Staplers are all too often saddled with the trappings of the mundane. We think of them—inaccurately, I’d now argue—as standardized tools for monotonous tasks.
I turned to Chad Lemke, stapler enthusiast and collector, to learn about the rich history and design quirks of paper staplers. Although he eschews the word “expert,” since 2007, Lemke has maintained Stapler of the Week, a site that “examines the memories and histories associated with” a single stapler from his collection each week. The site has been on hiatus for the past year, since as Lemke says “my one-year-old gets most of my waking attention these days,” but, as a childhood collector or erasers, I was delighted that he sat down with me via email to share a little of the vast world of staplers.
What makes a great stapler? Can you walk me through the mechanics of it?
I think the test of any great object is if anyone will care about it beyond its initial owner. It has to be functional yet easy and pleasant to use or have a unique design or decorative scheme. If an object fails to meet these criteria, no one will save it and the manufacturer will more than likely discontinue its production. For my taste, a stapler has to have weight, presence and personality. Many of my favorite staplers evoke comparisons to other things such as animals or machines, without being actual representations of those objects.
The mechanics of a stapler are quite simple and can be broken down into three stages. The stapler user (1) depresses the plunger which (2) drives the staple through the paper before it stops at the anvil plate (3) cinching the staple closed. The only thing that has changed is the complexity and ease in which stage one is completed. A great stapler carries out this process with fluidity and concludes with a satisfying sound of the closing staple.
Tell me about one or two of your favorite staplers.
I love a good plier stapler. Plier staplers are the mobile stapler. The Neva Clog J-series of plier staplers are really the strongest area of my collection. The Neva Clog J-series is a group of handheld plier staplers for office use. They are so named because one squeezes together the handles of the stapler like one does while using pliers. I certainly don’t need any more, yet I continue to find more to add. Of all of them, my favorite has to be my first, which was a gift from my father-in-law. On the side it has the usual engraved Neva Clog insignia of a lowercase “n” and “c” joined at the middle with a staple but also an additional detail of a staple joining two sheets of paper. It’s only a few lines and besides being decorative, it instantly describes the stapler’s function.
How has stapler design changed over time? Were there specific changes in design or materials that ended up having a lasting impact?
Stapler design has followed staple design and for over a hundred years the wire staple has been king. The first staplers were single load machines. Single load staplers are the muzzleloaders of the stapler world. Each staple is hand loaded for each use. The competition for a leading magazine stapler came down to three designs: the wire staple, the strip staple, and the wire spool feed staple. The wire staple we know today is held together with adhesive and can be easily separated. The strip staple is stamped and formed out of a flat piece of metal and must be severed from the strip in the stapling process. Many strip staplers have a rubber pad on top of the plunger and were made of cast iron due to the force needed to separate the staple from the strip. The wire spool feed stapler cuts and forms the staples from a spool of brass or steel wire. As one can imagine, the process of manufacturing the staple from wire in the stapler is a bit more complex and requires a bigger machine.
Many stapler patents of then time were innovations to prevent or clear staple jams. In the end, wire staples won out for ease of manufacture and better performance. Most stapler manufacturers adopted the wire staple and over time a standard size staple came to be used. In many ways, this is the point in stapler history where the internal mechanics of the stapler become less visible and the appearance or shell of the stapler becomes the selling point. Staplers with nicknames and sleek designs took over the office market, whereas industrial stapler design tended to remain utility focused. Sadly with a few exceptions, the office market has followed the industrial markets lead and most staplers resemble the drab plastic hand-me-down stapler that sparked my obsession with good stapler design.
What are some notable design features of staplers that have popped up over time?
Beyond the aforementioned innovations in staple design, most additions to stapler design have been cosmetic. Most stapler companies found a way to work a built-in staple remover or staple compartment into a model or package a stapler together with a tape dispenser or sharpener. To my eye, these efforts come off as gimmicky. The best stapler design stays true to its purpose.
Read more about Chad’s musings on stapler models here.