchkiss_staplerThat revolution would come in 1895, when the E.H. Hotchkiss Company of Norwalk, Connecticut, began selling their so-called No. 1 Paper Fastener. It used a long strip of wired-together staples, and thanks to its speedy ease-of-use, became so popular that it became simply known as "the Hotchkiss." (To this day, in fact, the word for stapler in Japanese is "hochikisu," though the company has long been out of business.) But the design still wasn't perfect: it required a heavy stroke on the machine's plunger to separate the staples from their strip and drive them into your stack of paper. So much so, in fact, that Hotchkiss-users often kept small mallets at the ready. The golden age of stapling was yet to come.

There were lots of competing stapler technologies on the market from the mid-19th century to as late as the 1940s, for one simple reason: no one had gotten it quite right. When stationery wholesaler Jack Linksy founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Corporation in the 1930s, few could've imagined that his humble company "“ later known as Swingline "“ would change the world of paper-fastening forever. But that's just what he did when he developed the 1937 Swingline Speed Stapler No. 3. According to Linsky's son-in-law Alan Seff, to load a stapling machine before the Swingline came along, "you practically needed a screwdriver and a hammer to put the staples in. He and his engineers devised a patented unit where you just opened the top of the machine, and you'd plunk the staples in."

Amazingly enough, the mechanics of the modern stapler have remained virtually unchanged since Linksy perfected it in 1937.

This article was excerpted from 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything,' which is available in the mental_floss store.

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August 26, 2009 - 6:05am
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