Let Them Eat Paste: Sanford’s Library Paste Jar

While I myself have never experienced the Wiggum-ian urge to consume paste, I’ve encountered an unnamed few who, at one time or another, failed to resist sneaking a sweet, illicit taste of the stuff. In defense of our paste-loving friend Ralph, eating paste isn’t all that different from eating pasta: the basic formula of paste is water, vegetable flour, and starch. In fact, the words “paste” and “pasta” share a common Greek etymology. As used in thirteenth century English, “paste” meant something akin to “dough.” It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the word “paste” was first used to reference to the glue mixture we know and eat today.

Death from paste! Image source

Death from paste! Image source

This is not to say that paste eating is without hazards. A hand-painted marker in Esmeralda County, Nevada, marks the grave of an unknown man—a “starving vagrant”—who expired in 1908 after eating a jar of library paste foraged from the trash. The paste contained alum, a common additive in adhesives that serves the purpose of 1) preventing mold by keeping excess moisture out and 2) whitening the mixture for improved aesthetics. As our hungry vagrant discovered too late, alum is also toxic in large doses.

The unnamed vagrant may have been tempted by the sweet smell of library paste, but not all historical adhesives were so appetizing. In the past, glue-making and using was often a smelly, messy affair. Prior to the 20th century, many adhesives were derived from animal products including bones, cartilage, skin, or—as I learned traumatically from a childhood reading of Black Beauty—horse hooves. Animal-based adhesives often required cooking or melting before use, at great inconvenience to the user.

Enter: Sanford’s Library Paste.

Sanford's Library Paste Jar discovered at Station Terrace - Image Source: Lisa Bright

Sanford’s Library Paste Jar discovered at Station Terrace – Image Source: Lisa Bright

This summer, an intact jar of Sanford’s Utopian Library Paste was uncovered during the excavation of Station Terrace. As Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright discussed in a previous blog post, Station Terrace was built in the early 1890s and used as housing for visiting researchers and faculty. The discovery of the paste jar begs the question, what place might such an object have on the campus of Michigan Agricultural College?

Sanford's Library Paste Utopian Jar Ad - Image Source

Sanford’s Library Paste Utopian Jar Ad – Image Source

The Sanford Ink Company was founded in 1857 by Frederick W. Redington and William H. Sanford, Jr. Today, Sanford L.P. is one of the largest writing products manufacturers in the world. Its products include PaperMate, Sharpie, and Uni-Ball. In its early days, Sanford was better known for quality ink, paste, and mucilage products. Sanford patented its library paste formula in 1892. The company proudly contrasted its potato-based “clean, sweet smelling” paste with the stinking, cumbersome hoof glues of old in a series of advertisements that ran in magazines such as the American Stationer, The Magazine of Office Equipment, and The Coach during the early twentieth century.

Sanford’s library paste was sold in collapsible tubes and quart or pint jars to meet its customers’ various adhesive needs. Seeking total library paste domination, the Sanford Ink Company patented its special “Utopian” paste jar in 1898. The jar was designed with a small air space under the cover and a central water well that kept the brush and paste from drying inside. It was called “Utopian” presumably because its design beckoned a futuristic paradise in which paste flows freely and brushes stay eternally moist. As a bonus, the paste was “snowy white” and dried quickly—in less than ten seconds—to prevent paper from puckering. Sanford’s library paste became enough an industry standard that it even appeared in the 1906 Report of the Clerk of the House of Representatives’ as part of the contingent fund for stationery.

According to Sanford’s own advertising, its library paste had a variety of office, home, and commercial uses including “mounting photographs, paper flowers, scrap book and general use.” As much as I like to imagine early Spartans dècoupaging paper flowers, the mention of scrapbooking is especially intriguing. The MSU Archives houses an impressive and fascinating collection of student and faculty scrapbooks. Before the advent of social media, scrapbooking served as a means of compiling treasured memories and carefully curating one’s personal identity for posterity.

Scrapbooks contained material evidence of memories such as ticket stubs to football games or social events, newspaper clippings, personal letters, and photographs. These range from the serious—librarian Linda Landon’s cyanotype photograph of herself working in the library in the 1890s—to the personal—Forest Akers’ scrapbook pages commemorating his marriage to Alice Rockwell—to the silly—an unidentified student’s scrapbook page with a 1902 newspaper article detailing the common prank of “room stacking”.

Room Stacking scrapbook image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Room Stacking scrapbook image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Scrapbooks encapsulated students’ unique experiences and perspectives. Chinese student Onn Mann Liang was one of twenty international students who studied at Michigan State College in the 1920s. His scrapbook contains photographs of his travels around Michigan, his registration as a Civil Engineer, and portraits of himself as he wished to remember himself and how he wished to be remembered during his time in Michigan—graduating from MSC, canoeing down the Red Cedar, and posing with other students. Read more about Onn Mann Liang and view his scrapbook in the MSU Archives exhibit on pioneers in international education here.

We may never know exactly what Michigan State students and faculty were doing with library paste—apart from, of course, snacking on it. However, the discovery of this artifact connects us to early Spartans’ methods of self-expression, memory making, and construction of personal identity.

References

Paste etymology http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=paste&searchmode=none

Paste ingredients http://www.gpb.org/blogs/the-daily-jog/2013/03/19/was-it-ok-to-eat-paste-as-a-child

Sanford Ink bottles http://www.bottlebooks.com/inkcompanyhistory/sanford_ink_company.htm

Sanford Ink Company

http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/71/Sanford-L-P.html

Advertisement in The Coach magazine (January 1917, Vol. 4-6)

Advertisement in The Magazine of Office Equipment (March 1917, Vol. 25)

Advertisement in The American Stationer (March 28, 1908)

Annual Report of the 59th Congress, 2nd Session of the House of Representatives (1907)

Sanford Manufacturing Company Pamphlet (year unknown-courtesy of University of Chicago)

Photos

Unknown Vagrant http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=24301650&PIpi=9193458

Utopian Jar Ad http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/6675127.html

Photos from the MSU Archives

 Room Stacking http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-1156/scrapbook-page-about-room-stacking-pranks-1902/

Forest Akers Scrapbook http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-245/h-pages-from-a-forest-akers-scrapbook/

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