An Unexpectedly Old Artifact: The Paperclip

Ad for Common Sense Clip, Via Office Museum

On June 7th during an excavation in West Circle Drive we recovered a paperclip. Now, you should know that we don’t keep anything that is definitely modern. We don’t keep the crushed beer cans from tailgating or the McDonald’s straws from littering. We did keep a paperclip, although whether or not to do this was debated. Can a paperclip really tell us anything about the past? Are they even considered historic?

For a while the paperclip was forgotten among the dozens of bags of artifacts from our extensive surveys, that is until yesterday when we began our identification and cataloging. Out of sheer curiosity we searched online for information about the paperclip and were shocked at how old the paperclip is. Paperclips were invented the same year as the typewriter, ten years before the telephone, and twenty years before Coca Cola or barbed wire. That’s right, by the time the matchbook was invented, paperclips were already of legal drinking age.

History of the Paper Clip

Gem Clip, Via Office Museum

The first bent steel wire paper clip was patented by Samuel B. Fay in 1867. Its original purpose was for attaching tickets to fabric, although the patent recognized that it could be used to attach papers together. However, advertisements for the paperclip aren’t found until 1899 so it is unlikely that there were any significant sales prior to the late 1890’s. Another design of the paperclip was patented by Erlman J. Wright in 1877 and was advertised at that time for use in fastening newspapers. A flood of paperclip patents were found for 1897, indicating that there was widespread use of this item in offices in this period. A trade publication from 1900 stated that “The wire clip for holding office papers together has entirely superseded the use of the pin in all up-to-date offices” (Early Office Museum 2012).

Paperclip Artifact from June 7 Excavations

Paperclip- The Artifact

Based on the descriptions from early advertisements, we can tell that our paperclip is a Gem type that was first introduced in 1894. The only problem is that Gem style paperclips are for the most part unchanged since their introduction in material and design, and the machines for creating them are same in design as the 1930’s machines. Some are covered with colorful plastics, but ours was not so this distinction is unhelpful. Given that other artifacts from the level include historic cut nails and glass, it is likely our clip dates to the early 20th century.

Fun Facts about Paperclips

While doing research on the paperclip, we also learned some fun facts. Did you know the Herbert Spencer (individual who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’) is often attributed with inventing the clip in the early 19th century based on a journal entry that describes a paper fastener he is using?

A Norwegian, Johan Vaaler (1866–1910), has erroneously been identified as the inventor of the paper clip due to some poor German reporting in the 1920’s. During WWII the Norwegians wore them on their lapels after national pins were outlawed by the Nazis. It was a symbol of solidarity and being bound together, combined with the nationalism of the country’s supposed invention of the tool. Following the war, the paperclip became a national symbol!

20 billion paperclips are produced annually in the United States, and a study estimated that the majority of these are not used for holding paper together- but rather are used for other tools for technology (CD-ROM ejector, iPhone SIM release, etc), bent apart, used to make chains and bracelets, or even used as lock picking devices (Wikipedia).

Author: Katy Meyers Emery