The stories behind five stationery icons

Colourful paperclips Image copyright Thinkstock

We take them for granted, but how did the paperclip, and other essential items of stationery, come about, asks James Ward.


The paperclip has uncertain origins. One theory that has always circulated is that it was invented by Norwegian patent clerk Johann Vaaler in 1899. His patent seems to have been for a clip made from "a spring material, such as a piece of wire, that is bent to a rectangular, triangular or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions". But there was nothing particularly special about his design - other similar designs had already been patented years earlier. Vaaler's title as the supposed father of the paperclip was given to him posthumously. And as the story grew, it accidentally managed to turn him into a folk hero of sorts in Norway.

Image copyright Thinkstock

During the years of Nazi occupation, the paperclip was worn as a symbol of resistance in Norway. This was nothing to do with Vaaler being Norwegian but it was meant as a subtle sign - the binding action of the paperclip acting as a reminder that the Norwegian people were united together against the occupying forces ("we are bound together"). In the years following the war, the belief that Vaaler had invented the clip slowly began to spread. The story started appearing in Norwegian encyclopaedias and soon merged with stories of the resistance to elevate the paperclip into something approaching a national symbol. In 1989, the BI Business School in Norway erected a 7m-tall paperclip in Vaaler's honour. However, the statue is not actually of the same design Vaaler patented. Some tribute.

Image copyright Flickr/Kyle Macdonald
Image caption The BI business school in Norway, complete with giant paperclip

There are many types of paperclip, the most common being known as the Gem. Even in paperless offices, the paperclip lives on in the form of skeuomorphic design - attachments are added to emails using a paperclip icon and then there's Clippy, the much-maligned Microsoft Office Assistant whose helpful suggestions were not appreciated by some. Clippy was killed off in 2007.

Pink Pearl eraser

Image copyright AP

While not as common in the UK as it is in the US, the Pink Pearl eraser is still instantly recognisable. It was designed as part of Eberhard Faber's range of Pearl pencils. A simple pink rhomboid, its distinctive colouring and soft texture were a result of the volcanic pumice mixed with the rubber and factice during the manufacturing process. Erasers are made from either natural or synthetic rubber, but the rubber itself is just used as a binding agent and typically only makes up around 10 to 20% of the eraser as a whole. Other ingredients are added, including a mixture of vegetable oil and sulphur known as factice. It is this factice which acts as the real erasing material. The eraser was launched in 1916, just as compulsory education laws were being introduced across the US.

Its low price and reliable quality meant it became a common feature in classrooms across the country. In 1967, the eraser was celebrated by the artist Vija Celmins, who produced a series of painstakingly crafted Pink Pearl sculptures from balsa wood, shaped and painted to look just like the real thing. Ten years later, Avon paid tribute to the Pink Pearl in its own unique way, producing a Pink Pearl nail brush ("Ten busy fingers after school, play and homework need a scrub-away brush to erase undernail dirt!"). The familiar bevel shape and colour of the Pink Pearl are still recognisable today in the version sold by Papermate, and the "eraser" icon in Photoshop (both in shape and colour) is clearly modelled on a Pink Pearl-type eraser. On Etsy today, crafters sell Pink Pearl magnets, Pink Pearl badges and modified Pink Pearl erasers with USB memory sticks embedded in them.

Pritt Stick

Image copyright ALAMY

In 1967, Dr Wolfgang Dierichs, a researcher working at German manufacturing company Henkel, went on a business trip. He checked in and boarded the plane. He took his seat, fastened his seatbelt and got ready for take-off. By the time the plane landed, Dierichs had an idea that would go on to revolutionise the world (of glue). At some point during the flight, he saw something that inspired him. It was a woman. The woman in question was carefully applying her lipstick, and as Dierichs watched her, he began to think that the lipstick form could have a different application.

You could take that design, a thin twistable tube, and fill it with a stick of solid glue. It would be clean and convenient. You'd just remove the lid and apply as much as you needed. No pots, no brushes, just a stick of glue. Of course, most people, seeing a woman apply lipstick wouldn't think, "Imagine if that was glue she was smearing over her lips", but Dierichs worked in Henkel's sizeable adhesives division.

The company launched the Pritt Stick in 1969. Within two years, Pritt Stick was available in 38 countries around the world and today it is sold in more than 120 countries worldwide. Around 130 million Pritt Sticks are produced every year and more than 2.5 billion have been sold since the product was launched. ("Enough to leave a line of adhesive extending from the earth, past our satellite the moon, on to Mars and then all the way back again," the company claims.) In 1987, Henkel began advertising the glue stick with a character called Mr Pritt who seems to live an ambivalent life, encouraging people to smear Pritt Sticks on paper despite being a Pritt Stick himself. He seems deeply troubled.

Drawing pin

Image copyright Thinkstock

As its name suggests, the "drawing pin" was originally used by draughtsmen to hold down the drawings they were working on. These pins would have had different shapes and designs, having evolved from simple straight pins. As with the development of the paperclip, there is some debate over who exactly invented the drawing pin as we know it today. Some claim the pin was invented by a German watchmaker named Johann Kirsten sometime between 1902 and 1903. One theory is that prior to this, Kirsten (like many before him, no doubt) used a simple straight pin to hold down his drawings as he worked.

Realising that a pin featuring a large, flattish head would be kinder on the thumb, he beat out a small brass disc and punched a nail through it. However, it wasn't Kirsten who benefited from his design. While Kirsten was able to sell a small amount of the pins to other local craftsmen, he still found himself short of cash (possibly the result of his heavy drinking - he was supposed to have once ordered a carriage to take him from his house to the pub next door, while his children sat at home starving) and was forced to sell the design to factory owner Arthur Lindstedt.

With a few changes, the pin made Lindstedt a fortune, with each worker at the Lindstedt factory producing thousands of pins each day for export all over Europe while Kirsten was soon forgotten about. Well, perhaps not entirely forgotten. In 2003, Christa Kothe, owner of a small hotel just outside Lychen, paid to have a statue built to mark 100 years of the drawing pin.

More from the Magazine

Image copyright ALAMY

The pioneers of computing championed a style of design in which digital elements resembled real world objects that anyone could recognise. Behind the glass screen lay a "desktop" on which users could arrange "documents", or drop them into the "trash" - an icon in the shape of a bin. The idea is known as "skeuomorphism". It predates Jobs and persists to this day.

The envelope is the de-facto symbol for email and SMS messages. It offers a nice distinction between read and unread - they become opened and unopened envelopes. On Windows 7, the Sticky Notes program resembles electronic Post-it notes. Unlike the real thing, they don't lose their stickiness and fall off your desktop.

What is skeuomorphism? (June 2013)

Post-it Note

Image copyright Thinkstock

Spence Silver joined 3M in 1966 as a senior chemist in the company's research laboratory. The team he joined were working on developing pressure-sensitive adhesives. To work effectively, these adhesives needed to be sticky enough to stick to the surfaces being joined together, but also needed to be easy to peel apart. Working on one formula, Silver changed the amount of one of the chemicals and accidentally created a very weak but reliable adhesive.

At first glance, it seemed useless, but he wondered if it could have some kind of application somewhere. He showed it to his colleagues, and even held seminars to explain its unusual properties. Initially, he thought the adhesive could be sold in an aerosol form - to be sprayed on the back of a sheet of paper or poster to create a temporary display. Alternatively, he wondered if it would be possible to create large notice boards coated in the material, to which memos or notes could be temporarily attached.

One of the 3M employees who attended Spence Silver's seminars on his adhesive was Art Fry. Fry worked in the company's Tape Division and part of his role involved developing new product ideas. In his spare time, Fry was a keen member of his local choir, and a couple of evenings after hearing Silver describing his discovery, Fry found himself becoming frustrated during hymn practice. The pieces of paper he used to mark the pages in his hymn book kept falling out. He realised this low-tack adhesive could be used to hold the bookmarks in place. He showed his bookmark to his colleagues but they weren't particularly impressed. One day, Fry was in his office preparing a report. He wanted to write a brief note for his supervisor so took one of his bookmarks and jotted down a few words on it and stuck it on the front of the report. His supervisor took another of Fry's bookmarks and stuck it next to a paragraph that needed correcting, adding a few comments of his own. Seeing this, Fry had a "eureka, head-flapping moment" and the sticky note was born.

James Ward is the author of Adventures in Stationery.

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