Is Stationery Stationary?

I had a primary school teacher who taught us that the way to remember the spelling of these similarly pronounced but very differently meaning words was that stationery had an ‘er’ in it like paper and stationary had an ‘ar’ in it like car (presumably a parked one!).

Funnily enough, the origins of these two words are related. In the Middle Ages, roving sellers of goods were the norm, but if you were set up permanently in a shop, you were known as a ‘stationer’ or ‘stationary’. During an age when the learned and literate – mainly from universities and monasteries – were employed to document information by hand (calligraphically) and later in print, supplies with which to produce manuscripts were in big demand.

There was a culture of ‘blind copying’ amongst those producing the often beautiful and skilfully handwritten manuscripts, meaning a typographic error could be carried on endlessly. The introduction of printing into this tradition simply reinforced such errors and many became accepted, which could explain the how the words stationery and stationary became separated.

In light of such history, sending paper-based business or personal correspondence might seem anachronistic in our increasingly online lives. Ironically though, the
digital age is making such correspondence rarer and more valuable, as it was when quills and vellum were civilization’s keyboards and monitors.

Letterhead has been in general usage since the mid 1800s with the rise of both commercial activity and the postal service during the late industrial age. The
invention of treadle powered self-inking platen presses, which used a flat metal or wooden plate (the platen) to press the inked impression onto the paper, made printing letterhead even easier. These presses were quicker than the old hand presses and better suited to small print jobs than the large rotary presses.

Like any new invention, driven by demand for what it can produce, the development of ever more efficient and capable printing machines has continued to this day! Even ten years ago it was more complicated and expensive to have your letterhead printed in colour, whereas today it’s something you barely need to think about.

With compliments slips had their origins in the calling cards left by visitors during Victorian times. Calling cards were deemed a necessary social courtesy amongst the well-to-do and from the end of the nineteenth century became an item used by businesses as well. These days a with compliments slip might hold a brief message and be attached to something of use for the recipient, e.g. a catalogue or brochure. Certainly it has retained the essence of the calling card, being more polite than sending nothing and is a good communication tool (‘we are friendly, we care, here’s something you’ve asked for or might like’). In modern terms it is a little bit like a text message, but much more personal.

Envelopes have an interesting background in the English speaking world and if it weren’t for wholesale reform of the British postal service in 1840 by a teacher and inventor named Rowland Hill, they may never have been in widespread use. Prior to then, postage costs were based not on weight but on the number of sheets of paper being sent and the cost was borne by the recipient. Letter writers, therefore, crammed as much information as they could on one sheet, folded it and wrote more on the folded in corners until the corners met and they had a single place to put a wax seal. Hill’s reforms introduced not only low cost postage (stamps) of standard letters, paid for by the sender, but a competition to design what we now know as a stamped envelope. The ability of envelopes to completely conceal the contents and the low cost of postage proved extremely popular and in the first year of their availability, 68 million stamps were sold. Office clerks were then given the job of hand cutting and folding envelopes but it proved overwhelming and so by the mid 1850s, machine made envelopes were in full production.

Now, digital technology and awareness of environmental issues has brought us not only inexpensive, sustainable options for today’s business stationery but unequalled choice of papers and design and of how we present a personalised message to our recipient of choice.