Holding It Together: From Red Tape to Grommets

In celebration of American Archives Month we’re looking at some of the many fasteners and seals found in records at the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Early 19th-century government clerks relied on ribbon, pins, thread, sealing wax, and wafers to hold their papers together, but over the course of the century, these materials were joined by a host of other fasteners, including staples, grommets, and red tape. 

While red tape is used in the metaphorical sense these days, it used to refer to literal red tape: a narrow ribbon made from cotton or linen, dyed red. This was used by government clerks for all sorts of purposes, from tying bundles of related papers together, to sealing official documents, to tying shut envelopes.

Red tape keeping a bundle of documents together. (National Archives photo)

As laid out in the “Instructions for Keeping the Records and Transacting the Clerical Business of the War Department” of 1876, “Whenever a case requiring action extends through several papers, the papers should, with the air of an elastic band or office tape [red tape], be always so arranged by the clerks into whose hands they come for action as to present to view the briefs of writers and contents of the principal communications in the order of their dates.”

The amount of tape used by the Union Army was by no means small in quantity. According to the “Expenditures from the Contingent Fund of the War Department” report submitted to the 28th Congress in 1865, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1864, the offices of the headquarters of the War Department alone bought a total of 154 miles of red tape. As one Civil War historian wryly noted, this was enough to stretch from the War Department’s Winder Building in Washington, DC, to the Confederate fortifications in Petersburg, Virginia.

Conditions in the field were a little dearer. According to Army regulations during the war, each company was entitled to a quarterly issue of the following stationery supplies: five quires (120 sheets) of writing paper, ½ quire of envelope paper, 20 quills, ½ ounce of wafers, three ounces of sealing wax, one paper of ink powder, and one piece [3¾ yards] of “office tape.”

At the same time, grommets (small metal rings) were becoming a particularly popular as a permanent method of securing papers together, and they appear in many NARA documents.

The downside of a grommet was that it required purchasing a machine to install them, and machines could have their own proprietary designs. 

George W. McGill, who invented the brass fastener in 1866, also received an early patent in 1867 for a machine to insert those fasteners into paper, one of the first iterations of the stapler. Various patents for refinements filed over the course of the 1870s included staple machines that inserted and crimped a staple in a single step, the magazine of preformed wire staples, and the spring-loaded stapler. The McGill Single-Stroke Staple Press of 1878 was one of the first commercially successful staplers, although the word “stapler” didn’t come into published use until the early 20th century, and small, sleek desktop models took a little more time to evolve.

The holes from a removed staple are visible in the upper left hand corner on this 1906 letter from Speaker of the House Joe Cannon. (National Archives Identifier 6788518)

While the fasteners and other office supplies mentioned in this series feel ubiquitous in the 21st century, there was a time when conserving their use was a part of the U.S. war effort in World War II. The diversion of metal and factories for the war effort limited the availability of staplers and paper clips, just as long ago the British blockade limited the availability of paper, sealing wax, silk ribbon, and other imported stationery goods in cities held by the Continental Army during the American Revolution. 

Stayed tuned for our final post in this series on the paper clip!

One thought on “Holding It Together: From Red Tape to Grommets

  1. That was fascinating. I was told by my mother, “You know how when a kid starts to learn how to talk, their first words are mama and dada. Your first words were WHY and HOW.” I do not think she was kidding.

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