The evolution of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, as seen through the sharp blades of a huge pair of ceremonial scissors. Did a bridge just open nearby?
Contributed by: Ernie Smith
If you break it down, life is but a series of constant ceremonies. Chicken dinners. Going to a place of worship (if you have one). Winning an award. Graduating from college. Birthday parties. Funerals. And of course, ceremonies to celebrate new structures, from buildings to bridges. Often, these events are celebrated in very specific ways that highlight ritual—if you’re graduating high school, you might wear a cap and mortar; if you’re turning 21, you might go to the bar. In the case of building openings, a ribbon might be ceremonially cut, perhaps with a comically huge pair of scissors. This is a common phenomenon, but it’s worth asking: Why? Today’s Tedium tries to figure out why giant scissors are all the rage at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. — Ernie @ Tedium
P.S.: Shout-out to Christopher Mims for the idea.
“Shears and scissors are not novel, nor can they be classed among the inventions of later centuries. They have been used from time immemorial, and ancient mythology informs us of their existence by tradition.”
— A passage from the September 1886 edition of The American Mail and Export Journal, discussing the history of scissors. The origin of the scissor is believed to be during the Bronze Age, with examples dating back more than 3,000 years. (The 1886 piece suggests that scissors were found in Egyptian tombs, but then again, it’s 1886.) These scissors tended to be of a single piece, and were connected by a flexible piece of bronze—effectively, a spring. The more modern form of scissors, made of two pieces and connected by a screw or similar device, were reportedly first used in ancient Rome, China, Japan, and Korea.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony might have set sail thanks to ship christenings
Looking up information about the origins of the ribbon-cutting ceremony is less like a ribbon and more like a thread, really.
Most commonly, it’s implied that the first ribbon-cutting ceremony involved a Louisiana rail line in the late 19th century, but information is incredibly scarce on this—just one webpage on the entire internet appears to come close to anything looking like a primary source. Nothing against the fine folks of Union Parish, Louisiana, but I didn’t feel like that was enough to go by.
So, I kept digging, like that time I tried to source the origins of the fingernail clipper.
Now, as close readers of Tedium might have figured out by this point, I do a lot of digging in resources that are either public or commercially available, such as Newspapers.com, the archives of magazines like Time and newspapers like The New York Times, and the Internet Archive. And I think that I’ve never had a harder time finding the origin of an idea as I have the ribbon cutting ceremony. It’s something that it feels like we’ve done forever, but it’s only a relatively recent phenomenon.
But here’s what I think happened. If there’s more evidence out there, I’d love to hear it.
The earliest examples of ribbon-cutting ceremonies I can find are in relation to boat or dock christenings, around the late 19th century in the United Kingdom. These christening ceremonies, which generally involved the smashing of wine bottles against the ship and at times involved ribbon, but not necessarily the cutting of said ribbon, as highlighted in a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s English Notebooks, in which the bottle was simply thrown. Christening ceremonies go back far longer than ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but the wine bottle smashing only became a thing about a century before.
One particularly notable early incident involving the cutting of a ribbon, involving Alexandra of Denmark, then the Princess of Wales, involved the opening of Alexandra Dock in Liverpool. An 1881 article in The Morning Post described the all-important ribbon-cutting part of the ceremony as such:
The chairman of the Dock Board, Mr. T.D. Hornby, presented to the Princess a parasol, the handle of which, of gold richly studded with jewels, was found to screw off and to disclose a sharp steel blade. With this, her Highness severed an ornamental ribbon, and forthwith a weight fell upon and broke in pieces a bottle of wine as the Princess uttered these words: “I name this dock the Alexandra Dock.”
(Not to be missed: A parasol is another name for an umbrella, so she cut the ribbon using a blade hidden inside an umbrella. That sounds like some James Bond-type stuff right there.)
A less successful ribbon-cutting attempt from that year involved the launch of a steamship in Barrow-In-Furness. According to The Leeds Mercury, the ribbon-cutting was just about to occur around 11 a.m. that fateful day, with Lady Constance Stanley about to do the honors of trimming the blue ribbon with a pair of scissors, when a loud explosion was heard. The incident, a boiler room explosion, killed three men, but shockingly, that was not enough to stop the ship christening from taking place. Too much was riding on the ship’s departure—specifically, the tide—to hold it up much longer.
At noon, Lady Stanley went to the ship, cut the ribbon, broke the champagne bottle on the side of it, and named the ship “City of Rome.” (Fortunately, the bottle broke. It would have been bad news if the bottle hadn’t.)
As should be made clear from these maritime anecdotes, ribbon cuttings were, from the start, dedicated to large events that required the work of lots of people, and often prominent people to do the honors of cutting those ribbons. New buildings are a great example of things that often invite a ribbon-cutting ceremony; bridges, even better. One thing appears to be clear, at least in terms of how we consider it today: The phenomenon of ribbon cuttings was nonexistent before the late 19th century, and barely on the radar during the early 20th century.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony in Seattle, dating to 1956. Yes, it was a bridge opening. (Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr)
Another example she highlighted was the story of Eileen Foley, the New Hampshire politician who cut the ribbon on the state’s Memorial Bridge when she was just five years old. In 2013, at the age of 95, Foley had the chance to do it again when a new version of the bridge was put into place.
There’s something of value to these ceremonies, and the way the blades of the scissors cut through the fabric of the ribbons, no matter how comical or offbeat these events can seem at times.
Whether at the end of a long road or the beginning of a fresh start, the cutting of a ribbon may be the best tool society has to reflect on its many feats.
Thank you to Ernie Smith for contributing this article to Golden Openings. Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who’s funnier than he is.