Today, “Red Tape” is a derisive term for rigid conformity to formal government regulations that slow or prevent action and decision-making. Usually applied to government and corporate bureaucracies, we associate “red tape” with filling out of seemingly unnecessary paperwork and various low-level rules that make conducting one’s affairs slower and more difficult. It may surprise you then to learn that red tape originally had a very practical application.
In 17th and 18th Century England (and consequently the American Colonies), thick legal documents were bound or tied with red cloth tape. This was done to bundle similar documents together so that all the information associated with a particular legal docket remain together in the courtroom’s case file (literally a document box holding the day’s cases). So, when someone spoke of cutting through the red tape, they literally meant opening the file so that all the information could be read.
The origins of the term are somewhat obscure, but it is first noted in historical records in the 16th century, when Henry VIII besieged Pope Clement VII with around eighty or so petitions for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The pile of documents was rolled and stacked in original condition, each one sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape, as was the custom.
In the early 16th Century, Charles V — King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor– started to use red tape in an effort to modernize the administration his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the most important administrative dossiers that required immediate discussion by the Council of State, and separate them from issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound with ordinary string. This practice of using red tape to separate the important dossiers that had to be discussed was quickly copied by the other modern European monarchs to speed up their administrative decisions.
In an age where documents came in many sizes and shapes and were often best stored when rolled tying them with tape served as a practical way to organize work. Red Tape, helped prioritize the important from the merely urgent work of the courts. My how have we turned this very practical application upside-down.