Mini Object Lesson: Still a Staple of Modern Life

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Everything about the stapler reeks of a time gone. The all-metal body. The satisfying and audible cha-chunk of its operation. The details, too, like the rubberized pads in its undercarriage to prevent shifting on the desk or table while the violence of paper fastening is enacted.

And the danger! Remember that scene in the last season of Mad Men, when the child actor impales herself on the unshielded maw of this tool of certain disfigurement? The butterflying capacity of the tool, dangerously opening to allow teachers to attach decorations to the walls of schoolrooms. The small staples that pose choking risks to those very young children. The unlikely but hypothetical deployment of the heavy body of the traditional stapler as a weapon in an office massacre. Even the snap-close of the body when opened to refill it, the heavy, sharp top threatening to crush fingers at any moment. No one would tolerate this irresponsibility today; better to outsource it to a print-and-fasten-as-a-service startup.

When did you last even think about the stapler?

I only did because my home unit ran out of staples and I didn’t have any reserves. At the office we still print, and we still staple, but a staple-less stapler is easily remedied with a visit to the supply closet. (Aside: the office supply closet is an excellent material-world break room for the Internet-addled.) A trip to the store yielded a box of Swingline Premium Staples, 5,000 count. Five thousand staples. How often do I staple at home? Maybe five times a week at the very most. Even assuming a high failure rate from misaligned papers or insufficient hammer force, that’s ten years of future stapling nestled into five square inches in my desk drawer. A decade of fastening guaranteed, because the mechanism that supports it won’t age or obsolesce. Even my tenured professorship doesn’t offer such a guarantee.

“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” stapling dads everywhere lament as they clutch their black and grey (and yes, red) Swinglines. Except, they absolutely do. You can get a plastic stapler, but you don’t have to. Staplers haven’t changed much, and where they have they’ve mostly improved. Antimicrobial hammer bar protection. Jam-free carrier designs. Flat-clinching crimper patterns to help stapled packets lie flat when piled.

Trim-tab adjustments like these characterize a mature, established technology. The digital page can’t hold a candle to the stapled printout. We still can’t even get proper typography, let alone satisfactory annotation, collaboration, and sharing. While we waste time Slacking our compatriots to ask “What’s the best tablet PDF viewer these days?” Swingline and its ilk are busy perfecting low-force sound-dampened anvil-carrier-crimper mechanisms to quiet paper fastening in the modern open office. Cha-chunk.

Staplers and their kin are the workhorses of modern life. The staples (sorry) that can’t be “disrupted” and set aside with a trend and an app. And yet, if the stapler didn’t already exist, it’s hard to imagine it being invented today. A chunky, heavy apparatus manufactured from stamped, formed, and riveted sheet metal that forces shards of sharpened metals through papers.

I’m not worried about missing it when it’s gone, for it will never be gone. I’m more worried about missing whatever else could have been like it, but won’t have, because we all chased ghosts on computers.

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