Holding It Together: From Pins to Paper Clips

We’re wrapping up our celebration of American Archives Month’s look 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.

A century after the silk ribbon and sealing wax of the Continental Congress, clerks of the antebellum years had access to a host of new technologies and fasteners, including glue, rubber bands, paper clips, eyelets, staples, grommets, and red tape. But for temporarily holding together papers, one of the simplest and earliest technologies was the pin.

A ubiquitous little item used for fastening clothing from the 17th to 19th centuries as well as for assisting with sewing, pins also made handy fasteners for sticking one piece of paper to another. Later in the 19th century, specialized pins for clerks were sold as “bank pins,” with a later variant being a piece of wire bent into a “T” shape, instead of a straight pin. While few remain on digitized documents, keep a sharp eye out for two holes about ½” inch apart, generally in a corner of the paper. To see some pins in situ, check out this post from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s blog, The Collation.

The obvious disadvantage of the pin is that it puts a physical hole in a paper, which can weaken the paper and even tear it, especially if papers need to be pinned and re-pinned again over the years. It’s also difficult to stick a pin through more than a few pieces of paper—a problem ripe for a solution. 

Enter the paper clip. 

The roughly trombone-shaped paper clip that we’re all used to in the 21st century is in fact the product of a good deal of experimentation with removeable, non-perforating fasteners in the last quarter of the 19th century. One of many challenges to overcome was finding the correct tension of wire that will return to its original shape after being bent—too soft a metal and it won’t hold the papers, but too hard and it won’t be able to be successfully bent. Steel wire proved the solution. 

Then there was the shape. According to The Evolution of Useful Things, some of the first patents issued in the United States for a bent wire paper clip were filed by Matthew Schooley in 1898 and Cornelius Brosnan in 1900, while one of the earliest patents in NARA’s collection is Johan Vaaler’s 1901 patent, first filed in Germany in 1899.

The familiar, trombone-esque spiral that ultimately became ubiquitous was the “Gem,” introduced in Great Britain around 1907. While other versions stayed around for many decades, the Gem’s lack of exposed points that could tear paper and simple design helped ensure its survival into the 21st century, and its presence in NARA research rooms, to this day.

Variants on the paper clip persisted into the early 20th century—for even more variants, check out this slideshow from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and this post from the Smithsonian Collections Blog. Some of the now-extinct paper clip designs include the Konaclip, the Niagara, the Mogul, the Owl, and the Rinklip. For more examples found by archivists in NARA’s own collection, see this Pieces of History post.

3 thoughts on “Holding It Together: From Pins to Paper Clips

  1. Thank you for this series on fasteners – it was “fastenating” (oomph!).
    Seriously, though, I enjoyed it very much and the many images of documents in the archives brought the articles to life.

  2. I am something of a collector (on behalf of my institution) of paper clips in all their myriad forms, and I enjoyed this article a lot!

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