A Fastenating Tale

The regimenter of choice for paper-pushers everywhere, the stapler comes with a history that’s convoluted, contentious—and, yes, a bit messy.

The trouble started in the 18th century, during the reign of France’s King Louis XV. While people had been fastening their parchments and papyruses with ribbons and wax since the 1200s, Louis’s cadre of engineers produced the world’s first stapler—complete with handmade staples, each inscribed with the court’s insignia. Sadly, Louis kept his royal stapler to his royal self, leaving his nation’s unruly proletariat ripe for rebellion.

Post-revolution, the stapler’s story shifts to America, where its genesis is mired in competing claims and a mess of concurrent patents. Many credit Sam Slocum of Poughkeepsie, New York, as the inventor of the U.S. stapler in 1841. Dissenters insist the 1866-patented McGill Single-Stroke Staple Press was first, while still others believe that Philadelphian Henry Heyl patented the earliest one in 1877. Then Al Gore invented the Internet.

The controversy continues today as corporations like Swingline and Stanley Bostitch jockey for position through their proudly presented (and sometimes conflicting) website timelines. But while Ace Fastener Company’s home page claims its tool was the first “office stapling machine,” Ace vice president Win Waterman admits he can’t be completely sure. In fact, he says, “Nor would I have thought many people would care.” That’s heresy to Swingline’s Jed Peters, who claims that some enthusiastic paper-pushers staple in excess of 200 times per day. “I talk to people all the time who have an enormous amount of pride in their staplers,” he says. “They can get kind of defensive and put their names on them.” (Anyone remember Milton from the movie Office Space?)

As it turns out, each company can rightfully boast a fastener first—Bostitch introduced the earliest cemented strip staples back in 1924; Swingline “revolutionized stapling” in the 1930s by creating the first gadget to swing open on top—but the grand prize still goes to Louis XV, who had the original idea and managed to keep himself together to the end. His ostensibly stapler-less son, Louis XVI, however, lost his head to another French engineering first.