Seeing Red on Valentine’s Day

Today’s post comes from Dena Lombardo, intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications.

Red may be the color of passion, but for archivists, “tying the knot” means that later they will be “cutting the red tape.”

Archivists come across red tape, faded to various shades, while working with the records. (Photo by Alan Walker, archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland)

Today when we talk about cutting through the red tape, we are talking about eliminating bureaucracy, but red tape was in fact used to bind the most important government documents together. Red also historically symbolized royal power and great wealth, due to the high price of the dye. 

Original red tape keeping a bundle of documents together. (Photo by the National Archives)

Beginning in the 11th century, English clerks tied important documents with red tape, then sealed the ends with melted wax. To access the bound documents, one first had to “cut through the red tape.”

Americans used this method of binding until the early 1900s, and important documents like the Stamp Act of 1765 were tied with red tape.

Staff take out a document bound with faded red tape during Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day at the National Archives. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

Over time, the red tape can fade into a variety of shades. The acidity of the red tape itself can also cause preservation problems. In the pension files of Capt. Robert F. Catterson, the red tape was removed from the files at some point in the past. However, as you can see this bundle got wet and the red color transferred to the paper. 

Approved Pension File for Louisa Catterson, widow of Capt. Robert Catterson of the Union Army (National Archives Identifier 118987437)

Archivists still use twill tape, but it is no longer red. Now tying the knot with white twill tape makes an archivist’s heart beat faster!

Looking for a fun Valentine’s Day gift for your sweetie? Authentic red tape pieces can be purchased in the National Archives gift shop!

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