Staff Picks

The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Genius, and Stationary Obsession

July 07, 2015


James Ward weaves a narrative of invention, entrepreneurship, and sometimes empire through the everyday objects all around us.

I've been meaning to get around to James Ward's The Perfection of the Paper Clip since it came out in April. Like Ward, I have always been fascinated by all things stationary. One of my favorite times of the year growing up was back-to-school shopping. I generally dreaded most shopping trips, and wasn't overly fond of school either, but encountering the endless rows of school supplies always excited me. Although the author refers to these items tongue in cheek as "boring things," they have always been my favorite part of any store—pregnant with the possibility of new creation. I loved the tidiness of them, and the thought that these were the tools I'd take into academic battle—not that I was all that great at it. But, as an artist and a writer, I was always equipped with pen, pencil, and paper. To this day, I will take a stroll down the pen aisle of almost any store I enter, just to look.

These supplies are to me, in many ways, aspirational. Not only are so many of them meant for organization, the neat packaging and presentation in stores—in stationary stores especially, but even in a big box store freshly stocked—holds out the hope that these materials will be as organized when we implement them in our work or school environment, which is rarely the case. So, a whole book delving into the history of paper, pens, and pencils, binders and clips, pencil cases, pocket protectors, and the Trapper Keeper (oh, the colors, and "what does 'shatter-proof resistant' mean") is right up my alley—or aisle.

Ward's affection is so deep that I wish he'd allow it to take center stage just a bit more, but as founder of what he named the Boring Conference and, I suppose, being British, his tone is more self-deprecating. Of course, this is better than the alternative; an overly sincere or sentimental book on stationary would be nauseating. But though the writing felt to me a tad thin in certain places because of this, it is thick in substance. It is chock-full of information and entertaining anecdotes. The history of each office object, it's invention and evolution is told with great detail and a sharp wit.

In the introduction, he introduces us to the Velos Revolving Desk Tidy, a relic of a different stationary era that he found at the back of a shelf in the store he frequented as a child and went back to as he began the book. This serves as a nice introduction to the author himself, and the story of the company Velos, swallowed up long ago by ACCO Brand Corporation, serves as a nice metaphor for the consolidation that has happened over time in the stationary industry—in so many industries really.

Velos is no more. Absorbed into a faceless multinational. The name lives on, just about. Rexel [a subsidiary of ACCO] uses the name for its eyelet punches, but in doing so, it has moved from being a company producing countless office basics and stationary essentials to one which provides tools for haberdashery. I'm not interested in haberdashery. I'm interested in stationary. But does it even matter? I've never heard of the brand until I found an old box in a shop in Worcester Park. Why should I care about its history? But the more I thought about Velos, the more I thought about other companies. I thought about companies I'd never even heard of. If there was Velos, who else was out there? This, in its own small way, is part of our cultural heritage ... I thought about people. The people behind the objects that we take for granted. The names behind the names. Their lives, their histories. Who were they? What were their stories?

Those people, companies, and stories that Ward so wonderfully susses out in The Perfection of a Paper Clip. And there are many companies that remain. Those that aren't are still great examples of a shifting, entrepreneurial, start-up heavy time in capitalism similar to our own moment, and their stories of invention are ripe with lessons for us.

The real meat of the book begins with a discussion of the paper clips invention (nobody really knows who exactly invented "the gem," the most ubiquitous clip), and why it's not actually as perfect as so many think it is. This moves into a discussion of pins and clips, most notable of drawing pins (what we Americans call thumb tacks) and the invention of the obviously superior pushpins in 1900 by Edwin Moore, and popularized by the Moore Push-Pin Company—an example of a company still trading today. Then we get to the meatier supplies—pens (who doesn't have a favorite?), which is a lengthy and fascinating thirty pages entitled "Everything I Know About People, I Learned From Pens." Then it's on to paper, where we meet the Moleskine company, which has only been around since 1997, but trades on a history much older. One of my favorite pieces here is that when Moleskine was bought out by a larger corporation and began putting "made in china" on their notebooks, many aficionados complained that the move lowered the quality. Ward tells us Moleskines had actually always been manufactured in China; the only move made was to print that fact on the notebooks. After he details the story of the Moleskine itself and the history and people behind the modern paper-making process itself—a history that begins in China and wound through the Arab world before making its way to the West—he succinctly states:

And so the idea that cheap Chinese manufacturing ruined the quality of a product produced by an Italian company's interpretation of a British writer's recollection of the notebooks he bought in France seems a little patronizing to say the least.

And then it's on to pencils, erasers, staples, post-its, and even a section on back to school shopping! I'm still making my way through these sections (if I waited until I finished every book before I told you about it, I would never tell you about any books), but The Perfection of a Paperclip is a keeper. This one's going on my shelf.

And given the preliminary research that taking physical notes with pen and paper improves information retention and help form memory more than taking notes on computers, maybe we should all take another, longer look at our stationary. Not only that, but for me just the thought of getting off the danged computer to write and work with my hands, employing a pencil or pen for a while, seems invigorating. Living and working primarily on a computer these days takes some viscereality (not a word?) out of life, and I'd like to grab some of it back.

I'm not a collector of "boring stuff" like James Ward, but I am an appreciator, and now I'm off to organize my desk.

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