For 25 years, the National Archives has been working to rid itself of government red tape — through its gift shop.
The “tape” the agency is selling off isn’t adhesive tape; it’s a soft, flat and narrow woven cotton that’s snipped from a spool. Red tape eventually was abandoned for white or undyed tape because of its tendency to bleed, but in its heyday, the government used vast amounts of the red stuff. For instance, in 1864, the War Department headquarters purchased 154 miles of red tape, according to the Archives. And even in 1943, the Treasury Department bought nearly 123 miles, a Washington Post article from the time noted. Quite a bit of that mileage landed at the National Archives among its billions of paper records.
“I’m not sure how much we have,” Jessie Kratz, the Archives’ agency historian, says of the red tape. “I don’t know if anyone knows. We have a lot.”
And it’s probably a familiar sight at other institutions preserving documents from the 18th and 19th centuries, she says. Before the advent of fasteners such as staples and paper clips, red tape and similar materials were used to bind together pages, to keep rolled documents from unfurling, to bundle papers and to buttress old books.
At the Archives, one common place to find it is knotted around stacks of tri-folded military records, Kratz says, which is how red tape ended up in the gift shop. A volunteer in the 1990s, Robert E. Denney, was unbundling Civil War service records to be microfilmed when he saw an opportunity with a curio that had outlasted its usefulness. In 1997, the store began selling clippings for $5, and its red-tape business is bigger than ever. It has expanded into a line of items, such as shadow boxes with tape tied around a Confederate war bond, as well as inches of fabric encased in acrylic paperweights and pieces bottled in jewelry, including earrings, cuff links and pendants.
All of the items, except the paperweight, are made by Kevin Clarke, an artist in Petaluma, Calif., who landed the gig on the strength of his work with another metaphorical nuisance: bugs. Trained in conservation biology and archival preparations, he combines art and entomology with his appreciative anatomical displays, as well as his butterfly-wing jewelry and dioramas, like the tiny motorcycle-riding “Weevil Knievel.”
Clarke says he was approached about designing red-tape items in 2015 and was intrigued. Tape arrived in a box “like a big ball of old red shoelaces,” he says. “It looked like shoelaces that had gone through the wash a hundred times.”
They span a spectrum of reds and conditions and lengths; some are knotted, some are stained. There was a learning curve to working with the tape; it requires ironing, for instance, and at first it would discolor or burn when he soldered the jewelry. “But I just love working with something that’s an old piece of history that somebody else has touched and utilized,” he says. “It was just kind of cool to think about the past that it had.”
Jim Doumas, deputy executive director of the National Archives Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the store, says visitors are often struck by those goods, having heard the expression “red tape” countless times but probably never probing its origins. “And then, son of a gun, if I’m not standing in front of red tape that was actually part of an official government document,” he says. “I think folks are just floored by that.”
Even for some who are well-acquainted with red tape, its proximity to history makes it something of an artifact in its own right. Biographer T.J. Stiles, who has won two Pulitzer prizes and a National Book Award, has encountered quite a bit of red tape in the course of his research. He says that, although the presence of the fabric raises the possibility that a document hasn’t been opened in a long time, if ever, the moment is bittersweet. “Often over time it dries up and turns fragile,” Stiles says in an email. “If you try to untie the knot, it crumbles, so the only way to remove it and access the document is to destroy the tape. That’s painful, even though the tape itself preserves no information.”
William J. Hansard bought a few red-tape charms online last year. A digital collections specialist at the Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, N.D., who has a doctorate in history, Hansard knew all about red tape. He’s delighted that it has been turned into a keepsake. “This thing that once was the bane of our existence,” for archivists, for citizens, “ … now we look upon fondly as an amusing charm — as ‘charming,’ quite literally.”
Red tape has been repurposed before; the Archives’ Philadelphia outpost has at least twice, most recently in 2014, collected red tape (among other flotsam) and turned it over to artists.
Sally Willowbee, an artist who participated in the 2014 exhibition by the found-object artist group Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, says she “just fell in love” with the red tape once she learned what it was. For one work, she appended pieces of tape with lines from “The New Colossus,” the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and with restrictive language from U.S. immigration laws. She arranged the long, knotted lengths so they hung over a walkway like a beaded curtain.
After the show, Willowbee, of Deptford, N.J., had some red and white tape left over and found another use for it, something of a return to its utilitarian origin: Combining it with other fabric, she crocheted herself a circular bathroom rug.