Do you have a stapler?
If you do, maybe it’s a little dusty in this age of PDFs. Or maybe it’s been missing for a while, after someone borrowed it and never brought it back. Or maybe you’ve affixed your name to your stapler with a piece of tape, so your co-workers know: You take this stapler, you die.
Even as data moves to computers and the cloud, staplers continue to help people keep it together. On the computer, we can file copies in folders and send messages to mailboxes. We can cut, copy and paste text and files. But which computer activity is similar to stapling? Sure, there’s the paper-clip icon that attaches documents to email. But nothing, really, comes close to the satisfying ka-chunk of a stapler: It’s a sound that means work is getting done.
Paper receipts are supposed to be on their way out, but they continue to flutter their way through restaurants, stores and doctors’ offices. Staplers are there, attaching the receipt to the business card, the return receipt to the original receipt, the merchant copy to the bill, the receipt to the takeout bag.
If you have a stapler, the odds are fairly good that it was made by Swingline. Other companies, including Stanley-Bostitch along with OfficeMax and Staples, also make staplers, but Swingline, now owned by Acco Brands, has long been the market leader.
Acco, based in suburban Chicago, sounds like the perfect name for a faceless conglomerate from the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” But it actually has a sterling office products pedigree — it is short for the American Clip Co., a manufacturer of paper clips founded by Fred. Kline of Queens at the turn of the 20th century.
Queens was once the center of the paper-fastening universe. In 1925, it was where Jack Linsky founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Co., later renamed Swingline. For years, the vivid red sign of his Swingline factory was a beacon to Queens residents as they drove across the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan.
Stapling devices have existed since at the least the French court of Louis XV. But before Linsky’s time, staples generally had to be laboriously loaded, one by one, into the rear of the stapler. Linsky helped revolutionize stapling by creating an easy way to fill the devices under a horizontal cap. He found an adhesive that could attach staples in rows so that they stayed together in a metal magazine until they were pushed out and bent individually to grip their paper quarry.
Swingline promised to make office work easy. In a newspaper ad from the 1940s, a young woman — presumably a secretary — loads a stapler and says: “Now we’re in the groove, boss! That Swingline Stapler loads quicker, works slicker because of its open, trouble-free channel.”
But Linsky wasn’t satisfied to serve only the office market, so he helped increase demand for staplers by emphasizing their handiness in other tasks, like tacking shelf paper, fastening paper around sandwiches and even constructing party hats. (“Swingline does the darnedest things!” another ad boasted.) He also expanded the business by making specialized staplers for carpeting, roofing and auto upholstery.
In 1970, Linsky sold Swingline to American Brands, and in the next decade Swingline merged with Acco. Amid the manufacturing crisis of the 1990s, American Brands closed the Swingline factory in Queens and moved its manufacturing to Mexico; nearly 500 New York workers lost their jobs, and the Swingline sign came down. Now most staplers are made in Asia.
Swingline made Linsky very rich. He and his wife, Belle, were philanthropists and art collectors who once owned one of the largest collections of Faberge eggs in America. Jack died in 1980, and in 1982 Belle donated a collection of the couple’s European art, then worth $60 million, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Staplers generally don’t rise to the level of prized collectibles, which is why a Swingline’s role as an object of obsession was so funny in the 1999 cult comedy “Office Space.”
In the film, a mumbling, superwide-eyed character named Milton becomes desperate after his red Swingline stapler is taken away during a frenzy of cost-cutting and downsizing at a soulless IT company.
You might assume that this stapler, not only cherished but central to the plot of “Office Space,” was a brilliant product placement move. In fact, Swingline had no hand in the storyline. It had long stopped making that type of red stapler, and a black Swingline was painted red by the filmmakers.
At first, Swingline executives weren’t sure they liked being associated with such a dark parody of corporate life. But in 2002, recognizing the value of its pop-culture star turn, it released its Rio Red collectors edition 747 stapler. The company bills it “as the star of any office space.”
Staplers come in a range of colors, shapes and sizes and can vary in their staple capacity and in the number of sheets they can puncture. The ideal stapler is a perfect melding of heft and lightness that can accommodate either in-the-air or on-the-desk fastening.
Staplers are still such a fact of everyday life that we’ve lost sight of what a triumph of manufacturing they are. They can bend metal — no batteries or electricity required. They are similar to guns in that they contain magazines meant to be filled with metal objects that you load and release.
“The engineering of a stapler is not fully appreciated,” said Mike Parrish, director of product development for Acco Brands. Under the cap of a stapler, a pusher connected to a spring forces the row of staples forward. A special blade drives the first staple through a slot at the front of the magazine. A metal square with indentations at the edge of the open part of the base, called the anvil, helps bend the staple so it can grip the paper. The bottom of the completed staple is known as the clinch, and the top is the crown.
Without just the right alignment in the stapler, and the proper adhesive level and tensile strength in the row of staples, this delicate operation could go awry. You could end up with a jam (as with a gun), or an incomplete clinch (and maybe a bloody finger).
A Swingline stapler is designed to be “a fusion of form and function,” said Chris Cunningham, global design director for Acco. The design of a traditional model is meant to look streamlined, he added, and so robust and durable that even if the whole building burned down, one senses that the stapler would still be there.
Industrywide, sales of desktop and hand-held staplers (nonelectric) totaled $80.3 million in 2012, up 3 percent from the previous year, according to NPD, the market research firm. Sales of office products in general rose after a decline amid the recession.
Time is a big threat to the stapler industry, and to office products in general. More people who grew up with staplers are going to retire and die. And the younger generation just isn’t as attached to staplers, said Lora Morsovillo, president of office supplies for NPD.
But there’s hope, she said, if stapler makers look at their products as decorative objects. “The growth is coming from uniqueness and personalization,” especially in home offices, she said. She puts staplers in the same general category as tape dispensers, and, she noted, there’s a tape dispenser out there in the shape of a stiletto heel.
Swingline has yet to produce a stiletto stapler, but it recently introduced a line of fashion staplers with bright colors and decorations. On the whole, though, staplers have been “drab and dreary,” maintained Randy Nicolau, the chief executive of Poppin, a new e-commerce company that aims to turn products like staplers, notebooks, pens, pen cups, trays and calculators into jewelry for your desk.
Poppin’s open-plan office is bright with the colors of its coordinated products, including white, black, yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, two shades of blue (aqua and “pool”) and lime green. “We consider ourselves to be a fashion company before anything else,” Nicolau said.
The stylish staplers sold by Poppin look much different from the utilitarian ones Linsky once made, but some things haven’t changed. The staplers still have a magazine, a spring, a pusher and an anvil, and they still make a satisfying metallic sound when you press down on them, signaling that work has been done.