Penning, pinning and sticking life: Stationery’s unique stories

By Vikas Datta 

Title: Adventures in Stationery: Stories From Your Pencil Case; Author: James Ward; Publisher: Profile Books/Hatchette India; Pages: 228 ; Price: Rs.499

Pic Courtesy:
Pic Courtesy:

Did you know who was the first to conceive of a fountain pen, which ubiquitous item was inspired by children playing marbles in a Budapest street, what we owe to a failed American mining firm, and which unexceptional office supply served as a symbol of unity in an occupied European country during World War II?

A 10th century Fatimid caliph, the ballpen, Scotch tape and Post-It notes (from 3M), and the humble paperclip (in Norway).

Every human invention has a history though it may remain obscure or never even strike our minds. The worst to suffer are these familiar objects we take for granted though they have the most vital for all our education, our intellectual and artistic endeavours, and in almost all white-collar jobs – writing implements, paper and other stationery items, and many other varied items stretching from staplers to erasers and correction fluid to highlighters.

And it is their colourful stories that British blogger James Ward presents in his first book, where he observes that it is only a “slight exaggeration to say that the history of stationery is the history of human civilisation” as to think, to organise our thoughts, we need to write things down – and that requires stationery.

And the ideas came from all sections. It was Caliph Al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah (r.953-75) who told historian Qadi Al Nu’man Al-Tamimi, that he wished “to construct a pen which can be used for writing without having recourse to an ink-holder and whose ink will be contained inside it…. The writer can put it in his sleeve or anywhere he wishes and it will not stain nor will any drop of ink leak out of it. The ink will flow only when there is an intention to write.”

But it was not until the mid-early 19th century that the monarch’s dream was realised, and further modified, in the 20th century, into the ballpen by a Hungarian journalist, irritated by leaking ink. It was Laszlo Biro who thought of a mechanism that would work after seeing the marbles roll about and who lives on as a generic name for his invention – as do French manufacturer Marcel Bich (Bic) and American businessman Milton Reynolds in similar products.

There are other fascinating minutiae galore – of how accurate was a ruler (the geometry box kind that is) discovered from an Indus Valley Civilisation site in Gujarat, how correction fluid bankrolled a pop band, why Scotch tape is so named, why a mining company had to turn to a business of stationery and office supplies, and why Post-it notes are yellow.

Ward, whose blog is called “I Like Boring Things”, is founder and host of the annual Boring Conference, a celebration of “the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked” and co-founder of the Stationery Club in London, is well-qualified to tell the tale.

The fortuitous finding an old desk tidy, or the multi-receptacle holder for small-sized stationery, offers him an opportunity for a discourse into the history of paperclips, drawing and push pins, and subsequently encourages him to delve into a history of stationery, full of inspired or obsessive invention, accidental genius, and patient perseverance. He ends with its future in an increasingly digital world.

Ward can get quite technical at times but his account is enlivened with his dry wit, as well as some interesting excursions into literature, and popular culture – films like “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” and TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “Blackadder” (among others).

Even if you, like most people, consider stationery a means to an end, you still will be entertained by the stories behind the objects – and amazed at human ingenuity.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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