A Simplified History of Red-Tape

Red-tape is a euphemism for unsolvable complexities. I almost agreed.

May 7, 2024 13 mins

A Simplified History of Red-Tape

Red-tape is a 200 year old meme, started by a pro-Tory Magazine in England in 1830 during the fight for Reform as an epithet against Tory politicians who practiced favoritism and nepotism; borrowed by Thomas Carlyle to talk about the untalented bureaucracy of the British political system and colonial rule; employed by Charles Dickens to describe how entrenched the bureaucracy which resulted in the prohibitive and regressive Window Tax of the 1840s; cited in a religious context about dissenting against the Church of England in 1861, and then used by both sides during the American Civil War of the 1860s.

Among all the cited examples above, the only shared belief was that "red tape", whatever it meant, was bad. It's the one thing on which we all can agree.

Before this, red tape, that is – long thin strips of red fabric used by lawyers, clerks, and scriveners to neatly store papers together – wasn't a negative term. In fact, it was even used as a symbol of possession in innumerate "Found" or "Lost" newspaper advertisements of purses and notebooks wrapped with red tape. Well before the modern era, people would tie up their scrolls, documents, and papers with string or tape. 

The Talmud includes a case in which they discuss whether knowing the document's string color is a strong enough proof of ownership for a divorce document. In that case, the result is that knowing that the string color is red and not white is not sufficient, because the woman may have only seen the document, but never been given it. However, her knowledge of the length of the string would be sufficient. One interesting side fact is that the coloring in that case was derived from sumac, not a more permanent red dye.

So what happened? What transformed red tape into a powerful mythical substance likened to everything from a Gordian knot to a knight slaying a dragon?

What is a meme?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in which he coined the term "meme" as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation":

...so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain...

When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.

In our case, when each person hears the phrase "red-tape", they make their own connections, associations, and create an evolution of the meaning. It results in a dozen different meanings of "red-tape", each slightly differing, but between them creating a wide range of meanings that don't necessarily have much to do with each other.

Evolution of an Epithet

The simplest thing to assume about the evolution is that it began as an identifying the person with a tool of their profession, as a form of metonymy. Meaning people began to call lawyers, scriveners, and clerks the equivalent of “pencil pusher”, “bean counter”, or “desk jockey”. And that evolved to their work being considered to be unneccessary or frustrating aspects of the larger bureaucracy.

But that isn't completely correct. As I said, the connection existed, but I hadn't found any explicit examples from before 1830 of red-tape being used in this way.

Red-tape had meaning prior to our meaning that we associate with bureaucracy. It had connotations of "official" and "legal". As white collar professions, such as law, progressed, so did the need to keep pages together. So they began to “tape” or tie them together in neat packets with this red fabric. Writers would mention letters or papers tied with red tape to convey the symbolism of legal importance to them.

Additionally, in British contract law, tape was used together with wax seals in order to manage the security of the document. It would be sealed multiple times each of the litigants, so one could tell if any of the wax seals were broken, someone may have messed with the document.

Such much so, that there was an understanding of a red-taper being a clerk or a lawyer. With the 19th century invention and advent of elastic and the rubber band, lawyers stopped using tape.

Collective Fear of Red Tape

The real evolution of the phrase begins during the final week of July 1830, from a source that has nothing to do with the legal profession or paperwork.

A month earlier, King George V of England died. In February, a member of the Ultra Tory party had called for Parliamentary Reform, to do away with "rotten boroughs" or "pocket boroughs" which kept the power in the hand of few and to expand enfranchisement (the right of voting) to all tax-paying householders.

Since the Catholics were emancipated a year earlier, they wished to strategically garner all the anti-Catholic support they could. The mainstream Tories, including Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, were against such reform because the current system worked very well for them. Thank you very much.

It was, perhaps, one of the most chaotic weeks of the 19th century, with its reprecussions still being felt today. The new King William IV of England was not interested in reform, dissolved the Parliment on July 24th, and called for new elections.

On Sunday, July 25, King Charles X of France released his July Ordinances, halting freedom of the press, disenfranchising the bourgeoisie, and calling for new elections. The immediate result was the French upper middle class protesting by closing their factories on Monday, July 26, which led to the workers with nothing to do but to call for revolution. The masses rioted for three days, calling for the literal heads of the government ministers and aristoracy, by guillotine. King Charles X would abdicate the throne and flee.

A constitutional monarchy was created, with a distant cousin of Charles X, Louis Philippe being installed by the politicians as king. The government also abolished the red ribboned-Order of Saint Louis, a military award which provided hereditary knighthood to commissioned officers, along with guaranteeing a pension.

Back in England, the Swing Riots began in August by the agricultural workers. While the Tories had ultimately won the plurality of votes, the party was divided, so a Whig, Earl Gray, was appointed Prime Minister.

In response, Age Magazine, an Ultra Tory weekly, began frequently referring the Red-tape school of politicians, led by Sir Peel, as examples of politicians who seek to cling to power by any means necessary, and who use nepotism and favoritism for appointments.

Parenthetically, they respected the Irish Catholic MP Daniel O'Connell, even though they opposed politically, because they viewed him as someone who had principles, and would fight for them. They needed people who would fight against O'Connell.

The editors and their readership alike were all too aware on the effects that the negative perceptions of the idle hereditary aristocracy had on other side of the English Channel, and linked it to the current debate about idle aristocracy who kept their titles and lands even though their populations had dwindled. "Red-tape" was a warning of what happens if the masses riot.

While Age alone used the phrase more than a dozen times, it was reprinted in many other papers and magazines. The phrase became more embedded in English society and it became soon borrowed and adopted by others.

Undesirous Bedfellows

Offended by the comparison, the Legal Observer published an editorial "An Attorney of the Old School" in 1837 which included the paragraph:

We hear some of the modern officials ridiculed for their "red tape" formalities, but they fall far short of the extreme precision which the genuine old attorney carried into every part and point of his practice – the entry of his transactions... – his registry of papers and documents – his method of arranging and preserving them–these and a hundred matters of detail were all subjects to be attended to without any shadow of change. The mechanism was perfect and worked well.

In other words, lawyers were asking not to be compared to government bureaucrats. That's just offensive.

England's Love of Red Tape

Thomas Carlyle, similarly, called for an "Aristocracy of Talent" in which wisdom was used to make decisions, not just because you came from the correct family or had the right connections. To him, Redtape is associated with the lack of intelligence or thought.

By 1850, in his "Latter Day Pamphlets", Carlyle seems to be more focused and directed in its meaning:

From all corners of the wide British Dominion, there rises one complaint against the ineffectuality of what are nicknamed our "redtape" establishments, our Government Offices, Colonial Office, Foreign Office, and the others, in Downing Street and the neighborhood.

and more specifically:

Every colony, every agent for a matter colonial, has his tragic tale to tell you about his sad experiences in the Colonial Office; what blind obstructions, fatal indolencies, pendatries, stupidities, on the right and on the left, he had to battle with; what a worldwide jungle of redtape, inhabited by doleful creatures, deaf or nearly so to human reason or entreaty, he had entered on; and he paused in amazement, almost in despair; passionately appealed now to this doleful creature, now to that, and to the dead redtape jungle… and on the whole found it was an adventure, in sorrowful fact, equal to the fabulous ones by old knights-errant against dragons and wizards in enchanted wilderness and waste howling solitudes: not achievable except by nearly superhuman exercise of all four cardinal virtues, and unexpected favor of the special blessing of heaven.

Parenthetically, it was from the first piece that I knew Carlyle did not originate the meaning, as certain sources seem to indicate. It would have been too self-referential.

Red Tape Measuring

In the 19th century, people were first able to measure things exactly, became aware of the concept of the “average”. In additional to mocking red tape, Charles Dickens parodied that obsession as well. It’s probably not a coincidence that the “tape measure” began being used in this period. It was tool of distanced, unempathetic, uniformity.

He most forcefully wrote about red tape with regard to the window tax that ensured that people wouldn’t have clean air or light. The super wealthy with dozens of windows would pay less per window, and landlords began to remove windows from residences. The elites assumed that it was fine and all was fair. Dickens also coined the term “red tape worm” to describe some of these people.

Not one to mince words, Dickens begins his 1851 essay "Red Tape" with the following paragraph:

Your public functionary who delights in Red Tape—the purpose of whose existence is to tie up public questions, great and small, in an abundance of this official article—to make the neatest possible parcels of them, ticket them, and carefully put them away on a top shelf out of human reach—is the peculiar curse and nuisance of England. Iron, steel, adamant, can make no such drag-chain as Red Tape. An invasion of Red Ants in innumerable millions, would not be half so prejudicial to Great Britain, as its intolerable Red Tape.

It's a bit too complicated to explain where this piece of dialogue from 1861 about reforming the Church of England is from, because inanimate objects don't usually have conversations, but it just drives the point home a bit:

– "...ours is the Church – the Church of the Rubric."
– "Aye , aye! call it red tape; that's the vernacular word for Rubric."

An Oblivious Uniquely British Solution to Red Tape

At one point, the anti-red tape rhetoric got so bad, the British government switched to using green tape for their official government documents.

During my research of Parliamentary records, I discovered an incredible quote in light of this from 1868:

You, at any rate, can surely not be un-English enough to say that red tape and farouritism, and nepotism are so peculiarly native to our soil that we dare not do here what is done at Paris and at Vienna.

It's ironic for a few reasons: 1. "red-tape" was literally coined in England. 2. Many of the red-tape problems were on the Parliamentary record before there was a simple phrase to describe it. It was why reform was needed.

And then it was exported stateside – most likely through the works of Carlyle and Dickens.

American Red Tape

In the 1892 autobiography of a Confederate doctor, we see how he referred to “red-tape” preventing him from getting the position he wanted. No longer could a general unilaterally make a decision. The Union army also complains of Red-Tape. It’s the common enemy of all.

In the 1862 Chicago Journal of Medicine, we can find three different cases where red tape was used in slightly different ways.

Regarding soldiers and alcohol (it was suprisingly anti-teetotalism):

It is time that this folly should cease. Practically it is being put to an end by some of the more sagacious commanders in spite of "red tape" and the clamors of easy going theorists, wrathfully reforming the world in their carpeted chambers at the cool North.

But the plain truth is, "teetotalism" is just applicable in the army as vegetarianism, and the arguments to sustain the one are precisely those to sustain the other. Some men have lived and do live without meat… and some meant have lived and do live without stimulants. Some have died from gluttony and some from intemperance; but eating and drinking may still be set down as consonant with life and health.

Somehow, the Union Army was ordering too much medicine.

It is stated that Surgeon General Hammond has cut down the regulation supply of medicines to the army fifty per cent. The amount thus saved is appropriated to the increase of Hospital stores, including especially more nutritious diet.

Under the energetic direction of this sagacious officer the Medical Staff of the Army is becoming wonderfully enhanced in efficiency. Abuses are rectified as soon as discovered, improvements constantly made and the range of usefulness extended  even though the Gordian knot of red tape have to be severed by often repeated strokes of his trenchant official catlin. 

The word "sagacious" is used in both cases, implying that "red tape" is the opposite of "wise". The military man was charged with making decisions, and "red tape" was stopping them from being able to.

The embarrassment at Cairo had a very unfavorable influence on many of our company, who seemed to be no friends in the first instance to "red tape". It is not according to our go-ahead way of doing things — a man's mission being all the pass he needs. Not so there, everything went according to rule, greatly to our annoyance.

All well no doubt, and yet it was rather discouraging for men who left profitable professional employment many of them, and other occupations not less so, to attend to the wants of sick and dying men, to find men standing resolutely in the way of its accomplishment. The impression left, though the rule may be right, was not good.

As a transcript from 1864 Pennsylvania State Legislature states regarding the inactions of a certain Major Dodge who did not provide straw to keep soldiers warm: "Red tape has the power to defend itself against the world and hang us all."

To give a sense of the extent the phrase became associated with the Civil War: a book titled Red-tape and Pigeon-hole Generals: As Seen from the Ranks During a Campaign in the Army of the Potomac was written and published in 1864.

So what exactly is Red-tape?

Depending on the usage and its stage of evolution, it could stand for “routine”, “bureaucracy”,”elitism”, “structure”,"nepotism","favoritism", “rules”, even “rubric”. There can be a “Gordian knot of red tape”.

Does “red tape” make something impossible or simply difficult, with the need to jump through hoops? Red-tape is whatever you want it to be.

Mixed Metaphors

It becomes unclear what people actually ask for. For example, in Edinburgh in 1864:

Can nothing be done to relieve town dwellers from the abominations (worse than the sewage which they will keep all to themselves and the fishes) of almost carrion flesh and cruelly unwholesome milk, the baby's beverage? Professor Gamgee may cure sick animals but his art can't reach "death in the pot" of which there is now increasing danger for adults and infants. These growing evils may be truly ascribed to various causes, but we have now only to deal with their pernicious effects, so we must not allow "red-tape" routine or circumlocution to interpose with the suppression of patent scandals and gross evils merely because they are of long standing.

I can respect "vested rights" and freedom in trade, but only when they are honest. The real question is, can nothing be done summarily and openly to mitigate the growing evils?
I know 'tis unpleasant to recommend taxation; but still, if something in this way is necessary, as a means for preserving the public health, the wellbeing of many must be considered before the privileges of the few.

"Red-tape" is here describing quite literally the opposite of what we would call "red-tape" today.

Modern Red Tape

In Defense of Red Tape

While it’s not one-to-one relationship, there are numerous pieces written in defense of red tape.

The modern era needs red-tape, to an extent. Requiring a medical decree, or ensuring that all bread was properly baked, so you knew what you would be getting. While it appears to remove choice, it allows the consumer to make educated decisions.

Clerks would be mocked when they were just functionaries of a much larger organ, in which they were required to follow protocol. It's probably better than each clerk making thousands of judgement calls on their own every day.

Who is afraid of Big Red Tape?

Red tape is created by unknowledgeable, albeit, sometimes well-intentioned, arm-chair theorists. Other times, it is designed by power-hungry narcissists. When used as a synonym for rubric or rules, red tape can be the cause of death and evil propagated.

In this evolution of red tape, in the English speaking world, we see a red-taped-wrapped bogeyman appear. Red tape began as a description of the functionary, it has become the blame-all reason for things not being able to be done. "I didn’t get hired due to the red tape." "I wasn’t able to sell my product due to the red tape."

Humanity fails through the success of red tape. It becomes an easy person to blame if you don’t want to do something. “I’m sorry, but the rules require an applicant to have three doctorates, and my hands are tied (by the red tape). I’m sorry.” Red-tape allows for abdication of both thought and responsibility. 

Cutters of Red Tape

Cottage industries are formed to help manage the red-tape. That empowers the writers of the red-tape, as it allows to create more complex constructs, which required external assistance.

At its beginning red-tape was used to explain the simplified taxation process of counting windows (without considering the side effects), and nowadays red- tape can be used to describe the US tax preparation industry (without considering the side effects).

Final Sticking Point

The truth is that red-tape is just red tape. It is neither the bad nor good. In theory, at least, red tape has a purpose. The biggest problem with using “red-tape” as a catch-all is that we end up not defining the problem and assuming things are impossible.