Everyday Objects: A Brief History and Origins of 10 Items in Your Junk Drawer
The Story of Junk
Most people have a drawer at home full of everyday objects and useful tidbits that they affectionately call the "junk drawer." But what is the story behind all that junk? How did it come to be? Who invented it? And what was it invented for? I will answer those questions for the following ten objects:
- Paper Clips
- Rubber Bands
- Ballpoint Pens
- Playing Cards
Often we take these things for granted, and we use them all the time. I hope you will be able to gain a new appreciation for these small miracles of modern convenience.
The paper clip as we know it (and the precursor to the one pictured) was patented in 1904 by Cushman & Company under the name "The Gem." While manufacturing steel had been common in the United States for quite some time before that point, the technology for manufacturing hundreds of thousands of identically bent steel rods for just pennies a box was simply not there until the turn of the century. The earliest bent-steel paper clips were intended to hold tickets to fabric, although the patents for these indicate they could hold papers, as well. Interestingly, the first paper clips competed with pins—not staples—as an efficient and cheap way to temporarily hold papers together.
Rubber bands are made from vulcanized rubber, a process credited to Charles Goodyear (the tire guy) in 1839. Stephen Perry, of the rubber company Perry & Co., patented the rubber band in 1845. He invented them to (surprise, surprise) hold envelopes and papers together. Ironically, another man, named Dr. Jaroslav Kurash, invented and patented the rubber band on the exact same day in 1845 (March 17, to be exact). Originally, the rubber for these products came from rubber trees. Since rubber trees only thrive in tropical climates, however, about three quarters of modern-day rubber and rubber bands are now derived from crude oil.
Richard Feynman on Rubber Bands
During the time of the Roman Empire, important documents were transcribed on papyrus with a lead metal rod called a stylus. In the 16th century, graphite came into fashion for writing, as it left a darker mark than that of lead. However, graphite is so fragile that it required a holder, often fashioned from wood; thus the first pencil. Pencils began to be mass-produced in the mid- to late-17th century in Germany by the Faber-Castel Company. The U.S. pencil industry bloomed in the 19th century, with American upstarts The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company (now Dixon Ticonderoga), and the opening of many factories from the German powerhouse companies, including Faber Castell and Eagle Pencil Company (now Berol).
It was also around this time that pencils began to be painted. Before this point, pencil-makers would leave their pencils unpainted to showcase the natural wood. However, in the 19th century, Chinese graphite gained a reputation as the best graphite in the world for pencils. In Chinese culture, yellow is associated with royalty and regal qualities, and thus yellow became the de facto color of pencils around the world.
The first ballpoint pen was invented in 1888 by a leather tanner name John Laud. However, they were never mass produced (as were many subsequent ballpoint pen designs over the next thirty years). The ink in these types of pens was always a problem: if the ink was too thin, the pen would leak; too thick and it would clog. In certain weather conditions (high or low pressure or temperature) they could actually do both.
Two men eventually solved the problem of the ballpoint pen once and for all. The first, Patrick J. Frawley, Jr., made a pen with a no smudge, no smear, and washable ink. It was also the first of its kind to have a retractable tip. He called his pen the "Papermate," a name it holds to this day.
The other innovator of the time was a Frenchman by the name of Marcel Bich. He wanted to introduce an inexpensive, clear-barreled, non-leaking ballpoint pen with a smooth stroke. In 1952, Bich introduced the "Ballpoint Bic,, a name now synonymous with ballpoint pens.
Most batteries that people have around their houses are alkaline batteries. They were invented and improved upon by Lewis Urry, an engineer for the Eveready Battery Company. These batteries were sold under the brand name Energizer, now the name of the company.
The most famous of all household tapes, Scotch Tape, was made by an engineer for the 3M company named Richard Drew in 1930. Its original intended use was to help grocers better seal perishables (like meat and bread) while still displaying the product. However, times being what they were in the 1930's, people quickly started using Scotch Tape for other purposes, including repairing books and other documents, and fixing broken household objects like toys and window shades. The first tape dispenser with a built-in blade was introduced in 1932, invented by another 3M engineer named John Borden.
Staplers were born of necessity: if you have a lot of papers that go together, you need a way to hold them together. The first stapler that was commercially successful was the McGill Single-Stroke Staple Press, introduced in 1879. This stapler could hold one staple at a time and force it through many sheets. The Swingline Company is credited with the first top-loading magazine style stapler, which is the type most people have at home and on their desks at work.
The technology behind screws has been around for quite some time. Presses, such as wine and oil presses, use the idea of a screw to press the product. The first screw that was practical for mass-scale production is known as the Robertson screw, invented by Canadian inventor P.L. Robertson. It is a circular head with a square drive hole, and it is used quite extensively throughout Canada (although far more rarely elsewhere) to this day.
The Robertson screw was the standard screw throughout North America until the 1930s, when the Phillips head screw was invented by Henry Phillips. A Phillips head screw is a variation on the cross head screw, and it provides much greater torque with less effort than a traditional slot head screw or a Robertson Screw.
Another popular screw type is a hex socket screw. This is turned by a hex wrench, sometimes called an Allen key or Allen wrench. This may lead you to believe that, like Phillips and Robertson, this type was named after an inventor named Allen. This is not the case. The hex screw and accompanying wrench were invented by a man named H.T. Hallowell. The Allen name comes from the Allen Manufacturing Company, a company that greatly popularized their brand of hex keys during World War II.
Scissors have by far the most ancient roots of all the junk in the drawer. The oldest scissors have been dated to between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. These ancient scissors were a single piece of metal bent so that the two cutting blades were oriented near each other, and the user would press them together. The innovation of making the scissors out of two pieces of metal (with a screw or rivet fulcrum) has been lost to history, but the point of no return came in 1761. It was then that Robert Hinchliffe developed a steel-casting method for scissor blades. When they were attached to each other and handles added, they look nearly identical to the scissors we know today.
Standard English playing cards come in four suits: hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. However, throughout the world, many other cultures have other types of playing cards with other types of suits, such as acorns (in Germany); coins, cups, and swords (in Spain and Italy); or bells and roses (in Switzerland).
Traditional decks have thirteen cards of each suit, for a total of 52 cards. The ace of spades is generally the most ornate of the aces. This began after James I of England passed a law requiring an insignia on the card as proof of taxes paid.