The Discreet Charm of the Paperie

A quirky history of pens, notebooks, tape, paper clips, and highlighters.

Illustration by Fumio Obata.

Illustration by Fumio Obata

It takes a confident writer to begin a book with a long discussion of the evolution of paper clips, push pins, and binder fasteners before even touching on sexier subjects like glue, sticky tape, and pencil erasers. Fortunately, James Ward, the author of the quirky history of stationery The Perfection of the Paper Clip, has a gift for isolating the kind of odd detail that counteracts the human eye’s tendency to glaze over.

Did you know, for instance, that while Carter Hi-Liters are available in a wide range of colors, yellows and pinks account for around 85 percent of their sales? That highlighter pens owe their existence to the Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War II? That during the Nazi occupation Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?

The history of stationery is the story of human ingenuity, of oddball geniuses who looked at a product that served its purpose perfectly adequately and saw ways to improve upon it. Ward writes with great affection of the entrepreneurs who risked their fortunes on dreams that might seem prosaic: files stored laterally rather than vertically, or a pen that could write upside down. He clearly admires, and perhaps finds kinship with, these obsessive tinkerers.

Unfortunately, the book is terribly parochial, stuffed with references to brands and concepts that Americans are unlikely to recognize: Silvine Memo Books, the Oxford Set of Mathematical Instruments, Jack Duckworth’s spectacles, “GCSE maths classrooms.” That would be fine—exotic even—if Ward, an Englishman, would provide some context to orient American readers. Since he occasionally notes some transatlantic differences, such as his repeated observation that unlike their British counterparts American schoolchildren don’t hold much truck with pencil cases, I can only conclude that he doesn’t realize his references aren’t universal. When he writes, “Like the Pritt Stick or Sellotape, the Post-it has become not only the generic term but the definitive term for its type,” you wonder if he has really thought about what the phrase “definitive term” means.

To be fair, stationery is shockingly parochial. It’s no surprise that different brands should dominate in different markets, but everything from paper sizes to the pencil grading system to the number of holes in a ring binder varies around the world. We can blame some of this on American exceptionalism when it comes to weights and measures: Ward notes that Burma, Liberia, and the United States are the only nations that still refuse to embrace the metric system. But the English-speaking world can’t even agree on stationery nomenclature: Brits call thumb tacks drawing pins and refer to erasers as rubbers. (I still remember the look of consternation on the face of the American friend visiting my childhood home in England when the little girl next door offered to show off her collection of rubbers.)

Still, if you’re a reader who can’t resist the charms of British patter, this book is like accompanying Ward on a relaxed ramble through an independent stationery store, one of those old family businesses where they can’t bear to take even the most outmoded items off the shelf. He’s prone to go off on tangents, as in his random disquisition on saucy seaside postcards, which will surely be quite mystifying to readers who have never seen these very un-PC PCs. And his interests are wildly idiosyncratic: He’s got more to say about erasers than pencils, can discuss fastening devices at extraordinary length, and doesn’t seem all that interested in pens. Odd enthusiasms can be delightful, if occasionally frustrating, but some sections—like his flabby, heart-not-in-it paragraphs on novelty souvenir stationery—read like filler designed to pump up the word count.

Author James Ward.
Author James Ward.

Photo courtesy Richard John

Even Ward’s cheeky chappy interjections can’t rescue some parts of the book from tedium. (Since his first writing success came from the blog I Like Boring Things, perhaps this is intentional.) During an excruciatingly detailed history of the company that popularized highlighters in the United States, I was tempted to Sellotape the pages together so that I would never again expose myself to paragraph after paragraph listing all the names the business traded under through the years. Ward relies rather too heavily on patent applications (rarely a source of bons mots) and promotional materials put out by the companies he’s profiling. He occasionally mocks the claims made in these press releases, but he seldom questions them, at least not seriously: He enters into an extended correspondence with Blu-Tack (a replaceable adhesive popular in Britain) about the “thousands of uses” promised on its packaging, but he never questions claims like Uni-Ball’s assertion that its specially formulated ink makes the Uni-Ball 207 “the only pen in the world that cannot be altered by chemicals or solvents.”

My biggest frustration with The Perfection of the Paper Clip is that Ward treats office supplies like obsolete museum pieces rather than practical objects. He boasts about peculiar eBay scores (historical staplers!) and talks about the elation of finding ancient products on the dusty shelves of small-town stationers, but he rarely describes the tactile pleasure of actually using these items. Pens, notebooks, and paper clips are made for scribbling, writing in, and clipping—not collecting. If Ward and I found ourselves together in that old, dusty stationery store, we’d head in different directions—he to hunt for ancient boxes of binder clips whose history he could investigate, while I’d search for a brand new notebook containing paper so smooth it would draw the words right out of me. It’s good to learn about these familiar products’ storied pasts, but analog tools aren’t dead yet.

The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession by James Ward. Touchstone.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.