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Is The Digital Age Killing Stationery

Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night…

This article is adapted from a contribution published in the WES Journal by guest writer Stacey.

When confronted with the opportunity to write about stationery it is a strange sensation to do so by opening up a laptop to begin the process. This is where I found myself in the Spring of 2020 when asked to contribute an article to the Writing Equipment Society Journal (if you are not a member of the society -  you should be!)

The question I began with was a simple one...“Where does stationery fit into this digital world we live in?” This question is perhaps even more prudent given the months of lockdown and the reliance on technology and screens to undertake even the simplest of daily leisure, work and communication tasks. Given the importance of technology during a global pandemic I wanted to come back to the question of whether the digital age is killing stationery now that there is some semblance of a ‘new normal’ emerging.

 


 

This piece may perhaps be an indulgence of catharsis, but as someone who has come across this article through the Hamilton Pens website I would be willing to guess that - even to a small extent - there is likely a commonality here and that perhaps your experience and relationship with stationery bares passing resemblance to what i am about to discuss. 


It will come as no surprise when I begin with the statement ‘digital communication continues to grow and expand’, in my own lifetime I have witnessed the explosion of technology to a place where those not engaged in social media platforms, video calling and even AI & virtual reality are the outliers of society. However, during a time that it would not be unusual to find a teenager who had never sent a handwritten letter it surely has to be the case that written communication holds a place of importance beyond nostalgic luddism? The texture, scent and sounds of pen against paper, the joy of the stationery drawer filled with staplers, notebooks, paperclips, and all manner of accoutrements...surely this cannot be replaced by machines? 

 


Even with skeuomorphic design attempting to mirror the real world items with digital representations (who remembers clippy?) such as the image of the old-school telephone handset on our mobile phones or the icon of a legal pad, all yellowed and lined, ready for action identifying ‘notes’ apps. I refuse to believe these enact much more than instructions - they certainly do not add soul to the screen. This is something which absolutely cannot replace the real experience of physical stationery.

 


More than this though, it should be argued that our relationship with stationery has shifted rather than diminished. I would argue that, though there remain practical aspects of stationery items which cannot be replaced by technology, stationery has changed from a tool of the workplace to a product of our human nature to connect in personal and emotional ways and to experience the world around us using multiple senses.

What better example than the success of Ferris Wheel Press to exemplify this? Born of a kickstarter campaign and thriving because of its continued involvement with its fans and customers, Ferris Wheel Press has brought together some of the better applications of digital communications, with the glorious physical nature of stationery in fine form! And even more than that, they branch out into digital stationery with calendar inserts available to download, customisable notecards and Calligraphy training sheets! Ferris Wheel Press is by no means the only brand colliding worlds.

 

Caran d’ache for example, released the  849 Genius Ballpoint Pen which features a  convenient touch screen stylus, perfect for jumping between using a screen and ‘going old school’.  

Stationery - A Personal History

By now, although admittedly it doesn't take much to persuade me, I am convinced that there is a future to stationery - whether saved for ‘special’ or engaged with on a daily basis. There are just some things a computer cannot do. To go into this in more detail I’ll take you back ‘something something’ years to my earliest flirtations with stationery - as a child I had a somewhat creative imagination. The kind of imagination which was rarely restrained - and rightly so I would argue! I spent much of my childhood devouring books from wherever I could find them but the one thing that brought me even more joy than reading a book was creating my own. Now, to paint a picture i created my very own ‘office’ within which to create these books. This office was in fact a built in wardrobe that I repurposed by removing everything from the shelves on one side with the addition of a battery lamp and an upturned washing basket in place of a chair. To really set off my ‘office’ I filled the upper and lower shelves with and arsenal of  paperclips, staplers, rulers, rubbers and more pens than any one person could require as well as scrap paper and card.  I would spend hours holed up, writing the stories which I thought would one day make me millions (well...I had hoped I would be the next Lucy Maud Montgomery or Enid Blyton at the time). 

In retrospect, that experience would not have been half as enjoyable were I a child in the era of ipads and computers in every room. The careful selection of the correct paper for my super grown-up ink pen (Berol Handwriting pen if I recall correctly - although Stabilo Easy Original would likely be the contemporary go to) vs the almost translucently thin scraps which allowed for the gentle outlay of pencil lines, or the hardier card I used for book covers which demanded solid felt tip pen strokes required to bring forth indefinable images of little relevance to the narrative. The process of hand writing was well instilled in me from primary school age where I vividly recall the moment I was promoted from pencil to actual pen after sufficient training, repeating letter after letter in the specialist notebooks we were given with those strangely laid out lines forcing us to create letters ‘just so’.

This led on to the moment I was allowed to get my first fountain pen when I moved up to secondary school, unfortunately this is not the moment I reveal an inspired choice for my first fountain pen...If memory serves, it was a WHSmith’s own brand fountain pen with little in the way of character. In retrospect I always coveted the parker pens with their sleek lines and sophisticated feel so had I been bolder I’d have likely requested something in the realms of the Parker Vector. Perhaps my love of stationery stems from the fact my birthday is at the beginning of September so my birthday presents were very stationery heavy...although this does not account for the national fondness for all things stationery. 

Perhaps I am a product of my generation and younger readers may not have enjoyed the same privilege as I with regard to the instilling of the joys of the kinesthetic act of pen to paper. One thing that must be a universal experience is that of the ‘note’. The penpal, the love note passed in class, the reticent letter of thanks to Aunt Meredith for the ‘lovely’ princess colouring book you were presented with on your 15th birthday. Whether given freely or under slight duress, the act of letter writing is something which has been treasured for hundreds of years. The rush you receive when seeing an envelope arrive with a handwritten address, knowing that the contents were laid out just for you is unsurpassable. In a time where almost all the post I receive nowadays is either from utility providers, my bank to ‘explain’ yet another change to the terms of service, or weird junk mail and catalogues that I have no recollection of asking for, the delight upon seeing a card, letter, invitation, or even just a note from the neighbour reminding me to bring in my bin is nothing short of pure joy.

 


Even the letter I received some years ago now, which turned out to be the lyrics to Rick Astleys ‘never gonna give you up’, meticulously handwritten by a very dear friend of mine who thought that ‘rick-rolling’ (as it was then known as) was hilarious (in his defense it was) and that letter is something that I still have, stored away with my most  treasured possessions.

Ahead of composing this article for WES I was in the process of moving house so had been going through ‘things’ to be able to reduce the tat that i would be taking with me. The problem was I stumbled upon an absolute treasure trove and the process of clearing out - which should have taken a day - was significantly drawn out.  

 


Not only did I find years’ worth of diaries outlining the deeply profound thoughts of my younger self “
had bangers and mash for dinner again tonight - yummers!” but also notes from friends now sadly passed, a series of letters from my Aunty giving me an insight into her everyday life in Alabama, and one of the most exciting pieces of correspondence I have ever received - my letter from the Queen [sort of]!

 

 

In amongst the treasures I found rubbers from school trips, a fountain pen which once adored had been stored poorly and had leaked and rusted as well as a promotional ballpoint pen which lit up when the nib was twisted out. But back to the Queen. 

 


I recall in fine detail, the moment in 1996 when I had watched an episode of Blue Peter and learned all about the tragic levels of waste just bobbing around in space. Of course it was my duty to inform the Queen about this sorry state of affairs and suggest the invention which would prevent the imminent catastrophe of it all coming pelting straight back at us, wiping out humanity (my imagination was in full force at this time). My invention can only be described as a ‘space digger’ which would of course solve the problem by simply scooping all the debris up - to be named after Neil Armstrong as only is proper and correct. In my treasured response from the Queen's Lady-in-Waiting, I had stashed away an early draft of this letter placed delicately alongside the response which was delightfully presented in the sturdy envelope and on paper clearly of the finest stock. My draft was strangely formed in pencil and ‘marked’ in ink. I do not recall the exact paper I used, but know that my mum kept a stash of Basildon Bond writing paper with matching envelopes in the telephone table drawer, so it is safe to say this was my paper of choice. As far as I know, the Queen has the original letter I sent her stored away for safekeeping, much as I do. Perhaps also in a dented, yet decorative, biscuit tin reserved only for the finest of treasures?

Long Live Stationery! 

You may be thinking to yourselves...What does a letter from 24 years ago and a biscuit tin full of dog-eared paper have to do with our modern relationship with stationery?

Well, everything! As James Ward says in his ‘un-put-downable’ 2014 book The Perfection of the Paperclip ‘It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of stationery is the history of human civilization’ (pp.265). We all learned of ancient civilisations from the deciphered messages embalmed on papyrus taught to us through school (and documentaries such as the educational ‘Indiana Jones’),  perhaps with messages almost as profound as that night's dinner selection? We know about the minutiae of our ancestors' lives from notes scribbled and meticulously kept diaries. These fill us in on what life was actually life beyond the wars and the experiences of the rich and famous, they told us about...us!

 


It is perhaps the knowledge that the gentle musings of ‘Dave the Blacksmith’ and ‘Mary the Landlady’ represent the immortality of stationery in their continued relevance. Or perhaps it’s that, even with the myriad of apps on our phones and computers which store notes, many of us still reach for post-it notes, scraps of paper, or an old receipt from the bottom of our bags to jot down important information or moments of genius. The physical connection between writing instrument and writing media is one that connects us through history and holds a duality of permanent impermanence. 

What life as an adult, and the constant ‘on this day’ notifications from Facebook, has taught me is that everything that gets put on the internet stays on the internet forever. Whether you want it to or not. Yet a letter from a lost love can be burned or kept forever, the drawings of our childhood can live on in a sarcophagus created from the abandoned housing of buttery treats or left in the attic of a former home, the mistakes in our birtday Birthday cards can be erased with rubber or correcting fluid or left to fuel in-jokes for years to come (THAT banner mum!). Though it may be true that the reliance on stationery of all descriptions plays less of a role in most of our working lives than they did prior to the technology boom of the 1980’s, nor would we have it another way, for convenience is king. But the joys of stationery remain a part of our humanity and for many still remain part of the job. Having worked in the Bridal industry for many years, all appointment notes were jotted on little cards and handed to brides for safekeeping, notes to other consultants were forged using glittery pens emblazoned with bridal designer brands and pinned to the notice board to remind others to pick up milk or not to wear ‘that one dress that's the same as mine at drinks on Friday or we will match!’ and even order forms were written up in our best handwriting on pads of triplicate.

Not to mention other jobs I have had where research projects were managed with post-it notes and coloured ink or lectures were adapted in Biro when inspiration struck on a coffee break. I don’t think it’s just me either? I may be of the generation that kind of experienced a combination of the digital and analogue dominant worlds but even my nieces and nephews have some sort of relationship with stationery.

 


T
his is clear in the dying highstreets which promenade branches of Smiggle, WHSmiths and ‘The Works’. Though it is of course true that these shops do not represent the stationers of years gone by, but the popularity of shops like Smiggle demonstrate that even for a generation raised on technology, nothing beats the smell of a fresh pack of pencils, the crisp delight of a brand-new notebook or the joys of teeny pots of paperclips, bulldog clips, pencil toppers and other such paraphernalia. I remember a moment approximately 6 years ago, my niece having just discovered books was confused when the swiping of her index finger and thumb did not ‘zoom-in’ on the page...a moment which had myself and my sister wondering whether we had completely broken this child by allowing her 3 year old mind to be destroyed by an ipad. As it happens, unbeknownst to me, she created her own ‘office’ in a gap between her bed and her drawers, and set up her own little world of stationery delights just a couple of years later (although I will always think my wardrobe publishing house was the best!)

There is a reason that the stationery market is trending upwards in sales, not only does there remain a certain necessity for stationery (an email doesn’t really cut it as a wedding invitation!) but stationery is a part of our leisure. 

The UK stationery market was forecast to reach £2.2bn in 2018 according to market research, having grown 15.4% between 2013 and 2018. The overall ‘visibility’ of stationery brands increased by 10.7% in 2019, showing positive growth in market size since 2018 in terms of online ‘presence’. Furthermore, the stationery market reported £772 million was spent on stationery and drawing materials in 2019 (Statista: 2019) - this hardly seems to indicate that stationery is dying!

While the sector is set to outperform the UK non-food market over the next five years, Notebooks were hindered in 2017 due to a rising cost of raw materials which created high inflation in the market, but this has since recovered (perhaps in part due to more sustainable practices across the industry appealing to changing attitudes- but that’s a discussion for another day) and growing consumer trends such as bullet journaling have driven sales. I would not be surprised if figures post-covid show even further growth in things like journalling materials, calligraphy equipment and art supplies.

 


Furthermore, stationery can be a delightful luxury! From the leather-bound notebook you gift to your friend, to the letter writing set you treat yourself to ‘just because’, even the highly stylised pin boards and tacks which are ‘oh-so instagrammable’. All of these things have a place in our fast paced world, so seemingly driven by technology. Stationery has not ceased to be wanted or needed, nor is technology and the digital age a definitive singularity. It may even be that stationery is valued even more in today's society because it is that break from the screen and from ‘work’. Who am I to say really? I am just a person who has far too many notebooks, writing tools of all descriptions and enough supplies to open my very own pop-up stationers. 



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