The Glue That Holds Us Together




Early in grade school, I was solemnly initiated into the ritual. Elmer’s glue had to be smeared all over one’s finger, the inside of the wrist, or possibly the whole hand, then allowed to dry—blowing on it was permitted—and slowly, deliciously, peeled off. This even topped peeling sunburned skin, because that ended up in wet shreds. The Elmer’s often came off in big translucent pieces.

Later I learned decoupage and spent hours cutting out vines and flowers and butterflies to glue onto little wooden boxes with Mod Podge. (How I loved that name—in the seventies.) After many coats, the raised edges vanished, and the boxes looked handpainted, a trick that should have shamed me. But these innocent, primitive deepfakes made fabulous Mother’s Day gifts.

Glue was magic, I now knew. Rubber cement was perhaps its finest form, with the little brush attached to the lid and amber blobs you could roll into balls as they dried. Gooey, effective, intoxicating—far more satisfying all round than the thin stuff my grandmother called mucilage. Disgusting word, its first definition “a viscous secretion or bodily fluid.”

In practical adulthood, I graduated to epoxy, mixing from the two tubes like a DIY alchemist. Nearly always, I wound up grafting bits of my skin to the project. I switched to superglue, its efficacy almost frightening. What was this stuff?

First sold in 1958, superglue has a cyanoacrylate base, which reminds me of cyanide and spies. Water turns the stuff into a long, strong chain. It does not adhere well to smooth surfaces (you can sand it off your skin), but vets love supergluing broken bones and tortoise shells.

I try to imagine how cool it was, 200,000 years ago, when somebody first realized a sticky sap or resin could fasten things together. Or 5,000 years ago, when they mixed glue with paint to make it stick to cave walls, so future audiences (us) would still be able to see those iron-red horses and black stick warriors.

The tricky part came around 5200 BCE, when somebody heated birch bark over a fire and made a tarry adhesive. Who knew that would work? Just bored one night and messing around? It took another thousand years plus for anyone to boil animal carcasses, a weirder process yet, melting bones, hides, and connective tissue into formidable glue. You can find its traces in King Tut’s casket, and he also would have used it as hair gel. It is not so different from Dippity-Do.

Ancient Greeks and Romans used animal glues for shipbuilding (I would not trust Elmer’s that far) as well as woodworking and their shattered, brilliant mosaics. Gentle medieval monks bound their books with glue made from egg whites, but in the Renaissance, bookbinders outdid Beatrix Potter, lavishly brushing on rabbit skin glue. Renaissance artists primed their canvases with it. Animal glue was also used in furniture making, marquetry and other decorative arts, and musical instruments, the luthiers affixing and French-lacquering, with hypnotic patience, their glossy violins.

People kept boiling dead animals until the twentieth century. Unless the bunnies, and the horses dispatched to the glue factory, were killed for their glue, I suppose I should not mind. Creative re-use; waste nothing. But who wants their indulged corpse boiled up to stick some kid’s construction paper together?

On second thought, I might. That strikes me as a delightful use. Still, glue is the odd case where I find the synthetic preferable. And I call it real progress that we have moved from exploiting animals to imitating them. Scientists are studying barnacle cement, which manages to have formidable adhesive power underwater. Thanks to biomimicry, researchers managed to seal a blood vessel in ten seconds.

Good old Elmer’s could never do that. Originally named Cascorez Glue (who knows why), it is humbler stuff. Developed by Borden’s chemists in 1947, the original formula contained casein, the protein that makes milk white. Adorably, Elmer’s came in a little glass jar with wooden sticks, like popsicle sticks, attached with a rubber band. And who was Elmer? The bull in the Borden ads, consort of Elsie the cow.

Cascorez is now the name of a urea formaldehyde adhesive, and I would rather not think about that. What does interest me is glue as metaphor. We admire sticktoitiveness and adherence to the law, and we define logic as “the glue that holds inner worlds together.” My favorite use came from a fumbled interview question to a couple who had been married sixty years. “What’s the glue?” I blurted, knowing every relationship works in a different way. “What holds you two together?”

Maybe polyamory is trending because people do not want to feel stuck, affixed, glued to one spot, unable to move or look around. But I like being glued. The Perplexity AI sums up metaphorical uses of “glue” for me by saying it “often represents an unseen yet binding force that connects disparate elements into a coherent whole.” Which is exactly what a good marriage does.

And when there are cracks? You add more glue and borrow the Japanese technique of kintsugi, painting the seams with gold.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.