origin of ‘red tape’ (obstructive official rules)

The noun red tape, meaning excessive bureaucracy or adherence to official rules and formalities, refers to the use of woven red tape to tie up bundles of legal documents and official papers; A Dictionary of Law (Oxford University Press – 8th edition, 2015), edited by Jonathan Law, contains the following definition:

Brief. A document or bundle of documents by which a solicitor instructs a barrister to appear as an advocate in court. A brief usually comprises a backsheet, typed on large brief-size paper giving the title of the case and including the solicitor’s instructions, which is wrapped around the other papers relevant to the case. The whole bundle is tied up with red tape in the case of a private client, white tape if the brief is from the Crown, and green tape if from one of the land authorities.

The earliest known mention of the term red tape is from this advertisement published by a London lawyer in The Publick Intelligencer (London) of 6th December 1658:

(as transcribed in Notes and Queries (London) of 11th May 1861)
A little bundle of Papers, tied with a red Tape, were lost on Friday last was a seven night, between Worcester-house and Lincoln’s-inn. Also a Paper-Book bound in Leather and blue coloured Leafs. If any one who hath found them, will bring or send them to Mr. Graves his Chamber in Lincoln’s Inn, they shall receive satisfaction for their pains.

Laws of Maryland at large, with proper indexes (Annapolis, Maryland, 1765), collected and published by Thomas Bacon (circa 1711-1768), clergyman, musician, poet, publisher and author, recorded that, “at a Session of Assembly, begun and held at the Port of Annapolis, on the 16th Day of September, in the 8th Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King William the Third, &c. Annoq; Domini 1696, and ended the 2d Day of October following”,

his […] Excellency the Governor hath requested to have a certain Parcel of Land in the public Pasture, according to the Dimensions […] laid down in the Plat of the Town for planting or making a Garden, Vineyard or Summer-House, or other Use.
[…] For the ascertaining of the Bounds and Limits of the said Town-Pasture and Common, and the several Lots and Dividends in the same contained, be it Enacted […], That the Dimensions, Bounds and Courses thereof, shall at all Times hereafter, be adjudged, held, taken and reputed, according to the Map and Plat thereof, being drawn up and presented by Richard Beard, Gent. by Order and Directions of his Excellency, carefully examined, and sealed with the Great Seal of the Province at the four Sides thereof, and upon the Backside thereof sealed with this Excellency’s Seal at Arms, on a red Cross with red Tape, and remaining in the Secretary’s office, or to be hung up in the Court-
House.—source: Maryland State Archives

bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape

bundle of US pension documents from 1906 bound in red tape
photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Jarek Tuszynski


The first recorded depreciative use of red tape is from Poetical Epistle to the Queen on her commanding Lord Hervey to write no more (1736), a poem that the English courtier, political writer and memoirist John Hervey (1696-1743) addressed to Queen Caroline under the reign of George II:

(1848 edition)
Let all the Cabinet, with ductile hand,
Sign what they read, and never understand;
Let dupes you rally thankfully receive it;
Let Teed mill chocolate, and Purcel give it;
What others dictate, let great statesmen write,
And we Gold Keys learn all to read at sight:
Let Wilmington, with grave, contracted brow,
Red tape and wisdom at the Council show,
Sleep in the senate, in the circle bow.

Legal documents were also tied up with green ferret. The noun ferret, probably from Italian fiorettifloss-silk, denotes a stout tape most commonly made of cotton but also of silk, which was known as Italian ferret. In A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London, 1598), John Florio (1553-1625), English lexicographer, teacher of languages, translator and author of Italian descent, thus defined Italian fioretti:

A kind of course silke called foret or ferret silke.

The English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70) mentioned both red tape and green ferret at the very beginning of chapter 10 of Bleak House (London, 1853), a novel in which he satirises the English judicial system:

On the eastern borders of Chancery Lane, that is to say, more particularly, in Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street, Mr. Snagsby, Law Stationer, pursues his lawful calling. In the shade of Cook’s Court, at most times a shady place, Mr. Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper—foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers; in red tape, and green ferret; in pocket-books, almanacks, diaries, and law lists; in string boxes, rulers, inkstands—glass and leaden, penknives, scissors, bodkins, and other small office-cutlery; in short, in articles too numerous to mention.

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