GEMs, RingKlips, Owl Clips

What makes an archivist’s heart go pitter patter? It’s not always what you might expect.

April 4, 2014

Sure, there’s a thrill to be had when you come across an unusual record, or manage to hunt down a particularly elusive snippet of information for someone – but sometimes archivists find their rewards in unusual places. My secret pleasure is finding a new example of an antique paper fastener (otherwise known as a paper clip) for the little collection that sits on my desk.

Collection of paperclips
My personal collection of paper clips.

The pins and other attachment devices pictured above have been removed from our paper records because they could rust or tear the documents if left in place. They have served their purpose, and have now been replaced with a stainless steel modern version. The model we use now is a GEM, which has actually been around since 1892! My little collection of antiques also includes an Owl Clip (still being manufactured), a RingKlip, and a brass Clipper Clip, along with some stud fasteners that would have been inserted by a machine. For a fascinating look at the history of the paper clip, and to match up my samples with their names and manufacturing dates, check out The Early Office Museum online.

An Owl Clip (because of the two “eyes”). The original design was patented in 1905 and it is still in production.
An Owl Clip (because of the two “eyes”). The original design was patented in 1905 and it is still in production.

Sometimes when processing records we find some rather unorthodox systems of fastening.  I’ve come across large safety pins, ribbons, and thread, in addition to many good old-fashioned straight pins.  That’s one of the reasons why archivists are advised to keep their tetanus shots up to date – some of the records can bite!

The Common Sense Paper Clip, manufactured in Jackson, Michigan, between 1904 and 1925. Its round design meant that it got less tangled in its box.
The Common Sense Paper Clip, manufactured in Jackson, Michigan, between 1904 and 1925. Its round design meant that it got less tangled in its box.

You can look at archival photographs of 19th and 20th century office interiors in British Columbia by accessing the Archives search page and using the keywords “office” and “interior”.  You’ll be able to view 43 images of places such as the Pemberton Holmes office in Victoria, and the Gold Commissioner’s office at Barkerville. They seem quite spartan to our eyes, but I suspect that there were paper fasteners of some sort in each one of these offices – they were as indispensable then as they are now.

Company office, Rossland, BC, 1904
Interior of the Brackman-Ker Milling Company office, Rossland, BC, 1904. BCA B-07702. (photographer unknown)

My collection of paper fasteners isn’t large and it will never end up in a museum, but for me it represents a hundred and fifty years of society’s struggle with paper records. How to organize them and how to control them – always a challenge in a paper-based office. It’s also the essence of an archivist’s job – capturing, holding together and managing the important bits of information that we’ll need in the future. I feel a certain affinity with the humble paper clip.

The Niagara Clip, patented in 1897 and made in New York City until 1950
The Niagara Clip, patented in 1897 and made in New York City until 1950.

And I think we’ll need them for a long time to come. Although for efficiency and for the sake of the environment we are supposed to be working towards a paperless office, I can’t actually see a day anytime soon when we’ll be able to give up our useful little friend, the paper clip.