For some people (myself included) buying new stationery is a joy. Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and these page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be. Buying this notebook and this pen means I’ll finally write that novel. James Ward
For me, going into Ryman’s [stationery shop] is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. Morrissey
Writing a book about stationery has its downsides. James Ward, author of Adventures in Stationery, aka The Perfection of the Paper Clip in the USA, knows this. I recognise the feeling too. Whenever I try to explain the rules of cricket or the appeal of trainspotting to my Spanish students I can see a glazed look coming over their eyes. Ward refers to one kind of interviewer he would come across on the promotional tour for the book. Basically, they were out to take the piss. One interviewer was particularly obnoxious:
“What? And you’ve got a girlfriend? Seriously?”
Ward is the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Topics under discussion have included toast, discontinued IBM tills, domestic inkjet printers of 1999, car park roofs, the sounds made by vending machines, the carriage numbering system on the London Underground, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines and the history of dust. The talks tend to sell out very quickly, so maybe they are not so tedious after all. You can see a video of Mr. Ward below:
Ward’s particular fixation with stationery began as a child and has continued into adulthood. He even has a “Stationery Club”, which is modelled on those reading groups that have become quite popular in the last couple of decades. Before each meeting, one member nominates a piece of stationery, and then all the other members use it for a week and then discuss it in groups.
Adventures in Stationery begins with a long disquisition on the evolution of paper clips. Other topics include paper, pencils, pens, glue, business cards, correction fluid, staples, post cards and filing cabinets
I loved the story of Bette Nesmith who was according to Ward, not a very good typist. These mistakes would help this divorcee from Dallas to come up with a brilliant idea. Doing overtime one Christmas she noticed a man in the bank, painting a sign, and she realized that every time he made a mistake, he just painted over it with the background colour. She thought why not do the same thing with paper? You will just need to create a solution which is paper-colour. Then, whenever you make a mistake, you can paint over it and type it again. Nesmith would gradually perfect her typewriter correction fluid, which later became known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she turned the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company. In 1979 she sold the business to Gillette for $48 million. Her 13-year old son Michael, who had helped her to fill hundreds of bottles each month using squeezy ketchup bottles on the miniature production line in their garage, would later go on to become one of The Monkees, a band created for a TV show. A few months after selling her company, his mother died in 1980 at the age of 56. Michael Nesmith inherited half the fortune from Liquid Paper, much of which he ploughed into PopClips, a precursor to MTV. In the words of Ward, if video killed the radio star, then it was funded by correction fluid. In Europe the most familiar brand of correction fluid is Tipp-Ex, which like Liquid Paper, was developed to help correct typing errors.
Then we have Dr. Wolfgang Dierichs. A researcher for German manufacturing company Henkel, Dierichs was sitting on a plane when he had an idea that would go on to revolutionize the world of glue. He saw a woman carefully applying her lipstick and then he realised that you could apply glue with a similar mechanism. Using a thin twistable tube would be cleaner and more convenient. There would be no more pots, and brushes; all you would need to do is remove the lid and apply as much adhesive as you needed. I have to say that this idea would have occurred to me but Dierichs spent his working day surrounded by adhesives and it just came naturally.
The chapter on business card features a couple of internet sensations. He refers to a 2008 video featuring “infotainer” Joel Bauer called Your business card is CRAP!, which has had nearly 2.4 million hits. After dissing every other business card in the world he shows the only card which cuts the mustard, which just happens to be his:
You see that card? This is the most impressive business card I’ve ever seen. It’s mine. It took me twenty-five years to design this.
Another similarly modest man is Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese recycling entrepreneur, whose business card proclaims:
Most Influential Person of China
Most Prominent Philanthropist of China
China Moral Leader
China Earthquake Rescue Hero
Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model
China Top Ten Most Honourable Volunteer
Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China
China Low Carbon Emission Environmental Protection Top Advocate
China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert
The story of the accidental discovery of the Post-it note is quite well known. Spence Silver of the adhesives department was trying to produce a really strong glue. He ended up with exactly the opposite. Luckily for him a colleague, Art Fry, found an alternative use. Fry was in a choir and would get frustrated when the little bits of paper would fall out of his hymn book. What he needed was a weak glue to stick these bits of paper in the book. And so the Post-it note was born.
There are many more fascinating stories in the book. Pencil cases are apparently less popular in the USA because everyone has lockers. We discover that Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War played a fundamental role in the development of highlighter pens. And did you know that Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?
The name Sellotape’ came from Cellophane. As this was at that time a trademarked name, its inventors, Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, changed the “C” to an “S” so that the new name could be trademarked. In America they say Scotch Tape. This product, another one from 3M, was being tested in car bodyshop. According to 3M legend, one car painter complained about how tight the company was being by applying glue only to the edges and asked “Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?” As well as perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes about the supposed stinginess of our friends from north of the border, they were also using scotch instead of Scottish to refer to the nationality. Be that as it may, the name stuck and Scotch Tape has become another money-spinner for 3M.
What about the future of stationery? It will surely play a less central role in our digital world. However, it will not disappear altogether. The paperless office is just a pipe dream for the time being. But even in the world of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, and tablets, we will have skeuomorphic design. In computing Skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The word comes from the Greek skeuos (meaning container or tool), and morphê (meaning shape). Steve Jobs was a big fan. The digital world is full of these visual metaphors: magnifying glasses, envelopes, scissors, pencils and rubbers all feature on the Microsoft Word interface.
Ward is convinced that stationery is not on the verge of disappearing. He concludes with an impassioned defence:
And so people who rush to announce the death of handwriting or those tech-evangelists looking forward to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence outsmarts human intelligence, should not get too excited. Stationery is not about to die. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization and it’s not going to let some plucky upstart like the Internet kill it off without a fight. And besides, a pen doesn’t suddenly stop working just because you’ve gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine, you never need to worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work.
The pen is not dead. Long live the pen.
I don’t fetishize stationery in the same way that Ward does. I don’t believe in its miraculous powers. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am sure that I will never look at paper clip in quite the same way again.