A History Of Post-It Notes: When Were They Invented And Why?

By | April 2, 2021

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Post-it Notes manufactured by 3M. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Want to remind yourself to pick up your dry cleaning? A visual brainstorming tool for your next meeting? To leave a sweet little love note for your honey on the bathroom mirror? Chances are, your go-to medium for these tasks is the humble yellow Post-it Note. Since 1980, the little paper squares have become as much a standard office supply as staplers and paper clips, but the world came very close to missing out on the Post-it Note phenomenon.

Holy Notes

In 1968, chemist Spencer Silver was working for the Minnesota-based manufacturing empire 3M to create a super-strong adhesive for aircraft construction and maintenance. Experimenting with co-polymer microspheres, Silver created a light yet effective adhesive that could be easily removed without causing damage and remained sticky enough to be reused multiple times. As unique as this adhesive is, it was not the "Eureka!" moment Silver had hoped for. In fact, to his co-workers and supervisors, it was a failure. After all, it was uniquely ill-suited to aircraft repair.

But Silver thought his adhesive invention was pretty neat, so for several years, he talked up his creation to his colleagues at 3M. He was certain that, with the right application, his peel-and-reuse adhesive could be a game changer. Like a sign from the heavens, his colleague Art Fry presented just such a challenge for Silver's creation in 1974 when he had trouble keeping his makeshift bookmarks between the pages of his church hymnbook. He remembered Silver boasting that his adhesive could stick to paper and be removed without tearing, so he asked Silver to make him some notes he could post in it. Some Post-it Notes, if you will. Fry and the other members of his church choir were thrilled with the result.

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A small pad of original-style lined yellow Post-It brand notes. (Erik Breedon/Wikimedia Commons)

Posting It

As luck would have it, around the same time, new management took over at 3M, and Silver convinced new products lab manager Geoff Nicholson to help him develop his creation. There was no value in sticky bookmarks, so Nicholson's team designed a prototype for a new kind of office bulletin board that used sticky notes instead of thumbtacks, but the idea bombed in focus groups. People didn't want to buy a special bulletin board when they already had one, but Nicholson's team realized they themselves had stumbled upon the Post-it Note's real advantage without even noticing. The small slips of paper were perfect for jotting down a quick reminder or message and stuck to most surfaces, so they had begun leaving messages for themselves and each other all over the office.

It took 3M until 1977 to officially roll out the new product, now bearing their infamous brand name, in test markets in four U.S. cities—where they totally flopped. The idea was shelved again until 1980, when the marketing team created an extensive campaign to push the product on yuppie, business-oriented professionals as a new, hip office supply. Finally, 12 years after Silver accidentally developed his adhesive, Post-it Notes became an overnight success. Today, 3M manufactures more than 50 billion Post-it Notes each year. The little yellow squares—which were only that color because yellow paper is all that was available in the lab next door and now come in multiple colors and shapes—have become a staple of a staple-less world.