When I was young and a grad student wife, I worked in a small-town shop. Every new season the UPS man would stagger in with a load of boxes, which we unpacked at the back of the store. With a combination of reverence and greed, we opened box after box of new women's clothes. Virgin they were, crisp, unwrinkled and fresh from the factory. We handled the dresses and blouses, jackets and pants with an insane degree of care, as if this were not merchandise -- "merch," as we called it -- but rather a shipment of glass shards from Atlantis we were cataloguing for the ages.
And catalogue we did. Every piece of inventory needed a price tag, and on every tag we wrote the essentials: style number, size, manufacturer and price. Each tag had a loop of thread that we sewed on by hand. It was tedious; it was analog. While our husbands were on campus punching computer cards as big as a pencil case, we wrote out sales slips, worked with a cash box and kept inventory all by hand.
I had no idea we were on a technological cusp.
In the next few years, large stores began tracking inventory by computer and no longer relied on handwritten hang tags the size of the ace of spades. They were using preprinted price tags attached to the clothes by little plastic I-shaped strings. The new tags, of course, were revolutionary. But the old price tags with cotton thread were a cinch to slide out of your sweater. Those new little strands of plastic were tough little buggers! It seemed to me they should have had a naturally designed breaking point where they would bust or give with an honest yank -- but they didn't, they held. They had to be cut, thereby freeing the tag but creating two little colorless T's to pinch out or let flutter to the floor.
By now practically anyone who buys an item of apparel, from a ball cap to a ball gown, is familiar with those fasteners. They have reached a point of such ubiquity that, whether buying cashmere at Harrod's or long johns at Kmart, when you snip off the price tag, you too get a couple of plastic snippets to litter your floor. My vacuum can't get them. I find them in my pockets, on my closet floor and stuck at the bottom of my wastebaskets. If you were to autopsy my cat, you'd probably find a few there.
Lest you think I am a princess with a pea, be assured that I do not think these things are a problem. I am fascinated by them. How, I wonder, did a 3-inch sliver of plastic -- something nameless, almost invisible, come to pass through the fingers of practically everyone with a buck to spend? It seemed symbolic of consumerism: For every little almost-invisible T lying on a floor, there is an item someone bought. What are these things? What are they called, and who invented them? (And why am I not a primary beneficiary?) A Google search for "price tags" and "plastic fasteners" started me on the road to an answer.
After opening a few doors into the land of tickets and tags, I found the site of AveryDennison Corp., a company formed by the 1991 marriage of two giants in the office-products business. It was a May-December relationship. Dennison is the elder of the two, with one division that predates the Civil War.
Today that enterprise, merged with Avery, its former competitor, is a multinational, highly diversified company based in Pasadena, Calif., with annual sales over $5 billion. The company touts its specialization in "pressure sensitive technologies," a biz-speak phrase that means they make things that stick: shampoo labels, sheets of garage-sale price dots and reflective sheeting for road signs. AveryDennison was the first company to develop self-adhesive postage stamps.
But what about those I-shaped plastic whiskers connecting their price tags? Corporate spokesman Charles E. Coleman referred me to Frank McCarthy at the Framingham, Mass., offices, a man who has been with Dennison for 33 years, which I suppose makes him the closest thing the company has to Yoda.
McCarthy, whose soft Boston accent suggests Dennison's New England roots, has been around long enough to have written an official corporate history and to remember when price tags hung on string. He was there when retail businesses went digital and needed a labeling technology to keep with up the capability of computers. In 1959, Dennison assigned a young employee named Jerry Merser the task of coming up with a new device that would eliminate the string and speed up attaching price tags. Joined by a colleague named Arnold Bone, a brilliantly inventive Dennison engineer, the two spent five years -- from 1959 until 1964 -- on what became the Swiftach fastener system.
Merser's concept was a gun that would fire a clip of pre-molded I-shaped fasteners, much the way a real gun fires a clip of ammunition. Their tagging gun was evidently not a problem, but those fasteners were a headache -- even for the men who invented them. The first ones were rigid and tended to snap; those that survived, once attached, stood out awkwardly from the clothing. The story of the Eureka moment, presumably not apocryphal, is that one day Bone sat concentrating on another project and started to fidget with a few of the fasteners that had been tossed onto the radiator next to his desk. The heat had softened the plastic and, as he monkeyed with one of them, he pulled on it gently, extending the length, and voila. Longer and thinner, the plastic, whose molecular structure had been changed by the heat, was more flexible and stayed that way.
Dennison held the patent on the whole shebang and introduced it to the market in 1964. Although there are now 12 shapes of plastic fasteners to choose from, the I-shape still outsells them all. The company manufactures about 5 billion every year, mostly that shape, and sells them practically everywhere on earth where people spend money on ticketed merchandise, including Russia and China. Besides being used on apparel and household items, these plastic fasteners are routinely used to attach brand-name tags to pineapples, inside catalytic converters, on animal parts in slaughterhouses, on pots in plant nurseries and inside mattresses. Cheap imitations abound.
It seemed by then I should have known everything there was to know about plastic, I-shaped price-tag fasteners, but something was missing. I still wanted to talk to the inventor. What was it like to have invented something so common, so innocuous and so ubiquitous? Bone, unfortunately, is dead. Merser, McCarthy assured me, was out on his boat somewhere in Maine. My phone calls to Merser went unanswered, and my deadline was bearing down my neck like a plastic T-end stuck in a blouse label. Then my phone rang. Merser was in a garage having his windshield replaced. He would be happy to answer my questions.
He was a first-year employee at Dennison when this project was plopped on his desk. Was he an engineer? No, he was an economics and distribution major. He was given the task and he took it. He and Bone had a devil of a time trying to get those fasteners to work. Dennison spent the astonishing sum of $100,000 on research and development to get the molds made, and Merser and Bone tore out their hair for five years refining the product before it rolled out in 1964.
How did it feel to work so hard on something that is so useful yet annoying, something that's everywhere but, let's face it, invisible? Merser recalled the first test they did with the old fasteners, when the tags stuck out like cowlicks and looked just awful. Then the last test, with the longer fasteners, when everything worked right and the tags hung down gracefully. "The feeling you get when you work so hard on something, and it turns out well after all that time, well, it's joy," he said.
I thought of that story about Bone fooling around with the warm plastic fasteners. "He was extremely talented," Merser said. "He made violin bows, and cello bows, and did repairs for great violinists who would call him to fix a Strad or Guarneri." And I pictured Bone, not only a born engineer but an artist, too, with the intuition and sensitivity to, yes, have an inborn sense of tensile strength and probably didn't need much to slap together an answer. Bone worked on projects at Dennison until 2000, the year before his death at 88. Merser added quietly, "Arnold Bone was my best friend."
That's a lot of history for some plastic punctuation. The next time I reach for my scissors to clip off a price tag, I'll stop a moment for Bone and think about Merser out on his boat, and I'll throw both T-ends away.