Everybody knows the bread clip.
Everybody knows the bread clip. Danielgamage/CC BY-SA 3.0

Bread clips! Consider them for a moment, if you will. They’re those flat pieces of semi-hard plastic formed into a sort of barbed U-shape—you know the ones. They can be found keeping bread bags all over the world closed and safe from spoilage, smartly designed to be used and reused. They’re all around us, constantly providing an amazing service, and yet still, they’re taken for granted. And it turns out they’re almost exclusively all produced by a single, family-owned company.

Kwik Lok, based in Yakima, Washington, has been manufacturing these little tabs ever since their founder whittled the first one from a credit card. Without giving specific numbers, Kwik Lok says that they sell an almost unimaginable number each year. “It’s in the billions,” says Leigh Anne Whathen, a sales coordinator for the company, who says she personally prefers plastic clips to their natural enemy, the twist tie, because they last longer.

Floyd Paxton, Kwik Lok’s founder, was a second-generation manufacturing engineer who began his career working alongside his father, Hale, producing nail machines during World War II. Prior to the post-war plastics boom, both Paxton and his father produced, among other things, the nails used to close wooden boxes of fruit. In other words, package sealing was in Paxton’s blood.

According to the Kwik Lok website, the idea for the bread clip came to Paxton during a flight in 1952. As the story goes, while he was on the plane, Paxton was eating a package of complimentary nuts, and he realized he didn’t have a way to close them if he wanted to save some for later. As a solution, he took out a pen knife and hand-carved the first bread clip out of a credit card (in some tellings, it was an expired credit card).

Bread clips forever.
Bread clips forever. DopefishJustin/CC BY-SA 2.0

From this humble beginning, the bread clip as we know it was born. As the use of polyethylene bags to package fruit and other foods rapidly increased, Paxton realized that he’d invented a cheap, reusable solution to sealing open-ended bags. His simple invention required minimal dexterity to operate and did not require stressing the piece, allowing it to rival twist-ties and sticker tags.

Paxton established the Kwik Lok Corporation in 1954 in California, and quickly set out to popularize the tabs (now known officially as Kwik Lok Closures) by using them to close bags of apples. The company eventually moved to Washington state, where their headquarters are still located.

Kwik Lok continued to grow over the decades as did demand for their little clips, which became popularly known as “bread clips” or “bread tabs.” Paxton eventually began developing new packaging machinery, including ones to manufacture Kwik Lok Closures, and one to put them on the bags automatically, which Whathen says they still sell to bakeries.

Technically, a Kwik Lok Closure.
Technically, a Kwik Lok Closure. Bando26/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Whathen, Kwik Lok secured a patent on their little innovation in the early days of the company, and to this day, Kwik Lok remains one of the only manufacturers of bread clips in the world. Whathen says that the only other firm she’s aware of is a European competitor called Schutte. Kwik Lok also has the distinction of still being owned by Paxton’s descendants. Floyd’s son, Jerre, ran the company until his death in 2015, and today it is owned by two of Jerre’s daughters. “We’re still going strong,” says Whathen.

Kwik Lok operates two factories in the U.S., plus manufacturing plants in Canada, Australia, Japan, and Ireland. Far from the hand-crafted clip that Paxton made on that airplane, the company now offers just about every variation of the closure one might want. As for Floyd Paxton himself, he died in 1975, spending much of the last years of his life promoting his strict conservative politics as a member of the John Birch Society, including mounting four unsuccessful congressional campaigns. But his politics aside, Paxton’s invention is as widespread as it has ever been, finding its way into the lives of nearly every strata of society, everywhere on the globe.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
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