The Importance of the Paper Clip

The blogger James Ward studies common office supplies—to understand not just their history, but their cultural impact, as well.

Paul Sakuma/AP

In late 2009, the London-based blogger James Ward and the artist Ed Ross began a movement to celebrate "stationery"—the term for office supplies, basically, in the U.K.—that they called the Stationery Club. Once a month, they would use the hashtag #stationeryclub, asking other Twitter users to join in their appreciation of common objects.

But in early 2010, Ward had the idea to host the club in person, like a book club, except about pens and paper clips and Post-it notes. He wrote a blog post, asked people to join him in a London pub, and then waited. "I had no idea if anyone was going to come. I kind of thought this could just be me sitting in a pub holding a pen on my own," he said. "Eventually, we took over the whole pub, and there was just one table left of normal people... I was just like, 'I don't know what this is.'"

It's easy to see why Ward hadn't expected the turnout: Office supplies, frankly, make for a boring conversation topic. Plus, today's workspace centers on screens—on laptops and desktops and tablets and smartphones—that do said office supplies' work. But Ward is a fan of the things that seem dull to others. Every year, he hosts The Boring Conference, "a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked—subjects often considered trivial and pointless, but when examined more closely reveal themselves to be deeply fascinating." And this year, he's also written a collection of essays on the invention of various office items, published in a book called The Perfection of the Paper Clip, out Tuesday in the U.S.

"I'm interested in finding out the stories of all kinds of objects we use every day and that we take for granted just because we use them," Ward told me. "There's this sense of nostalgia, that [these supplies] remind you of when you went to school... There's also this sense of potential, that every object has the potential to change your life, whether it's the notebook you're going to use to write that novel, or the highlighters you'll use to pass that exam."

In his prologue, for example, he muses on some old paper clips he finds:

The first compartment is currently filled with 67 steel paper clips. I can't remember when I bought these paper clips, or where I got them from, and the clips themselves offer no clues. I can only apologize for the vagueness of my records. But before you criticize me for this oversight, perhaps I am simply a product of my environment. As a supposed civilization, we have been so blasé—so arrogant—that we haven't even bothered to keep a proper record of who invented the paper clip.

Ward goes on to write about the invention of a collection of other office supplies because to him, each one plays an important part in how we think about technology. (This mentality is similar to the one behind Object Lessons, an ongoing series featured on The Atlantic about the secret lives of ordinary things.) A paper clip isn't just a paper clip—it can be associated with a unique meaning depending on what you're using it for, whether it's using them to procrastinate around your lunch break or to add as the final touch to organize that paper you've spent weeks working on.

Meaning only grows deeper as tools like paper clips and file folders are abandoned in favor of the virtual ones on a laptop. Before digital technology spawned CDs and MP3s, Ward points out, people wanted to improve upon the crackle and pop of recorded sound. Once vinyl records were phased out, however, people associated those imperfections with the "warmth" of a bygone musical era. It's the same thing with writing things down in a notebook instead of a blank document on a screen. There's a special quality to jotting an idea down somewhere impermanent, somewhere a cloud won't be able to recover the information written down by hand.

Ward says he doesn't play favorites among his boring objects, but some, like the Post-it Note, have a greater cultural impact than others. As he highlights in the book:

The Post-it Note remains iconic. In Sex and the City, when Carrie Bradshaw meets up with Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha to tell them that her boyfriend has broken up with her, she doesn't say 'Berger broke up with me on a sticky note'; she says he broke up with her 'on a Post-it.' Romy and Michelle would have impressed no one if they'd claimed to have invented the 'sticky note'; it had to be the Post-it. Like the Pritt Stick or Sellotape, the Post-it has become not only the generic term, but also the definitive term for its type.

Waxing poetic on the Post-it Note may seem overkill, but that's exactly what Ward wanted to do: to show that these objects play with each other, affect each other, and in turn, affect us.

"It's an ecosystem," Ward explained. "Each of these individual items play their roles and support each other, so a pen is no use without paper, a paper is no use without a pen, so they have these symbiotic relationships where they all feed off each other."

Besides, he adds, there's a reason why they've stuck around for so long—even if their origin stories haven't been meticulously recorded. "There are stories behind these objects, there are people behind these objects... and they've made things that have made our lives easier even if it's in a very small way," he said. "We need those smaller things to make the bigger things."