Where does the term “Red Tape” actually come from?

Posted: March 19, 2014 in Popular Culture et al
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red tape


The Australian Government is about to hold a much vaunted red tape day – getting rid of literally thousands of regulations designed to free up people’s lives from the crushing weight of bureaucracy. (It’s a stunt, of course. One of the regulations to be removed means that financial advisors are no longer legally required to “act in their clients’ interest”. Whose interest should they be acting in, then? Don’t get me started, for Heaven’s sake.)

Anyhow, politics aside, the news item got me wondering: where does the term “red tape” come from? The answer is quite simple, actually.

The origin of the term is 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 so he could wed the younger and more beautiful Anne Boleyn.

A photo of the petitions from Cardinal Wolsey and others, now stored in the Vatican archives, can be seen on page 160 of “Saints and Sinners, a history of The Popes”, by Eamon Duffy (published by Yale University Press in 1997), rolled and stacked in their original condition, each one sealed and bound with the obligatory red tape, as was the custom of the day.

It appears likely that it was the Spanish administration of Charles V in the early 16th century, who started to use the red tape in an effort to modernise the administration that was running his vast empire. The red tape was used to bind the important administrative dossiers that had to be discussed by the Council of State, and separate them from the issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound by an ordinary rope. Most of the red tapes arriving to the Council of State were manufactured in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, because most of the important dossiers came from the Low Countries and Germany. The Spanish name for red tape “balduque” took the name from the Spanish translation of the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch which is “Bolduque”.

Although they were not governing such a vast territory as Charles V, 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 machines.

In this age of civil servants using computers and information technology, a legacy from the administration of the Spanish Empire can still be observed where some parts of the higher levels of the Spanish administration continue the tradition of using red tape to bind important dossiers that need to be discussed and to keep them bound in red tape when the dossier is closed. This is, for example, the case for the Spanish Council of State, the supreme consultative council of the Spanish Government. In contrast, the lower Spanish courts use ordinary ropes to bundle documents as their cases are not supposed to be heard at higher levels. The Spanish Government plans to phase out the use of paper and abandon the practice of using ordinary ropes.

The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th century. Although Charles Dickens is believed to have used the phrase before Thomas Carlyle, the English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in Carlyle’s writings, protesting against official inertia with expressions like “Little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence”. To this day, most defence barristers’ briefs, and those from private clients, are tied in a pink-coloured ribbon known as “pink tape” or “legal tape”. Government briefs, including those of the prosecution counsel, are usually bound with white tape, reputedly introduced as an economy measure to save the expense of dyeing the tape red. Traditionally, official Vatican documents were also bound in red cloth tape.

All American Civil War veterans’ records were bound in red tape, and the difficulty in accessing them led to the modern American use of the term, but there is evidence (as detailed above) that the term was in use in its modern sense sometime before this.

George Osborne and his despatch box containing the Budget

George Osborne and his despatch box containing the Budget delivered in London today


So there you have it.

And as I write, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK is delivering his budget, contained within the red leather case used for the transport of all major Government documents in that country.

So here’s a question for you Dear Reader. Does anyone know why those cases are red? Hmmm?

As always, your trusted correspondent can save you the trouble of turning to Google.

The design of ministerial boxes has changed little since the 1860s. Covered in red-stained rams’ leather, they are embossed with the Royal Cypher and ministerial title. The 2–3-kilogram (4–7 lb) boxes are constructed of slow-grown pine, lined with lead and black satin and, unlike a briefcase, the lock is on the bottom, opposite the hinges and the handle, to guarantee that the box is locked before being carried.

The colour red has remained the traditional covering of the boxes but why red was originally chosen is rather unclear.They are made by the very discreet, London-based leather goods company Barrow and Gale, which rarely grants the media access to its premises. Such is the company’s desire to maintain a low profile, its owner prefers not to disclose his surname.

According to the company’s records, the red boxes were introduced in the 19th Century by Prince Albert. It is thought by some that their distinctive scarlet colour is because red was a dominant colour in his family’s Saxe-Coburg-Gotha coat of arms, which was the name of the British Royal Family before it changed to Windsor during the First World War, of course.

The lead lining, which has been retained in modern boxes, was once meant to ensure that the box sank when thrown overboard at sea in the event of capture.Also bomb-proof, they are designed to survive any catastrophe that may befall their owner.

Production of the red boxes costs between £385 and £750. Between 2002 and 2007 the British Government spent £57,260 on new boxes. In 1997 the government mooted the idea of an electronic red box as an alternative.

David Clark, now a Labour peer, was asked by Tony Blair to come up with innovative ways of running government more efficiently. He suggested a computerised red box, and a prototype design was made. Resembling a conventional ministerial case, it opened to reveal a laptop screen.

The box used fingerprint technology to ensure only the minister it was intended for could open it, and information was to be transferred through a secure government intranet.

But it failed to take off after resistance from ministers and civil servants, and the old fashioned red box stuffed with ministerial papers persists.

In 1998, a Whitehall initiative began to replace document boxes with an extensive intranet. How very dull.

Exceptions to the red colouring are those carried by the government whips, which are covered in black leather. Discreet black boxes are also available for ministers who need to travel by train. And extremely secret black boxes, (which also have a red stripe) carry confidential papers only seen by the Prime Minister, their Private Secretary, and intelligence officials. This box is known as “old stripey” due to the red stripe.

Gladstone's Budget Box

Gladstone’s Budget Box


A special word on the “Budget Box”. The first and most famous budget box was made for Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (a proper Liberal, not the Australian neo-Tory variety) around 1860 and is lined in black satin and covered with scarlet leather.

This box has been used by every Chancellor since, with the exceptions of Jim Callaghan (1964–1967) and Gordon Brown (1997–2007), who had new ones commissioned in 1965 and 1997 respectively.

Gladstone’s budget box – you can just see the words Chancellor of the Exchequer still stamped along its base if you look carefully – was used by Alistair Darling (2007–2010) and by George Osborne in June 2010. It was subsequently retired due to its fragility, and will be displayed in the Cabinet War Rooms.Since March 2011, a new budget box commissioned by The National Archives has been used.

Other red boxes of note are the ones delivered to the British Sovereign every day (except Christmas Day and Easter Sunday) by government departments, via the Page of the Presence. These boxes contain Cabinet and Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents, most of which the monarch must sign and give Royal Assent to, before they can become law (an essential part of the role of a constitutional monarch).

There: that’s that subject neatly tied up.

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