Post-its a neat idea that stuck

Anniversary: When 3M specialist Art Fry needed bookmarks for his hymnal, an inspiration hit.

April 12, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF




In the forgettable 1997 movie "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," Lisa Kudrow attempts to pass herself off as successful by telling her classmates at their 10th reunion that she invented Post-it Notes. In her dream sequence, Kudrow's character reels off the formula for the adhesive invented in 1968 by 3M scientist Spencer Silver that made the Post-it possible.

For a brief moment, she has fooled her classmates into believing she created the greatest office supply of the 20th century and beyond. She's a star.


"It's pretty boring, but my favorite size is the old rectangle shape. Yellow," says Judy Schuster, a spokeswoman at 3M in Minnesota. It is the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Post-it Note this month, and an entire Boston-based public relations firm is handling the press. But Schuster seemed happy to handle a little press herself.

"I write myself notes all the time. I stick them on my wallet because I know I'll be picking up my wallet to buy coffee. I guess I'm a slow learner," she says.

Post-it Notes (now in 27 sizes, 56 shapes and 50 colors) is celebrating a rather loud 20th birthday. If nothing else, stock anniversary stories allow us to stop and ponder the worth or trouble something or someone has caused us year after year. Post-it Notes have made Amazing Kreskins out of the memory-impaired. Reportedly, the first Post-it Note was written by God himself. REST, it said.

In our lives and times, these canary-yellow flags of wonder adorn desk tops and computer terminals world-wide.

"I remember when I used to put them in my husband's lunch box," Schuster says, wistfully. "I still leave notes for him -- and I still sign them with `love.' "


The history of Post-it Notes is a textbook case of science meets serendipity.

Post-it Notes -- originally called "Press and Peel" notes -- had been hatched in a lab and became only a mere "business tool" around the shop at 3M, Schuster says. The Earth didn't move for anyone until 1980, when the product was introduced nationwide.

Back in 1975, seven years after Silver created the water-soluble adhesive, another 3M scientist named Art Fry had a divine revelation. One Wednesday at church service, "the little pieces of paper" he used to flag that week's hymns kept falling out. Wonder if there's a way to make a bookmark that stays in place, the 3M "new product specialist" pondered. Rushing back to work, Fry remembered Silver's adhesive, the one that sticks but isn't too sticky and hadn't yet found a reason for being.

Fry applied the adhesive to the back of his bookmark. Stickage was achieved. And look, Mom, it comes right off! Since few if any of his colleagues needed sticky hymnal bookmarks during the work day, the invention was not mobbed with customers. Later, while writing a report, Fry used his sticky bookmark to mark his page. He discovered he could write on the sticky paper. And this was a handy thing.


Fry quickly and smartly reworked his invention, which 3M would call a "repositionable note." At first, Fry passed out his invention to colleagues, one pad per person. He took careful notes on the number of pads used each year.

"They became hopeless addicts," says Fry. Why? "You get an idea, you jot it down. Immediately it's saved, and your mind can go on to other things."

The public, however, initially responded with all the enthusiasm one would shower on, say, the "low-tack adhesive" colleague Silver had invented. In 1978, 3M mounted what they still call the "Boise Blitz." The notes were handed out by the thousands to the fine folks of Boise, Idaho -- the first Post-it Capital of the free world. Boise fancied the notes -- but it was only Boise, after all.

Fortune 500 companies were the next target audience for 3M. Remember Lee Iacocca? He loved the 3-inch-by-5-inch pads and wrote 3M to tell them so. This amounted to what they call in the business "good publicity." The "Press and Peel" notes went national in 1980, and a decade later, the name was changed to Post-it.

"I had full confidence it would be a nice-sized business," Fry says, "but I had no idea it but would be in every office practically through the world."


The robust Post-it product line -- Post-it Easel Pads, Post-it Pop-up Dispensers, Post-it Self-Stick Bulletin Boards -- also includes Post-it personalized business cards. Rather than using that under-rated invention called the paper clip, Post-it groupies can just stick their business cards wherever the spirit moves them.


Hey, it's the 75th anniversary of the first masking Scotch tape! It's also the 70th anniversary of the first transparent Scotch tape! Where's the celebration and feature stories about these home and office staples? Where would we be without Scotch tape? Try wrapping Christmas gifts with Post-its, mister.


"I had a Post-it Note from my wife that you called," says Art Fry, now 68 and semi-retired from 3M.

Everyone, we suppose, wants to know if Silver and Fry got rich off the invention and lived happily ever after. Rich? No. The company owns the product. Proud? You bet. With 22 patents to his name, Silver retired from 3M in 1996. Fry -- who still gets together with his old colleague -- still lives in Minnesota and publicly speaks often and fondly of the sticky bookmark that became the world's niftiest note pad.

Think about it, the inventor says.

"Post-its just fit with human nature." In human nature, we make mistakes, and when we do, "just pull off the Post-it," Fry says. And, by all means, if you need to keep your place in your hymnal, think Post-its.



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