It’s easy to forget the distant and complex history of what would eventually become office supplies. The items are now so readily available we don’t have to think about their past, yet their collective history can be traced back ten thousand years! It all began in prehistory with the arrival of structured human life – this triggered off a journey towards the society we know today. In modern times many millions of people use the myriad of office supplies available, and we have our ancient ancestors to thank for these great inventions and innovations.
Over the passing ages crude implements gradually evolved into the items which make our lives so much easier. Human accomplishments such as circumnavigating the globe, writing great novels and symphonies, landing on the moon, and making great medical advancements have all been accomplished with pens, pencils and paper. These seemingly rudimentary items have transformed how human beings behave on Earth, and in contemporary society we would be ineffective in our daily environment without the office tools it took 10,000 years to perfect.
To celebrate this rich past Office Kitten presents to you the ancient lineage of office supplies through the ages; from relative obscurity in antiquity to mass production in the modern age. Read on for a guide on the building blocks of any working business, and a free history lesson of human endeavours and accomplishments. Once you have read this piece you can also check our infographic for a condensed version of important facts!
There was a time in human history when we didn’t read or write – this is known as prehistory as no records were maintained. There were no pencils about, and language was in its infancy. We should imagine well timed grunting was what composed most of polite conversation back then. Thanks to archaeology, amongst other scientific practices, we now know some of the events of this distant time and are able to trace human endeavours that shaped the world.
Around 11,000 years ago humans were nomadic, primarily hunting for food when not restlessly moving from area to area. There was a complete lack of any need to make pedantic auditing reports so office supplies were in short order. Despite this now legendary cave paintings and sculptures display the artistic side to human life, with crude rocks and other implements taking the place of pencils and pens. This was The Stone Age.
The Neolithic Revolution
Around 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC) humans began to refine their lives, moving away from being mere hunter gatherers. Agriculture became a part of life and with it came structured societies. Archaeological studies have revealed that this era brought about intelligent, developed living with small, expanding communities. The need for tools was prevalent, but on a basis for survival rather than for communication or cultural purposes.
The Rise of Civilization
The Chalcolithic period saw life begin to flourish as the first known writing form – Cuneiform Script – emerged around 3700 BC. Typically notes were made laboriously by using clay and blunt reeds as an early form of stylus (pencil).
This was the rapidly flourishing Ancient Egypt in action and its influence spread across the world. By the time Stonehenge began construction around 3000 BC recorded history was beginning across the world. Prehistory was fading and a fabulous new age was about to commence.
Ancient history can be broken down into the Bronze, Iron and Middle Ages. These three encompass Antiquity, a vast period of time beginning with the Archaic period from 8th to 6th centuries BC, Classical Greece from 5th to 4th, and the Roman Empire from 1st century BC to 5th century AD.
Through each era humanity took great strides forward and the invention of paper and basic pencils founded the very basis of communication which we still use to this day.
Early Forms of Paper, Pens and Pencils
The Chinese invented paper in the 2nd century, roughly 10,000 years ago, when Cai Lun utilised mulberry, bast fibres (skin fibres collected from the phloem or inner bark of certain trees), old rags, hemp waste and fishnets to produce the first basic form. It has been a much argued-over invention, and with good reason. Without it we would have been very lost for thousands of years, unable to record news, events, write novels, or draw.
During these three ages fundamental designs for the products we know and use today began to take shape. In fact, many of the office supplies you use daily can be traced back many thousands of years. The Romans were avid users of pencils (called Stylus back then) and, when not busy conquering the world, would keep pedantic records by making marks into papyrus (a type of paper) with their stylus. Stylus used lead to leave marks, which is what pencil cores are still referred to despite now being made of non-toxic graphite.
Kalamoi (the pen) also arrived possibly around the time of 4th century BC and were crafted from bamboo. It has been discovered that the Ancient Egyptians used the devices for writing, although it is believed Ancient Indians used the devices first. They are still in use today in some countries, and for those who enjoy calligraphy.
The Alphabet; Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
Although the origin of the alphabet is debated, it appears to have taken shape during Ancient Egyptian times around the 8th century, before being adopted and transformed during the following eras by Europeans, principally the Greeks.
Offices Are Born
With social structures needing strict and recorded governance there was the need for room to audit. The Latin word “officium” was used to describe these places, although during antiquity these offices were usually part of a palace complex or a large temple – some were even mobile to keep up with the expanding empire. The basic structure thousands of years ago was the same, usually consisting of a room where scrolls and scribes could do their work.
Astronomy and the Rise and Fall of Empires
Astronomy helped shape the working week. The Geocentric model superseded the theory that the Earth was the centre of the universe. This radical notion brought with it the naming of our weekdays with the alignment of the planets in our solar system, along with the use of Roman Gods; Moon (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday).
In a tumultuous few thousand years the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman Empires came and went. Meanwhile China maintained its stance on learning rather than conquering, and exploration was about to shape the world as we know it today.
The Medieval Ages
An era from the 6th up to around the 15th century, the Middle Ages began with the lingering collapse of the once all conquering Roman Empire. As Antiquity faded from memory the Early Middle Ages was transformed when the Vikings began invading areas of Europe from the 8th century onwards. Meantime the once Eastern Roman Empire became the Islamic Empire.
The High Middle Ages began around AD 1000 and signified the beginning of terrific technological advancements and innovations. Trade flourished, plague reared its ugly head for the first time, and with these trials and tribulations came the tools that allowed this rather chaotic period in human history to be thoroughly documented in advanced cultures. Genghis Khan would also begin his wild rampage across Asia, leading the fearsome Mongol Empire (from the 13th and 14th centuries) where Marco Polo would travel to and, later, write about in his legendary Travels.
The Mongol Empire and Marco Polo
Genghis Khan became ruler of Mongolia in 1206. By the end of this century the Mongols had earned the largest transcontinental empire the world has ever seen – at the height of its power covering 16% of the Earth’s surface and ruled over 100 million people.
Despite the often violent stereotypes many in Western societies hold of the Mongols, they were actually civilized, intelligent, advanced, and very well structured. They were prolific writers, strongly supported trade, and also invented an ingenious mailing system; relay posts were set up over the certain distances where messangers could rest, change horses, or eat. It was so successful the Americans would later adopt the same practice, naming it The Pony Express.
Venetian Marco Polo made a remarkable journey through the heart of Mongolia, becoming Kublai Khan’s trusted scribe. His accountancy and auditing skills placed him in good stead in the culture and he observed the workings of the Mongol empire first hand. So he claims; many modern scholars debate whether he did journey to Asia at all. Regardless of his traveling exploits, he penned the world famous Travels that would inspire generations of explorers to come.
This devastating disease (depicted above) began to spread across the world around 1347. Termed The Black Death, the disease reared itself in China and soon spread along the Silk Road (a vast trading route across Asia and Europe). China lost half of its population (dropping from around 123 to 65 million), whilst Europe was also decimated, losing up to a third of its population totalling around 70 million individuals. Due to its destructive nature the disease brought about sweeping changes to many societies; feudalism was effectively ended as many workers refused to work for Knights or Lords for low wages. Many Kings and nobles were also killed by the disease bringing about endless legal battles for land and priviliges.
Greater public healthy, such as sanitation, eventually curbed the illness, although there are still outbreaks to this day.
Chaucher Outs The Office
The great literary mind Geoffrey Chaucher (above) is regarded as the first user of the word “office” as a meaning for where business is transacted. It appeared in his collection of stories The Canterbury Tales in 1395.
Quills became the writing implement of choice for many scribes and would be sliced at its end to allow for an eloquent writing style. In the Western world they were adopted as the main writing instrument from around the 6th century and remained so up until the 19th century.
Early Modern History
This era of exploration and technological advancement began in dramatic style with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Events got progressively more dramatic as improved technology lead to giant fleets which could navigate the Earth’s vast oceans for the first time. As a result intrepid explorers began to take daring voyages into the unknown in an attempt to learn more about the planet, and to gain themselves fame and vast riches.
Documenting a New World
From around the early 15th to 17th century the Age of Discovery made its impact on the world. Paper and pencils went on voyages with intrepid explorers to uncover a planet entirely different to popular conceptions. New continents were added to previously uncompleted maps, Europeans visited Eastern shores on mass to set up trade roots, and the colossal vastness of the Pacific Ocean (covering a third of the Earth’s surface) was successfully crossed for the first time. It was a time of great peril with thousands of sailors lost at sea to disease and misfortune, but their voyages pushed humans towards new frontiers of understanding.
One of the most notable expeditions was the Spanish fleet the Armada de Moluccas under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. In 1521, after three years at sea, one remaining ship of the once mighty fleet (piloted by Juan Sebastian Elcano following Magellan’s death) completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. During its journey the Magellan Strait was discovered, a risky passageway through South America that aids trade between Europe and the Indies.
In the vague hope they would eventually return home most of these voyages relied heavily on detailed record keeping. Scribes such as Antonio Pigafetta (who journeyed with Magellan) treated his ship like an office, writing pedantically in pencil to record the extreme events, and documented the many dialects and languages he came across. Pigafetta’s records opened up a whole world and with these discoveries came new possibilities. International business commerce was about to unite the globe in trade.
The Renaissance and more Plague
With much of the world making more sense after the Age of Discovery, from around the 16th century onwards international trade was now an increasing possibility for Europe. Nations such as Spain, Portugal, Holland and England began to flourish as commerce became a common practice across the globe. With these developments came the need for greater tools for recording and relaying information; finally print entered mass production, pencils reached widespread availability, and basic office supplies were invented following the increasing availability of paper.
A period from around the 14th to the 17th century, the Renaissance was a time of great cultural and artistic revolution and evolution. This era was also marked by the sporadic periods of The Black Death. As trade increased so the illness swept back across Europe. The shocking nature of the illness was in stark contrast to some of the beautiful works of art being produced, such as Michelangelo’s statue of David and Shakespeare’s many works of genius.
The Printing Revolution
The invention of the mechanical movable type printing press lead to the global spread of printing. The machines had been invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 and had developed steadily over the decades and brought about the arrival of newspapers. As a direct result of this offices began to appear in cities across the world with the world’s first journalists.
Pencils Take Shape – A Cultural Boom Awaits!
Pencils finally entered widespread use in 1564 after the discovery of a huge graphite mine in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Initially graphite pencils were used with just a stick of graphite, but as it is so brittle wooden casing was eventually applied to keep the structure steady. The pencil was born!
Pencils Enter Mass Production in time for Mozart and Beethoven
Nuremberg, Germany is the birthplace of the first mass-produced pencils. Faber-Castell (established in 1761) Lyra and Steadtler developed busy pencil industries through the 19th century industrial revolution. This was just in time for composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven (in action above) to take advantage of a handy new implement. Despite this they would compose their works of genius with traditional quills.
The Paper Machine
Nicholas Louis Robert patented a paper making machine in 1798 for Saint-Lefer Didot in France. The paper machine today is known as a Fourdrinier after London based financers Sealy and Henry Fourdrinier. They had been stationers for a company in England’s capital. Still in use today, obviously with greatly improved technology, the device is the predominant means of paper production.
The Industrial Revolution
The 18 and 19th Centuries were marked, most notably, by the increased role of machinery in the industries across nations such as England. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a new approach to office life which would drastically shape offices the world over; the growing demand and availability of paper was ever present. The rise of banking, railroads, insurance, retailing and oil usage was also on the up and offices had to expand and deal with new employees. Huge technological advances in agriculture, mining, and transportation altered economic and social attitudes. Working life now had a major focus; vast profits. The modern businessmen were born, and always the enabler was the office, paper, pencils, pens.
The First Stapler
In the 18th century King Louis XV of France requested an implement be made for keeping paper held together. Naturally it had to be economical and regal. Due to these demands the first stapler was invented; it was handmade, with each staple imprinted with the royal insignia.
Multi Storey Buildings, Safety Elevators, and Marxism
This era of great expansion lead to the first multi-story buildings, the invention of the safety elevator in 1852 by Elisha Otis, and the introduction of cubicles for the first time in an office environment.
Almost every area of life the world over was altered, with entrepreneurs taking great strides and earning truly great wealth. It could also be seen as an era when exploitation of workers became a real issue, so much so that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote and published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Marxism challenged the class structure and the functioning of the capitalist system, pleading for workers to have similar rights.
Pencils and Rubbers
An early eraser was bread – nothing else was around to remove pencil marks! In 1752 French scientist Charles de la Condamine proposed a method of making rubber, although it was English scientist Joseph Preistley who suggested the resulting product should also be called the rubber.
Although known as erasers in other countries, the name rubber still holds in England. There was a further twist when, in 1858, American Hyman Lipman patented a pencil with a rubber on the end. To this day around 90% of pencils in America are made with an eraser inbuilt.
The first paper clip design patent was for Samuel B. Fay in 1867. The initial idea was for attaching tickets to fabric, although other obvious uses for the paperclip soon caught on. The actual design of the clip has been attributed to Norwegian Johan Valeer, although conflicting dates mean it is now unclear if these claims are indeed true.
Staplers Come of Age
George McGill patented the first widespread, rather cumbersome staplers (one of which is shown above) from 1866 through to the 1900s, where it appeared in advertising for the first time in America. It wasn’t until 1971 that the four way paper stapler was invented; this is the basic design we are now so familiar with.
Pencils Earn Some Heritage
In the 1890s China’s production of pencils became famous for the use of a yellow design. This was due to the aristocracy and notions of respect. To get the whole regal feeling across American firms maintained the colour, although these days any colour of pencil is accepted as the norm.
Ballpoint Pens Await Their Arrival
Now seen as a vital part of any office, ball point pens actually had a tough time during their lengthy inception. Many patents worldwide failed in the design of the item and/or in making them commercially available.
On 30th October 1888 John Ludd had the first attempt at it. He was a leather tanner and wanted an instrument which could write on his products, something readily available fountain pens can’t do. His attempt worked for his leather writing needs, but his device was too coarse for any letter writing purposes.
The 20th Century turned into a turbulent hundred years rocked by two World Wars, the sinking of the Titanic, reaching the South Pole, scaling Mount Everest, and landing on the Moon. Technological developments were also remarkable; electricity powered each generation to new highs as computers became mainstream and a digital landscape emerged.
Office supplies reached their most productive stage during this time, with numerous new tools invented as society became progressively based around office life. Advances in technology also made it possible to mass distribute a vast array of office supplies quickly around the globe.
A Bygone Era
The beginning of the 19th century marked one of the final forays in Earth exploration. Captain Scott headed to the Antarctic to uncover facts about the enigmatic South Pole. Although now most associated with Oates’ heroic final words of “I’m going outside and I may be some time”, the fateful Antarctic expedition was also a deeply scientific mission to discover as much as possible about the mysterious South Pole. Scott’s base became an office (it is still preserved on site in the Antarctic) where he jotted down his daily thoughts in a diary. Norway’s Roald Amundsen lead expedition proved to be the the first time humans reached the South Pole, followed by Scott’s team a month later.
Whilst this was viewed by some as an example of the great British Empire of yesteryear, the tragedy of the Titanic in 1912 brought about sweeping changes in maritime practice.
Sellotape Works Its Many Wonders
The British invented sellotape, the name being derived from sellophane. The tape was developed in the 1930s in Acton and is now a global business with many variations on the brand.
Staplers Come Of Age as Super Glue Does Its Thing; All During World War II
After over two hundred years staplers finally took shape in the early 1940s. The basic design we now all know and find so useful emerged in the form of the four way paper stapler. This was, of course, during the horrors of the Second World War, yet even this mundane item had its place in on war torn nations. We’re sure Winston Churchill (pictured above) found them very useful.
In 1942 Super Glue was a clear plastic for equipment in World War II, Dr. Harry Coover discovered the material cyanoacrylates. He found, however, that the substance would become very sticky when it came into contact with water. This wasn’t useful for the war effort, but it did become a handy tool for the office.
Ballpoint Pens Arrive!
Attempts over the previous 50 years to perfect a ballpoint pen had proven frustrating, that is until Hungarian László Bíró, a newspaper editor, grew tired of the smudges made by fountain pens. He decided to use the same ink as used to print newspapers for his device, fitting a small ball at the end to allow ink to roll out onto paper.
He filed for a patent on June 15th 1938, eventually developing the pen from 1941 onwards with increasing success and reliability. The pen was distributed in America for the first time on 29th October 1945. They remain the most widely used pen in human history.
The Classic Office Setup Emerges
Offices came a long way during the 20th century. In 1964 the Herman Miller company tasked industrial designer Robert Propst with inventing a form of “action” office which would promote productivity. His designs would evolve into the cubicle office furniture system.
Post-it Notes Enter the Fray
Dr. Spencer Silver, an American chemist, developed a press-sensitive adhesive in 1968, but it took colleague Art Fry’s decision to use the adhesive in a book to make the idea come to fruition. It took a decade of hard work for the idea to catch on and, eventually, in 1980 “Post-It Notes” were launched in Canada and Europe. They are particularly renowned for being yellow, which was due to the post-it team’s use of spare paper from the chemist lab they worked next to.
Computers, Microsoft and the Internet
Perhaps the most important element to any modern office is the computer. They were developed from the 1950s onwards and rapidly became excellent information resources. Budding business and early computer wizards such as Bill Gates could see their potential and, after founding Microsoft in 1974, world domination awaited. Windows and Office computer software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint has become synonymous with a working office environment for several decades and without their simplistic brilliance many businesses could not function so efficiently.
The internet also brought about a revolution in information sharing and, ultimately, a business resource. In 1982 the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardised and a fully connected World Wide Web network was introduced. As computers became more cost effective so the rise in the internet has increased at a phenomenal rate; since the mid-1990s daily internet usage has become ubiquitous for any working environment.
Ten thousand years of human evolution has brought us the internet age where social media and technology are the key components in day to day office life. Business executives can now jet around the world in hours as opposed to months. High pressure jobs are commonplace and striving for business goals and targets takes precedent in the working world. Office supplies cater to these needs through their mass availability and simplicity.
Technology and the Internet Age
The advent of widely available advanced technology has altered the way we use office supplies. Whilst it could be presumed that technology threatens to make old office supplies obsolete, pencils and post-it notes remain as important as they ever were. These archaic tools can even be merged with contemporary technology to make our lives even easier!
The incredible diversity of the internet now allows office supplies to be available at the click of the button at excellent value. Here at Office Kitten, for instance, we have a supply of over 20,000 items. This ease of access and 24/7 is what has become of the modern office; even when we sleep we can still be doing business.
Sustainability and Environmentalism
Sustainability has emerged as a vital part of daily life. Offices are striving to maintain sales and boost productivity in a difficult economic climate. Whilst they’re at this the need for recycling has become a major policy in offices around the world. Big changes include recycled paper and energy efficient computers and other machines.
Office Supplies Today
Despite the advent of advancing technology traditional forms of expression and communications remain in society. Pencils are a global industry and a readily identifiable form of self-expression – they can be used to draw and to writer, two of humanities’ greatest assets. The world’s greatest authors and artists would simply never be without them.
At Office Kitten we’re not really ones for making wild predictions about the future, although it would be positive progress over the next hundred years if global development could see the continued promotion of environmental issues.
It would also be excellent if someone could invent a Staple Ray Gun, automated pencils, hovering rulers, and an electronic robot capable of keeping the office tidy. But, ultimately, the future really is what humans make of it. How we progress will depend on the great minds, and inventors, over the coming generations. It will be a fascinating ride.