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Object Lessons: The Surprisingly Complex History of the Humble Paper Clip

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Object Lessons: The Surprisingly Complex History of the Humble Paper Clip

October 18, 2016

The paper clip is one of those mundane everyday objects that often goes overlooked. But with a spate of new and retro designs—and our slightly nerdy fascination with the history of quotidian objects—we decided to investigate.

The story of the paper clip is surprisingly complex: Nearly 44 patents for different paper clips were granted between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, but the original inventor of the device is unknown. (We do know that the Gem paper clip, the design most commonly used in the US today, was first produced in England in the 1870s.) Why were so many people focused on designing paper clips during this time? Office life, business, and industry were on the rise, and the traditional technique of binding with pin and ribbon (as in book binding) was both too permanent and too tedious for everyday paperwork. In search of something that wouldn’t snag on or tear papers and was lightweight, inexpensive, and sturdy but removable, the paper clip—in all its shapes and forms—was born.

Over nearly two centuries of paper clip history, they have been worn as substitutes for buttons and zippers, twisted into makeshift lock-picking devices, strung together to make jewelry, used to push the tiny recessed buttons on our electronic devices, and, perhaps most surprisingly, worn on lapels in World War II Europe as a silent symbol of resistance.

Today retro paper clips are making a comeback, and they’re available in every shape and design. (We also love the old-school boxes they come in.) Here, five of our favorites.

Five to Buy

Brass Paperclips by Of Berlin

Above: This set of three geometric styles from Of Berlin are made of solid brass; £12 ($14.63) for 15 clips. To keep them shiny and untarnished, Of Berlin suggests soaking them in Coca-Cola.

Classic Brass Paperclips by Present & Correct on Remodelista

Above: Present & Correct has a huge collection of classic paper clip shapes, categorized by year. These triangular “1904” clips come in a vintage-style pink box; £8.50 ($10.36).

Super Clip by Museum of Useful Things

Above: These four-inch-long clips from the Museum of Useful Things are giant versions of the classic Gem style; $7.50 for 15 clips.

Metal Paperclip Mix by Rad and Hungry on Remodelista

Above: Rad and Hungry’s paper clip mix includes styles from “Brazil, Germany, Japan, and Colombia” and several different finishes; $6 for 60 clips.

Leone Paperclips by Sweet Bella on Remodelista

Above: These nickel-plated clips from Sweet Bella look like a shorter, more geometric version of the Gem style. (Visit Sweet Bella for more information.)

We believe even the most quotidian objects should be beautifully designed. For more on paper and paper clips, see our posts:

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