Icon of the month: Sellotape 25.01.08

Written by  Will Wiles


What do you use Sellotape for? Doctors use it to detect bacteria around the perineum, and to trap head lice. In fact, one doctor used Sellotape, along with brandy, a water bottle and a coat hanger, to save the life of a woman who suffered a collapsed lung on an international flight. Forensic scientists use it to pick up fingerprints and collect samples of dust and thread. Terrorists apply it to fingers to avoid leaving prints on bombs. Kidnappers and torturers in troublespots from Iraq to Zimbabwe use it to gag victims. But let’s face it, most of us only use it to wrap presents – six million rolls of the stuff are sold in the run-up to Christmas.

The name Sellotape was coined in 1937, but sticky tape itself wasn’t a new invention – masking tape was developed more than a decade earlier by the 3M corporation of the United States as a by-product of the burgeoning automobile industry. The company then developed “Scotch” tape at the beginning of the 1930s, using cellophane to make masking tape transparent. But it was Colin Kininmonth and George Gray, working in Acton, west London, and using a French-patented technique, who developed Sellotape. The hugely original component of what they created was the name, which has since become a “genericised trademark” like Hoover and Thermos, serving as an all-purpose word for sticky tape in Britain, some Commonwealth countries and, bizarrely, Japan, where it is rendered “serotehpu”.

Sellotape has the usual mixed history of many products that emerged from the new processes, materials and needs of the later industrial revolution. It was made possible by the development of synthetics, specifically cellophane. Almost as soon as it was created, its entry into consumer culture was interrupted by the Second World War, and the company was turned over to making tape for sealing ammunition boxes, fixing bandages and reinforcing windows. After the war its marketing focused on its role as “Home Handyman Number One”, a clean, quick and convenient way to wrap parcels, affix labels, repair tears and so on. Science, once again, was at our assistance.

As often seems to be the case, though, there was a Faustian payoff – archivists and conservationists quickly discovered that Sellotape, any adhesive tape, was destroying documents and ephemera as faithfully as it was “repairing” them. It was insanely difficult to remove cleanly from paper without further tearing. Plus, it reacted with many of the things it was applied to, leading over time to brown and yellow stains and bleeding ink.

Conversely, it has also proved an enemy to those who seek to destroy archives. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the final death of the GDR, there was an orgy of shredding as the Stasi secret police attempted to obliterate the records it had meticulously assembled on its subjects. Now, with a computer “E-Puzzler”, tweezers and Sellotape, that destruction is being painstakingly undone.

Sellotape is a compelling example of how products, once released to the world, are no longer the property of their designers. In the wild, they are subject to the ingenuity of others, and can be used in completely unimagined ways, not to mention copied by countless competitors. Sellotape preserves and destroys, it lifts and anchors, it aids and hinders, it’s convenient and frustrating. It has two sides.




Will Wiles


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