Another Day at the Office: How the Filing Cabinet Facilitated the Growth of Corporate Bureaucracies

By Michael Feagan

Historians of technology have a tendency to focus on big and innovative technologies, such as the locomotive, the steam engine, the printing press, or the aeroplane. Technologies that have been with us for longer or are used by people every day often get overlooked. Historian David Edgerton calls such a focus on everyday technologies use-centered history. Some central themes of use-based history of technology is that alternative technology always exists, it looks at global spaces that aren’t the traditional centres of innovation, and it examines the technologies of the poor far more than the rich.[1] As Edgerton writes, “History is changed when we put into it the technology that counts: not only the famous spectacular technologies but the low and ubiquitous ones. The historical study of things in use, and the uses of things, matter.”[2] In that spirit, let us turn to one of the most mundane and unremarked forms of technology that have been with us a long time: filing cabinets.

Let us begin by looking at some of the alternatives to the familiar filing cabinet. During the mid-nineteenth century, the storage method of choice for correspondences and loose papers were pigeonholes. Due to increasing industrialization, by the 1860s and 1870s, the amount of correspondences within and between firms began to exceed the capacity of most office pigeonholes. Several alternatives were offered to solve this problem before vertical filing became ubiquitous in the 1890s. The first alternative was simply expanding pigeonholes into large cabinet-like desks, with the Wooton Patent Desks of the 1870s being one of the most elaborate (see Figure 1.)[3] Flat filing was the more successful alternative method during the late nineteenth century. The most common form of flat filing used box files or letter boxes to store loose and unbounded documents. These documents were often arranged alphabetically or by another means appropriate to the business. Typically, box or letter filing consisted of “a box, its cover opening like a book, with twenty-five or twenty-six pages or pieces of manila paper, tabbed with the letters of the alphabet and fastened into the box at one side, the papers being filed between these sheets.”[4] You can see an example of box filing in Figure 2.

Figure 1: Wooton Desk Manufacturing Company, The desk of the age! : the Wooton patent cabinet office secretary, Advertising circular, ca. 1880. TC_08064109, Trade catalogs and pamphlets, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807.


Figure 2: Catalogue and Price List, Lucas Brothers Inc., ca. 1912. Hagley Museum and Library.

Around 1868, cabinet flat files, the predecessor to vertical filing and modern filing cabinets, were introduced. These storage devices were simple wooden cabinets with drawers of the same dimensions as letter boxes (see Figure 3.) What made them unique was that they allowed for the storage of box files lying horizontally flat, as opposed to the more common storage method of standing box files on the edge of a shelf vertically (as seen in the vertical box file in Figure 2.) Cabinet flat files had numerous advantages over pigeonholes or shelves of letter boxes. They could be more easily expanded upon, organized, and rearranged. By the 1870s cabinet flat files were the modern form of office equipment.[5]

Figure 3: Catalogue, Yawman and Erbe Manufacturing Co., 1910. Hagley Museum and Library.

However, cabinets containing box files were not without problems. Retrieval of documents was still slow and, while rearrangement of files was possible, it was not easy. To locate a document in a box file or a cabinet file, all the papers on top of the desired file had to be lifted up to pull out the document one wanted. Because files had to be lifted up, the drawers of cabinet files could never get too full as it would make retrieval of documents on the bottom impossible and would risk tearing paper when opening the drawer or retrieving a document. Since letter boxes had their own alphabetical filing, which would fill up at different rates, expansion required a whole new letter box with a new set of alphabetical series. Looking for a specific file often meant taking multiple letter boxes out of a cabinet or down from a shelf and searching through them. This could be an overwhelming and difficult process, as shown by Figure 4. These problems also became more evident in the 1880s and 1890s when the amount of business correspondences grew again due to external changes (proliferation of technologies such as railroads, telegraphs, and typewriters) and internal changes (expanding business hierarchies, departments, and systemic management).

Figure 4: Catalogue for Yawman and Erbe, “Rapid Roller Letter Copier,” 1905. Hagley Museum and Library.

Vertical filing originated from libraries’ use of the Dewey Decimal System, first introduced in 1876. Dewey’s business, the Library Bureau, introduced the equipment for vertical filing for businesses in 1892, and by 1911, vertical filing surpassed all other filing systems for businesses.[6] Vertical filing systems, in which documents were filed on their edges in folders, made documents easier to arrange and retrieve (see Figure 5.) Folders allowed files to be grouped and easily removed, and removable dividers allowed files to be rearranged and expanded upon much easier than flat filing cabinets. The added storage space helped businesses cope with the growing amounts of written correspondences and documents being produced in the 1890s and early-twentieth century. Vertical filing cabinets also changed the way businesses organized information. The previous filing systems discussed were primarily used by businesses for organizing incoming correspondences and documents. Outgoing documents were organized into press books, thinly paged books that a press could be applied to in order to copy the fresh ink onto every page. Press books were the primary way of organizing outgoing paper communications until the 1890s when technologies like vertical filing, carbon paper, and the typewriter allowed businesses to merge incoming, outgoing, and internal communications into one system. This required new ways of organizing all these files. Numerical, alphabetical, geographic, and subject-based decimal filing adapted from the Dewey Decimal Classification, were all in use throughout the early-twentieth century.[7]

The history of filing systems demonstrates the importance of understanding more mundane technologies, like filing cabinets. Exploring the history of vertical filing offers more grounded and use-based explanations to how the operation and expansion of corporate and government bureaucracies increased in the twentieth century.

Figure 5: Alphabetically organized vertical files with the requisite equipment. Catalogue, Hoskins Office, Outfitters, Philadelphia, ca. 1912. Hagley Museum and Library.


[1] David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile Books, 2006), xii-xiv.

[2] Edgerton, 212.

[3] JoAnne Yates, Control through Communication the Rise of System in American Management, Studies in Industry and Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 29-31.

[4] Yates, 33.

[5] Yates, 34.

[6] Yates, 56-57.

[7] Yates, 57-59.

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