At some point, we all have to cut through the “red tape” in order to get something important done. Red tape refers to the amount of paperwork, phone calls, and general trouble one must go through to accomplish something.
Whether it is getting a bill paid by the insurance company, or obtaining a permit from the local government, it seems to take forever to conquer the obstacles in our path in order to accomplish certain chores.
Red tape annoys us all, but where did this colorful name for such frustrating hindrances come from?
Red Tape — Literally
While the term seems abstract now, in the beginning, red tape was literally that: red tape. Before the days of binder clips and file folders, court and government clerks needed a way to keep documents together. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and possibly even earlier, official documents in many countries were folded and bound with red cloth, ribbon, or tape to keep them secure. Even at the Vatican, documents were bound with red cloth.
Slicing Through Government Red Tape
The US Federal Court used bright red cotton ribbon to bind official documents from 1790 to 1915. The cotton ribbon was wide, braided, and soft so it wouldn’t damage the paper like other types of ribbon or rope.
Court documents were stored in wooden boxes, with all of a day’s paperwork folded and taped together. If someone wanted to find a court document, they would have to go through the box until they found the bundle for the day in question. Then they had to slice through the red cotton tape to view the papers. When they were finished, more red tape was used to bundle the documents again and replace them in the box.
The process was time consuming, especially if the exact date of the paperwork in question wasn’t known. The clerk might spend hours, if not days, going through boxes and cutting red tape on scores of document bundles before finding the right one.
Today’s government works with computers, but the process for handling information often seems as slow and cumbersome as the old method of boxes and tape. Every election brings talk of trimming governmental red tape, but measures to do so might just create even more red tape headaches.