The Secret History of Filing Cabinets

Roundup
tags: Filing Cabinets



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Vox has a nice article about the origins of the business cubicle, which includes a discussion of filing cabinets – which is fine as far as it goes. But there is actually quite a lot more to say, as you’d know if you’d read a wonderful book (with a rather drab title), Control Through Communication, written by my friend JoAnne Yates of MIT’s Sloan School.

JoAnne’s book – which her husband calls “history of the memo” – is about the coevolution of information technology and the business world before the digital age. Of course, back then people didn’t talk about information technology – but IT did exist, indeed developed in fundamental ways, and changed everything. And filing cabinets are a window into those changes.

By the way, this is from memory – I don’t have a copy of the book to hand. So sorry, JoAnne, if I screw up slightly!

Organizations have always needed a record of their communications. No doubt ancient Roman merchants had slaves making copies of letters, the way Tom Standage (in another great book) tells us aristocrats did, turning senatorial correspondence into a form of proto-Facebook. Much later, JoAnne tells us, some businesses used a pretty amazing system: outgoing letters would be dampened, placed between the pages of a big book, and squeezed with a screw press to create a sort of reprint.

Then came a revolution: carbon paper! Or actually carbon paper plus typewriters. Suddenly, everything was in triplicate, and keeping a record of all correspondence became easy.

The next question, however, was how to find the relevant correspondence. When damp letters and screw presses were the limits of technology, there was no choice: a chronological record, to flip through when needed, was it. Carbons offered new possibilities: copies could be filed by subject instead or as well. But how should they be filed?

Boxes or drawers were one possibility, but they still involved a lot of shuffling, and relevant letters could easily be overlooked. The answer? The vertical file, with a tab indicating the contents of each folder.

To complete the revolution, however, you needed a behavioral change. Previously, businessmen wrote letters, narratives that might touch on multiple subjects. With the coming of the filing cabinet, however, they had to be disciplined to write each individual document on one and only one subject, so that it could be filed properly. The memo was born.

I love this story on multiple levels. For one thing, I always love reminders that many of the technologies that made the modern world were humble and inconspicuous – one of the great things about Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans vol. 3 is its account of things like the invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag. Beyond that, it’s an unusual illustration of Paul David’s famous insight that technologies don’t really yield their full economic payoff until business is reorganized to make use of their potential – which is why productivity may not take off until decades after the big innovations have taken place.

So, great stuff. However, cubicles are still horrible.




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