Why Are Lengthy Bureaucratic Processes Known As Red Tape?

"Alas, I'm too young for scissors."
"Alas, I'm too young for scissors." / RichVintage/iStock via Getty Images

After going through all the appropriate government channels to get something done, you might end up mentioning red tape to convey how much of an administrative headache it was. The phrase itself evokes some pretty effective imagery. Maybe you picture yourself slicing through miles of crisscrossed red tape with a tiny pair of scissors, or climbing through a similar maze à la some limber criminal dodging lasers in a heist movie.

Due in part to a memorable lecture by President Bartlet in The West Wing, there’s a general misconception that the expression arose after the Civil War. Veterans’ records were bound in red tape, Bartlet explains, and the in-person process of claiming their pensions was so drawn-out that red tape became a metaphor.

But while Civil War papers were wrapped in red, the practice had been around for at least a couple centuries already. It’s thought to have begun during King Charles V’s reign over Spain in the 16th century, when certain documents were tied in red ribbon so that the requisite authorities would know they were especially important. Not only was red ribbon more eye-catching than the dull white cloth that encircled other documents, but it was also much more costly.

According to Del Dickson’s book The People’s Government, the tradition soon caught on in England, and Henry VIII even used red ribbon to bind his many requests to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. There are multiple written references to official papers bound in red tape throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and Charles Dickens used the phrase figuratively to describe Britain’s many parliamentary proceedings in 1850’s David Copperfield.

“Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl,” Dickens wrote, “skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape.”

Confederate bond coupons from the Civil War.
Confederate bond coupons from the Civil War. / Godot13, National Museum of American History, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Considering the colonies’ close ties with Britain, it’s no surprise that the custom crossed the pond. In fact, Britain’s infamous Stamp Act of 1765—which ignited “no taxation without representation” protests and also fed the fire that led to the American Revolution—was originally bound in red tape. When Americans established their own government, officials continued to use red twill, ribbon, and other textiles to designate important documents.

It’s possible that red tape as a euphemism for complicated bureaucratic processes did become more common in the U.S. after the Civil War, when so many citizens experienced said processes firsthand. But if Dickens’s creative image of Great Britain is any indication, people were probably complaining about red tape long before the late 1860s.

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