The History of the Roach Clip Explained

roach clip

Cannabis use amongst both Millennials and Baby-Boomers is markedly high, opening up opportunities for a generational bond through mutual interests. And while any eager Millennial may be able to educate their elders on newer cannabis technology such as, Vape-Pens, Dabs, or Blunts, it is possible that a more seasoned smoker might have a couple of low-tech tricks up their sleeve too.

Whether we are talking about an alligator clip with a feather from the 80s or a surgical hemostat, this joint smoking tool has been independently 'invented' out of necessity dozens of times. So, open up that stash-box, because we're diving into the history of roach clips

Common Slang for a Roach Clip

"Roach clip" is the unofficial name for any tool that helps you smoke and pass a small joint/blunt. The consensus definition is pretty well summed up by the Online Slang Dictionary:

  • A device used to hold a roach (end of the joint) so it doesn’t burn your fingers such as an alligator clip or hemostat.
  • Any device that can be used to hold a marijuana cigarette when it gets too short to hold. For example, in Scary Movie Shorty uses jumper cables to hold his blunt.

While there is a consensus about what a roach clip is, there are at least two conflicting origins into the term 'roach.'

Roach or La Cucaracha?

Some historians think that the origin for the term 'roach' goes back to 19th century Mexico.

In his book, Cannabis: A History, Martin Booth claims that the term 'roach' comes from the Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha” (The Cockroach), which tells the story of one of Pancho Villa’s foot soldiers, who were colloquially known as “cockroaches” and who smoked marijuana to relax and to prepare for battle. Here is a sample verse (in English):

The cockroach, the cockroach
Now he cannot walk
Because he don’t, because he don’t
Have marijuana to smoke.

The Jazz Connection

The first written use of 'roach' to mean 'partially smoked joint' was in a 1938 New Yorker Magazine article about marijuana smokers in the Jazz clubs of Harlem.

In this telling, 'a roach' was so named because of the resemblance a mostly-smoked joint has to a cockroach. Small, brown/black, difficult to handle, and common in the city; there are similarities between the two.

This cockroach connotation is bolstered by a self-described "Beatnik from the early 60s," on The Straight Dope Message Board who recollected, "Joints that had been smoked down were often allowed to go out, then were put behind the matches in a book of paper matches."

The beatnik goes on to write, "Roaches, the bugs, hide behind stuff like calendars and if you smack the calendar, you flatten some bugs. When you took the butt out from behind the matches, it looked a lot like the flattened bug."

From Matchbooks to Bobby Pins

In 1973, sardonic and humorous author Charles Willeford wrote an article titled The Ubiquitous Roach Clip. In it, Willeford talks about the evolution of devices used as roach clips. "Initially, a bent paper match in the form a "V" was a hasty field expedient, which was quickly followed by the split wooden match. These crude implements did the job, perfunctorily, but they were not quite satisfactory."

"The bobby pin was much better, a natural development as women were drawn inevitably into the weed culture. With one flat interior side, and one bumpy side, the bobby pin was an evolutionary milestone and a far better roach clip than the ordinary office paper clip."

Function Meet Fashion

Willeford noted how the cultural movements of the Beatniks and Hippies pushed the limits of design for roach clips. "In a relatively short period, beginning in the early 1960s, the roach clip has metamorphosed from a split match to the swirling curves and curvatures of Baroque and Art Nouveau."

It was in this time-period that (future) unconventional furniture maker, Gary Knox Bennett, used his art education to start a hugely successful Roach Clip Business in San Francisco. In the early 60s, Bennett used mass-produced parts to make custom decorative roach clips for the Haight/Ashbury crowd, today Bennett is called 'the Hunter S. Thompson of Woodworking.'

When Charles Willeford wrote The Ubiquitous Roach Clip in 1973, he thought that roach clips had reached their final form. "Today's roach clip, beautiful, bejeweled and Baroque, is an eclectic design taking the best features of the bobby pin and the paper clip. Indeed, the 1973 roach clip is a beautiful thing to behold (especially if one is holding)."

Alligators with Feathers

By the 1980s, most roach clips had stopped being gaudy hand-made wire contraptions that resembled tweezers and mass-produced alligator clips began to take over.

Originally used for electronics, alligator clips with colorful feathers attached by a leather cord became a common prize at traveling carnivals in the 80s. These fashionable hair-clips would often be worn by school-age girls who were unaware of their cannabis smoking connection and later stolen by older brothers to pass joints.

Turn up the Hemostat

Around the same time that the alligator clip was rising to prominence, some sophisticated smokers had stepped-up their game by using surgical hemostats to pass their joints around.

A hemostat is a long scissor-like, locking clamp with a narrow tip. These pieces of medical equipment come in a variety of lengths and sizes to suit the needs of even larger joints and blunts.

Final Drags

Alligator clips and hemostats are still the most common versions of roach clips that can be found today, although there are a few roach clips that are similar to what Gary Knox Bennet was doing in the 60s on eBay.

There really is no shortage of artistic expression in today's roach clip market, my personal favorite is a pewter Bigfoot roach clip that I found on Etsy.

Now you know the history of roach clips, if a Baby-Boomer ever quizzes you about 'grass' or if you want to show a Millennial a trick or two.