My Post-It™ Accounting
Ever stop to consider which office supplies invented in the last century have had the greatest impact on your life? We give the conspicuous objects of electronic, digital, and networked communications plenty of attention. We collectively wonder how we “ever lived without” these devices. That’s standard pundit fodder. But office supplies??? Who writes critical essays about the cultural impact of color-coated paper clips?
Start reflecting and you would be lost in a blur of Bic pens, Pilot roller balls, printer paper, and other miracles of modern engineering. These are so apparently insignificant that the transformations they have wrought—and the incredible design successes they embody—disappear.
But for some reason, not even the most extreme self-realization cults have cottoned onto office supplies as milestones of generational transformation or personal growth. Imagine the insights we are missing. The shift from Scotch tape—whose yellow film hardened and got brittle quickly—to Magic tape, with its flexible translucent film—no doubt had profound subliminal effects. The metaphysical psycho-symbolism of these accessories has vast potential to support a subsidiary therapeutic industry where cycles of addiction to staples might lead to recovery in the form of hot adhesives. Or might not…
In my own meditations, a tiny ray of consciousness sometimes pierces the dull fog of oblivion, and my enthusiasm for office and art supplies revives the profound optimism these engender—as if every notebook, tablet, writing device or filing apparatus opens a portal of infinite possibility. Maybe this time, I think, this one blank sheet will be the place where a significant work begins…
But my real over-the-top geek-out enthusiasm for office supplies is reserved for those tight, tiny, packs of paper, Post-its™. Developed in the last third of the 20th century at none other than 3M, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company, these flexible flags with their distinctive yellow color are a constant presence on my physical desktop. Not too strong a statement to suggest that 3M products infiltrate every home, office, business, and industrial site in the United States and throughout far-flung corners of the contemporary world. Tracking the locations reached by their distribution would light up the map of the world. But global distribution of industrial products is not the subject here.
No, what I am about to describe is the special place Post-its™ have in my intimate cosmology. This compulsive obsession is linked to the role of these adhesive papers have in managing my personal accounting system. The very constraints of their tiny surface area make them the perfect objects on which to build an idiosyncratic book-keeping method which anchors my reality in a tightly linked combination of calendar-and-finance tracking.
Picture this: A tiny yellow post-it in my checkbook, gridded out in miniscule rows and columns, provides a record of bills paid and owed in the cycle of the month. My hand-drawn grid provides a crude spread-sheet whose condensed form offers a snapshot overview of individual finances. The miniscule sheet keeps track of where I am in the various payments that punctuate the calendar. The systems of time-keeping and accounting intersect, tightly bound to each other in a regular sequence of events that repeats, month by month. The Post-its offer a reassurance disproportionate to their size, and I check in regularly to see where I am in the cycle.
During the pandemic, I didn’t just lose my sense of time, I seemed to have lost the very metrics according to which time might be measured. Days flew by, but weeks lasted forever—or, perhaps, the other way around, with afternoons stretching beyond the horizon of ways to fill them in the isolation and quiet. The familiar frameworks of work days and weekends evaporated, leaving me (and others) adrift, without any temporal compass. In these conditions, one clings to any stable point of reference.
My Post-it™ accounting system provides an illusion of control over the unstoppable flow of time and expenditures in which I am daily adrift. But it also provides a deep tactile pleasure in its execution as I check off the small boxes on the tic-tack-toe board of my bookkeeping charts, making small marks with the needle end of a fine point pen. The nib sinks into the surface of the soft paper, just enough to inscribe a slight impression in addition to the line of ink.
The rituals of bill-paying have their temporal rhythm. The gas comes first in the month, announcing its arrival as a peremptory strike, placing its demand in advance of the first days in the calendar. A harbinger, it is soon and quickly followed by the bill for the triple-play internet, phone, and television bill. Insurance, water and power, sewer, and other basics of contemporary life appear in the docket, each in their turn. On any given day, I can determine whether I am between gas and electricity or racing towards my credit card. An obsessive’s invention, this book-keeping provides infinite pleasure as a means of anticipating expenditures across the calendar cycle, collapsing the tasks of bill-paying and temporal accounting into a single system. Time and money are locked into a regular, predictable, relation to each other.
Now, I return to the familiar question: How did we live before these tight packets of bright tags offered their adhesive abilities for daily use? Since their first commercial appearance in tight-wrapped cellophane, Post-its™ have had an appeal for me that is disproportionate to their petite dimensions. Even the act of opening that packet, with its crisply folded corners, provides a tactile satisfaction. Watching the little leaves on the stack spring free just a bit, breathing on release from the wrapper, I feel a rush of possibility. At first, they were quite expensive, and thus precious. Each individual sheet seemed to need a justification for use, effortlessly peeled from the neatly trimmed stack. I didn’t pause to consider the industrial design essential to engineer this commodity, the specialized lifecycle of the adhesive, paper, dyeing, collating, trimming, packaging, labelling and distribution—all shorthand terms for elaborate processes. No, instead, I hoarded the little tablets, enjoying the density I could sense running my finger along the glued spine. These were miniature codices, unwritten books bound by their potential. Who knew that office supplies could have such resonance?
The post-it or Post-it™ is younger than I am. Much younger, having been developed in the late 1970s and fully branded and marketed in about 1979. The concept of “re-adherable” adhesive is the crucial element in the design. The little sticky stays just stuck enough and apparently was invented by a fellow named Arthur Fry who wanted to mark his place in a hymnal. A chemist, he was picking up on the work of a colleague, Spencer Silver, who had developed the adhesive in the labs at 3M. The link between church and sticky note allows for jokes about the invention being divine, but the real force for the proliferation and spread of the Post-it™ was the marketing department at 3M who grasped the useful versatility of the notes. The delusion that these small flags leave no residue is just that, a delusion, and conservators dread the site of their bright edges peeking out of books and manuscripts since the adhesive, in fact, eventually eats through paper.
3M, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing: the original name seems quaint now, suggesting large flatboats of ore floating on the Great Lakes and monster sites of excavation in the upper Midwest, dark smoke pouring from huge industrial plants churning out new products whose promotional rhetoric is based on optimistic visions of progress through chemistry. That is all very last century, and indeed the company was founded just at the 20th century began. The list of products is too long to detail (the Wiki suggests 60,000+), but includes a wide array of chemically based innovations. Water repellent treatment for fabrics, asthma inhalers, and many pharmaceutical products. Aside from Post-its™, my favorite is theatrical blood. The idea of great minds and lab scientists applying their intellectual energies to the creation of vials of a liquid used for dramatic effect is appealing. But a more recent contribution of the company was the N95 respirator mask whose value no one would dispute.
The humble Post-it™, apparently insignificant, organizes my life, my days, provides a little landing pad for task lists, assignments checked off on completion, transfer of others to the next day’s or week’s ongoing obligations on a new small flag kept in view on my desk. These condensed pages are the guide through which time and money, appointments and bills, are intertwined in a schedule I can refer to at a glance, reassuring myself that I am securely located within these coordinates. Today is two days after credit card, one week before the gas bill. I know right where I am in my arcane system of temporal accounting.