Someone INVENTED it: The Paper Clip

The Paper Clip. How many have you used in your lifetime? How many have given their lives as a source of your amusement? They seem more like part of the natural environment than an invention. Yet, the modern paper clip is little more than 100 years old.

What did we do before paper clips?

It seems, from what I can make out, that before paper clips, papers either weren’t held together or they were put in makeshift envelopes tied together by string. Some accounts say that straight pins were used but of course pins themselves were fairly expensive at one point.

You have to realize that prior to the mid-19th century, business as we know it today didn’t exist. Most businesses were small and didn’t need the level of administration that we expect. During the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing became big business and it drove all the innovations of the day. People went from largely making their own things, making their own meals, and taking care of themselves, to starting to buy mass-produced goods. With mass production comes paperwork, and this of course led to the inevitable invention of the paper clip.

The machine is the real invention

Like other inventions, the paper clip is more of a triumph of manufacturing than one of theory. People wouldn’t buy paper clips if they cost $1.00 a piece and so they must be cheap. That means not only a source of cheap wire but also a machine that can make them by the tens of thousands without any intervention.

The first documented paper clip patent belongs to Samuel B. Fay. His 1867 patent probably didn’t look like today’s paper clips, though. It’s hard to know who exactly invented those, except we do believe that by 1899 the Gem company was making paper clips that looked largely identical to the ones used today. In some cultures “gem” is even a generic word for paper clip.

In this ad, you see that 125 years ago, paper clips sold for 25 cents a box. This sounds like a real value until you realize that a decent wage was about a dollar a day at that time. Even looking at minimum wage today that’s the equivalent of about $60 for a box of paper clips.

The ever-helpful paper clip

The paper clip has been used as a last minute fastener, as an attention getter, as jewelry, and even as a quick way to weigh something. (Does it weigh more than 500 paper clips? If so it’s more than a pound.) Paper clips figure in easy chemistry experiments and they’ve been used to create quick electrical fixes that sometimes blow up in people’s faces. In the 2000s, many people kept a paper clip in a wallet or purse to reset an MP3 player; today it’s a fair tool to take a SIM card out of a phone. The paper clip is a great stress reliever and will even help you keep your outfit together if you lose a button or fastener.

Quite a life the humble paper clip has had, and it’s only been around for about 150 years.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.