It took a well-placed spring to make it truly universal
UNTIL ABOUT 70 YEARS ago human beings had to go through life without a quick, easy way to fasten two or more pieces of paper firmly. People sewed papers together, skewered them with pins, used glue, or punched holes and secured them with ribbon. They tried clamps, brads, and other cumbersome fasteners. The first stapling devices were not a startling improvement. Stapling eventually came to offer substantial advantages over other fastening technologies, but those advantages did not exist until the 1930s, when the stapler matured into something close to its modern form.
One of the very first commercial staplers was a “paper fastener” patented by the Novelty Manufacturing Company in 1866. It held only one staple, which was driven by depressing a metal plunger. To clinch the staple, according to the instructions, one merely had to “turn the paper over, bend the projecting points slightly together, cover them with the slotted end of the tool and repeat the blow …”
Similar devices appeared in the following decades. Some used pre-formed staples; others could be fed a length of wire or a straight pin. One doubled as a check canceler. Some were apparently designed to be used in conjunction with a mallet. None really caught on. Among the first staplers to achieve any degree of popularity were those manufactured by the E. H. Hotchkiss Company, incorporated in 1895 in Norwalk, Connecticut. The Hotchkiss No. 1 Paper Fastener, beloved of stapler enthusiasts (the company has long since vanished, but in Japan the stapler is still known as a hochikisu ), accepted strips of staples connected along the top in a herringbone pattern. The user had to depress the plunger with sufficient force to sever the staple from the strip.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, printers used wire to bind magazines, pamphlets, and other small documents, a technique known as wire stitching or saddle stitching. Wirestitching machines were huge and expensive, but in the 1890s the Boston Wire Stitcher Company, of Arlington, Massachusetts, began manufacturing more compact ones, for small print runs. In 1903 the company unveiled a foot-operated model that used pre-formed staples. It was still too big and expensive for routine office use. Then, in 1914, Boston Wire Stitcher introduced the Bostitch Desk Stapler, the ancestor of the modern device. Though superior to most of its competitors, the Bostitch stapler was inconvenient to load and required a fair amount of brute force to operate. To avoid the problems of the Hotchkiss metal-strip method, staples were packaged loose in a tray. Loading the stapler required sliding them carefully into the magazine. A slip of the hand could lead to the heartbreak of countless spilled staples.
In the 1930s a stationery wholesaler named Jack Linsky founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Corporation, later known as Swingline. Linsky sold staplers imported from Germany but was dissatisfied with their quality, so he set up his own stapler factory in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan. Parrot Speed Fastener became one of the first manufacturers to produce staples glued together in a strip. This innovation simplified loading, but the process was still cumbersome.
In most staplers the staple supply was held in place by a spring. When a staple was expelled from the magazine, the spring would push the rest of the staples forward. Reloading involved pulling the magazine spring out of the way, inserting new staples, and then securing them snugly between the spring and the front of the magazine. This was not an enormously complicated procedure, but it did require a certain amount of fussing. And, as has happened with many technologies, including computers, even a minor amount of inconvenience or difficulty was enough to deter untrained consumers.
Linsky was a salesman with a bold vision of a userfriendly stapler. It would do more, he realized, than outsell its rivals. If people could staple with reckless abandon, they would have to buy staples more often.
During a trip to Europe he came up with an idea for making staplers easier to load. It’s unclear what triggered this epiphany, but the result, the 1937 Swingline, was essentially the stapler we know and use today. “Before, in order to load a stapling machine, you practically needed a screwdriver and a hammer to put the staples in,” Linsky’s son in-law Alan Seff told the writer John R. MacArthur in 2000. “He and his engineers devised a patented unit where you just opened the top of the machine, and you’d plunk the staples in.”
In the “open channel” design, the magazine spring is connected to the top of the stapler, which is mounted on a hinge. Opening the stapler pulls back the spring and the follow block (the piece at the end of the spring that pushes the staples forward). Closing the stapler allows the follow block to slide back into place against the newly loaded staples. It looks obvious today, but it was a breakthrough that turned Swingline into an office supply empire worth $210,000,000 when Linsky sold the company to a conglomerate in 1970.
Changes since the advent of the open channel stapler have been largely cosmetic. In fact, the stapler has been a barometer of the prevailing trends in industrial design, from Art Deco in the 1930s to the classic Swingline 747 of the 1970s to their modern descendants with bright, translucent housings styled after iMac computers. Electric staplers have been around since the 1950s, but the manual version remains standard-issue equipment for desk jockeys.
Most office staplers are designed to be operated while they are sitting on a desk or other flat surface, but many users prefer to pick up the stapler and squeeze the ramhead and base together. This is slower but perhaps more precise, and it provides a tactile feedback that makes stapling a strangely visceral pleasure in the often sterile modern workplace. In the late 1990s the Hunt Corporation of Philadelphia introduced a stapler specifically designed to be used in this manner. It sits upright, making it easier to pick up, and it uses less surface area, leaving more room on your desk for the papers that need to be stapled.