The History of the Ever Versatile Paper Clip

Daniel Ganninger
August 22, 2023
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It’s one of those inventions that we don’t necessarily think about, but its uses are wide and varied. It’s the humble paper clip, the carefully bent wire of metal that holds paper together, so we don’t drop a stack of it on the ground. The paper clip has many other uses it never was intended for, but where did the paper clip come from?

The paper clip hasn’t always been the familiar triple curved design we know today. The first “paper clips” were actually called “letter clips” since they had a spring and a clip. They were used in the 1800s and early 1900s. The first patent for a “paper clip” was made by Samuel B. Fay in 1867, but it wasn’t originally intended to hold papers together but to fasten a ticket to fabric so a pin wouldn’t have to be used. The patent did mention, however, that a paper ticket could be attached to another piece of paper.

In 1899, William Middlebrook received a patent for the paper clip we know today, but the patent wasn’t on the actual paper clip. It was a patent for a “machine for making wire paper clips”. He sold the patent to an office supply manufacturer that same year called Cushman & Denison. They later trademarked the paper clip in 1904 as the “Gem” paper clip, the one people most commonly use today. The “Gem” paper clip had already been in circulation before the trademark and showed up in an advertisement as early as 1894, but no patent was ever issued for this type of paper clip.

Middlebrook paperclip machine patent2
Middlebrook’s patent for making paper clips

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a slew of new and different paper clip designs that came in every shape and fashion, but none caught on or matched the functionality of the “Gem” paper clip. There was, however, another person that has been erroneously credited with the invention of the paper clip. His name was Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian that received a patent on his paper clip in 1901 in the United States.

The problem was his paper clip was not that revolutionary, given the vast number of paper clips already on the market. But that didn’t stop the myth from spreading for years. Vaaler’s paper clip also lacked one thing the popular “Gem” paper clip had; a final third loop. The false attribution didn’t stop Norwegians from proclaiming him as the inventor of the paper clip. They even erected a monument of a paper clip in Sandvika, Norway, in his honor. Unfortunately, it was not Vaaler’s paper clip. It was a replica of the popular “Gem” paper clip.

Paper clip Oslo
The monument that is not quite Vaaler’s paper clip in Norway Lars Roede/Wikimedia

Paper clips aren’t just for attaching papers together either. They can be used for an unlimited number of uses that have nothing to do with paper. It’s probably no coincidence that the hole to reset many electronic devices is just large enough to fit a paper clip. The paper clip has also been popularized on computer screens.

The most famous, or maybe infamous, was Clippit, the Microsoft Office Assistant, who was also known as Clippy. The bouncy, and to many, annoying icon was introduced in 1996 and stuck around until 2007. Clippy showed that the paper clip had come a long way, but early focus groups didn’t like him, especially women. Somehow he stayed and became one of the least liked tools of Microsoft Office. Sometimes it’s best not to mess with a simple thing.

The infamous Clippy

Sources: Slate, Office Museum, University of Houston, Idea Finder, The Atlantic