Thursday, April 09, 2015

Book: Adventures in Stationery by James Ward

In this book about the history of stationery, James Ward has managed to the make the boring fascinating. Each chapter tells the story of a different piece stationery (e.g. the pencil, the stapler, the post-it note). Ward has clearly done his research. The book is fact filled but not at the expense of narrative, which is a good thing too as it seems every item on our desk has an interesting story to tell.
While the final chapter ('Tomorrow's World') notes that the ability to record information digitally reduces the need for pen and paper, Ward concludes with the message that the pen is not dead. I agree that the pen will be with us for the foreseeable future, but it's pretty clear that we have passed the point of 'peak stationery'. This makes Ward's book all the more important as a social document. It comes at an interesting time when stationery is still with us but it's decline is at the point where we view it with a romantic lens. Remember the smell of wood shavings when you sharpening a pencil. The reassuring sound of the wood being shaved and the lead being ground back to a sharp point, the peelings slowly furling up off the sharpener and falling away into the waste paper basket? I'll stop now before this turns into a surreal Mills & Boon story.


  • The common paper clip is known as the 'gem', named after the British company that successfully marketed the design. 
  • Herbert Spencer claims to have invented the paperclip in 1846 ('binding pin'), but his design was only a modest success in the first year of production. Spencer blamed his business partner and also the 'insane desire' of the public for novelty.
  • Drawing pin design was advanced upon by an American, who created the push pin (like a drawing pin but with a cylindrical head). The push pin falls flat when it falls to the ground, didn't corrode with photographic paper, and is easy to remove.
  • BIC crystal pen - released in 1951. Even back then it was in the hexagonal design. Other ball pens existed but the BIC didn't dry up or leak so readily.  25m pens shipped in the first year alone. Aggressive marketing followed and by 1958, BIC were producing a million pens a day.
  • To advertise the 0.8mm tip, Ryamond Savignoc created the BIC mascot.
  • Lazlo Biro is the inventor of the ballpoint pen. The story runs that he was sitting in a cafe watching children play marbles, and he a marble leave a trail of water as it rolled through a puddle. Biro sued Bich for patent infringement but over time Bic bought the majority of shares in Biro.
  • Cai Lun is credited with inventing paper as we know it, in the 1st century AD. The process was known before Cai Lun so it's difficult to say whether he only refined it, or whether he discovered it and refined it. The process involved boiling cloth and bark, beating it to a pulp to produce fibres, leaving the paper to dry and then polishing it smooth with a stone. The process spread to the Arab world and across to Europe.
  • In the 1800s in Europe, the wood based method of paper production that we know today was invented. Note, the Bank Of England still uses cotton fibre in its notes, which is more durable.
  • The yellowing of paper is due to the lignen - this is removed by a chemical process in some processes but lignen is still present in cheaper papers (e.g. newspapers).
  • The paper sizes of A4, A3 etc are used widely although North America hasn't adopted the format and still uses 'letter format', 'tabloid', etc.
  • Steinbeck: "You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. ....It is always well to be prepared. Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it. I buy them four dozen at a time. When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand, I retire that pencil. ....I have fine prejudices, lazy ones and enjoyable ones. It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling."
  • When France declared was on England in 1793, the French Minister of War instructed Jacques Conte to create a design that didn't rely on imported graphite from the Borrowdale mines (near Keswick). Conte developed a technique to combine powdered graphite with clay (and then firing in a kiln) to produce the pencils we use today.
  • Nuremberg was a major trading centre and merchants traded in the graphite from the Borrowdale mines. The region gave birth to Staedler and Faber-Castell (just outside Nuermberg).
  • The different pencil grades are achieved by varying the ratio of clay to graphite. Harder leads produce lighter lines. H = Hard. B = Blacker.
  • The Japanese technology company 'Sharp' used to be called the 'Ever Ready Sharp Pencil', named after it's product, the first popular mechanical pencil.
  • Erasers: Stale bread used to be used. This was replaced by milky tree sap, or gum elastic. Early rubbers would degrade severely with temperature changes. Charles Goodyear invented the process of vulcanisation but he sent sample to British companies before patenting the idea. The product was reverse engineered and Goodyear died in debt.
  • In 1888 the pencil and eraser became one. 
  • Liquid paper (US version of Tip-Ex) was created by Bette McMurrary, a secretary who saw artists painting sign board and going over errors with white paint. 
  • Helix invented the compass in 1894. Over 100m stationery kits have been sold to date.
  • Highlighters: Yukio Horie invented the first fibre tip that gave birth to the highlighter. The fibres make the nib act like a brush, soaking up the liquid from the body of the brush. Horio's pen, called a 'Sign Pen' was named Time magazine's product of the year in 1963. 
  • In the 1960s Schwan introduced two fibre-tipped pens in the market. The shape of the Stabilo BOSS highlighter is the result of a frustrated designer slamming his fist on a clay model design. The product was so successful that in 1976 the company changed its name to Schwan-STABILO.
  •  Pritt-Stck history credits a woman on the same flight as a research was on; when she started using a lipstick, it gave the researcher the idea.
  • Scotch tape is named so after a complaint that the makers were being too stingy, or "Scotch (Scottish)" with the adhesive. 
  • Hole-punch: ISO 838 determines that the distance between the holes should be 80mm and the holes should have a diameter of 6mm, and the centre of the holes should be 12mm from the edge of the paper. The US uses a different system, adopting a three hole approach which is incompatible with the rest of the world.

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