The Strange Tale of the Hotchkiss

Some time ago my attention was drawn to the origins of the word ホチキス (hochikisu) (sometimes ホッチキス) in Japanese.

To a native speaker of English who actually knows the word Hotchkiss, it usually refers to a WWI machine gun and related military impedimenta. To a Japanese ホチキス invariably refers to an office paper stapler, for which it is the generic name just as "hoover" is the term for vacuum cleaner in the UK.

When I first encountered the term in Japanese I assumed it came from the American brand of stapler of that name, which was dominant in the market in the early years of the 20th century. A Japanese participant in the sci.lang.japan usenet group was of the view it derived from the machine gun, so I went digging.

Some Japanese dictionaries attribute the term to the invention of the stapler by one B.B. Hotchkiss. We see, for example:


ホチキス コの字形の針を紙に打ち込んでとじあわせる道具の商標名。 アメリカ人ホチキス(B. B. Hotchkiss)が発明した。 ステープラー。ホッチキス。

Koujien tells a slightly different story:

ホッチキス【Hotchkiss】 - 機関銃の一種。アメリカ人ホッチキス(Benjamin Berkeley H. 1826-1885)が発明。ガス圧を利用した空冷式のもの。 - 紙綴器の一種。「コ」の字形の綴じ金具を挿入し、把手を押して 紙などを綴り合せる具。綴込器。ホチキス。
So Benjamin B. Hotchkiss gets blamed for both machine gun and stapler, depending on the dictionary.

A bit further digging turns up the following:

  1. the gun, etc. indeed came from Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss who was an American who set up his company in France because the US government wasn't interested in WMDs then. The company diversified into vehicle parts, etc. as well as guns. He died in 1885, as Koujien says. (ref)

  2. the stapler appears to have emerged from the Jones Manufacturing Company, which was incorporated in 1895 by a group of people including George Hotchkiss and his son Eli Hubbell Hotchkiss. According to Curtis Scaglione (link below), the Hotchkisses bought a failing business in which the King stapler was considered a company asset. The company became the E. H. Hotchkiss Company in 1897.

    See the entry in the Stapler Database, the Brief History of Staples on a blog site, and the short article in the stapler of the week blog.

Nothing that I could find in WWW documents stated a relationship between the BB Hotchkiss (died 1885) and the Hotchkisses who 10 years later founded an office products company. As they all hailed from Connecticut, they may well have been related. Since I first compiled this page several people have contacted me with further information:

In 2003 I aired this on the jeKai mailing list. Yuno Hanlon passed on a reference to a site dealing with names and trademarks. The ホチキス section says:

現在は商標公開されている。ホチキスの歴史は こちら。 ホチキスの起源についてはこちらの Webページが詳しい。 これらの ページによると、 よく言われる機関銃とホチキスの関係は 同名の会社や創業者/発明者を 混同したことによる誤解のようである。

So Mr Shigeki Yoshida (吉田茂樹), the author of this site, thinks it is a case of confusion.

Yuno commented: "The entry for ホチキス provides a link to a page in the website of the office supply company マックス, which traces an (inconclusive) search for the origin of ホチキス by NTV. It also says that, according to another TV programme (なるほど・ザ・ワールド), Eli Hotchkiss is Benjamin's younger brother."

This conflation of the manufacturer of the Hotchkiss stapler and the inventor of the Hotchkiss machine gun seems to be a totally Japanese thing. I can't find a source for it outside Japan. Certainly nothing available about the Hotchkiss company in the US ever mentions Benjamin or his machine gun. Did Benjamin actually invent the stapler, but left it to relatives to turn into a product a decade or more after his death? It seems unlikely to me. I suspect a lexicographic slip which has been repeated, and has now become part of the folklore.

Was Eli a much younger brother of Benjamin, or was he a nephew, as Robert Katz reports? George Rippere's information refutes that possibility. In any case the broader Hotchkiss clan must have been quiteinventive.

In 2014 George Rippere sent some more information:
A Japanese TV station sent three people to my home in 1996(?) for a clip about the origin of the word Hotchkiss. It was for a audience participation show I was told where the audience had a buzzer at their seat and responded to what was shown- at least that was my understanding. Everyone had a good time but the TV people were a little frustrated because I could pronounce Hotchkiss in Japanese properly. Have you seen this show. The Hotchkiss weapon branch got into cars because they already knew how to bore a cannon so an engine was essentially the same thing. Prior to the stapler that George Hotchkiss (1836-1919) bought for Eli he was in the meat packing business and sold out to Swift & Co. He then helped George Bowes to establish Pitney-Bowes. He moved to NY in 1885 from Ansonia, CT. after the death of his wife. His office was at 1 Madison Avenue. He was a venture capitalist who was one of the very early investors of the refrigerated railroad car. Their summer home was in Daytona Beach, FL and today is a designated historic site. George also owned and sponsored a race car, the Pope-Hartford.

They were successful but had their share of tragedy like everyone else. Eli and his wife had two daughters die; Esther age 2 May 28 and Leila age 4 June 6-both in 1889. Their third child was born October 31 1890, Gertrude and she lived until 1960. She was a benefactor to a black nursing college back in the 1920's and built a hospital wing in Norwalk, Ct. Eli died 3/1918 aboard his boat when he choked to death on a sandwich. His widow and then daughter Gertrude ran the company. Eli's brother, Frank, died in 11901 age 41 from Rheumatoid arthritis complications. Frank's wife died 3 years after he married and 7 months after giving birth to my grandmother. He remarried in 1892 to Anita Day whose family owned the Waterman Pen Co. George Hotchkiss' wife died 1885 age 49 and his first born child died age 7 months. The only family member I ever met was Esther (Ettie) Susan Hotchkiss. She lived at the Mayflower Hotel in New York for about the last ten years of her life. She died 5/1953.

In 2015 David Johnson sent me the following:
Abijah, Benjamin and Andrew were involved in the manufacturing processes. Benjamin's contributions were significant if only in that he was able to do much of anything at all. He was born with a severe wasting disorder in his legs. He invented a trailer that his very large dog could pull. Benjamin, was born 10/1/1826. His father was Asahel. His 9 siblings were Andrew, Abijah, Franklin, Fredrick, Dothea, Sarah, Charles, Dwight, & William. Benjamin is descended from Samuel, the Hotchkiss original immigrant through Samuel, Joshua, Stephen, Gideon, Jesse, Asahel (My shared lineage), Eli, is descended from Samuel, the Hotchkiss original immigrant, also through Samuel, Joshua, Stephen, Gideon, Jesse, Asahel, then through Thompson Clark, Frederick Gordun Hotchkiss, Eli Hotchkiss. We have no birth records for Eli. All we know is that his father was born sometime in the 1850s, and that they are first cousins, 3 generations removed.

David also asked me to mention that: "that research into that line is ongoing, and it is still possible that errors may be found."

In 2016 Donald L. Hotchkiss Jr sent me some information:
I collect some Hotchkiss stuff including Civil War Hotchkiss Artillery Shells made by Benjamin Berkley Hotchkiss out of NY (actually invented by his disabled brother) and Hotchkiss Staplers from Eli Hotchkiss. These men are in fact related, as am I. We are all cousins. The relationship of BB and Eli is not close as I recall. You have to go back a couple of generations to get the common ancestor but they are blood kin. I can go thru my books and put them in their lines and tell you exactly what number of cousin they are to each other and how many times removed, but it would take going thru some reference books that I have at home in order to do that and I am here at work at the moment without references. If you want the information I will be more than happy to take a few min and look it up for you. I have looked up both men in the past for other reasons. BB did go to France and developed the Hotchkiss Arms Company. Very successful. The money from this company founded and supported the Hotchkiss Boys school in CT. Eli did buy a failing stapler business (Starr I think) and developed many fine staplers. Many went to Japan. All were embossed with the name Hotchkiss on their metal. Hotchkiss staplers were top of the line up until the 50s when it was sold to a modern stapler line that is still in business. Swingline comes to mind.
In June 2020 Robert Mouck sent me this link to an interesting 2013 article in the American Stationer about the original Hotchkiss stapler. It has a copy of a 1922 Japanese advertisement - the stapler cost ¥2.60.

Jim Breen
February 2004
April 2008
February 2010
September 2014
June 2017
June 2020

(Thanks to Yuno Hanlon for the additional references, and to Curtis Scaglione, Robert Katz and George Rippere for their advice.)

Jim Breen's Home Page and Japanese Page.