Filing systems that failed

I’m currently reading the book Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management by JoAnne Yates. The book is dense, dry, and would be unfathomably boring to 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Just looking at its cover makes my husband yawn.

Seeing as I’m an odd duck, however, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the second chapter of the text, “Communication Technology and the Growth of Internal Communication.” The title of the chapter is extremely misleading, and if I were Ms. Yates I would have named it “All of the Failures that Led to Vertical Files.”

Page after page are examples of filing systems that companies tried to employ during the 19th century that were downright awful. I’ve garnered so much enjoyment out of the chapter that I thought I would share with you two of the more interesting mishaps:

The Wooten Desk

According to Yates, the Wooten Desk was patented in 1874 and was an “elaborate cabinet” with “locking, swing-out cases containing pigeonholes and drawers of various sizes and shapes.” When correspondence would come into a business, the owner of the desk would keep the letter in its envelope and stuff it into one of the pigeonholes. Letters were usually arranged by oldest to newest, and each letter had to be found, reopened, unfolded, refolded, and put back into its hole if it needed to be referenced. Pigeonholes were usually assigned by individuals, and were limited to the exact size of the cubby. When letters were retired, they were often tied together with a ribbon and tossed into a box for archival storage. The whole system was a massive failure because a business owner usually had more need for pigeonholes than any desk could provide, wasted endless amount of time searching for correspondence because letters had to be reopened to be referenced, and there was no way to introduce any new information into the system because the pigeonholes were carved wood and couldn’t be rearranged.

Shannon Sectional Cabinet

By the 1900s, the Wooten Desk was out and the Shannon Sectional Cabinet was all the rage. Similar to the desk with many pigeonholes, this was a stand-alone cabinet that allowed for correspondence to be stored flat. Some people chose to file the correspondence alphabetically and used tabs, while others stuck with the chronological method. The system also failed. Yates notes that “retrieval of documents was still slow and laborious (though faster than with folded documents in pigeonholes), and rearrangement, while possible, was not easy. To locate correspondence in an opened box file or a horizontal cabinet file, all the correspondence on top of the item sought had to be lifted up. Since the alphabetically or numerically designated drawers in horizontal cabinet files filled up at different rates, correspondence was transferred out of active files into back-up storage at different rates as well. And the drawers could not be allowed to get too full, since then papers would catch and tear as the drawers were opened.”

Thankfully, the vertical filing system rose to popularity and became the standard filing technique by 1911. There have been many systems of vertical filing since that date, but the general concept of vertically arranged papers has remained the most efficient method of physical paper storage since its invention in 1893.

14 Comments for “Filing systems that failed”

  1. posted by Peter on

    Thank God for the being able to live in the age of the Computer!!!

  2. posted by Zach on

    Makes me want to take a look at Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”, from 1945…


  3. posted by Tom on

    Interesting article. Thought I’d take a look at the Wooten desk on Google Patent search. The drawing of it is here:

    But before I found the original patent I found a patent of a “modern” version of the Wooten desk. I think I like the original better.

  4. posted by Cubicle Hacker on

    Nowadays we find ourselves trying to organize our electronic filing systems; internet explorer anyone? Files, folders, and subdirectories with redundant docs, excel spreadsheets and images.

    To organize my electronic file I use a pretagging system combined with project oriented approach. This is; pretagging files such as rsm_something.doc, or pps_something.doc. In this previous example I pretag resume related documents with rsm_ . In the same fashion I pretag project proposals with pps_ .

    The second approach is to never create a document unless I can assign it to a project that I’m currently taking action on. If there is information I find valuable I digg it or completely forget about it. Yes!, forget about information you are not going to use right away. You can always find it later with the power of google.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tom — The “modern” desk you link to reminds me of the desk Hugh Jackman uses in the film _Swordfish_. Great link!

  6. posted by Cindy Marsch on

    The office in the photo is so beautiful, though….:-)

  7. posted by Heather on

    My maiden name is Wooten, so you could say I have a connection to pigeon holes! Haha. Seriously though, wouldn’t this desk be kind of awesome for scrapbooking?

  8. posted by lana on

    This article perfectly illustrates why so many so-called “organizational systems”, office furniture, and all-in-one products fail: the person (or company) who designs the system is utterly clueless about the needs of the person who will be using it.

  9. posted by Lori on

    I think I might kill for one of those sectional cabinets for organizing my art supplies…

  10. posted by Marina Martin on

    I have a sneaky suspicion I am also “odd duck” enough to really enjoy that book. Thanks for bringing it up!

    That said, any filing system that’s paper-based today is still a failure. You can’t search it. Since buying my ScanSnap S510M, I can’t even fathom going back to manila folders ever again.

  11. posted by Rae on

    Great article, Erin. Thanks!
    I’ll have to kindly disagree with the broad, sweeping generalization that any paper-based filing system is a failure. It depends greatly on the system as well as those (or the one) who is keeping it up.

  12. posted by Kathleen on

    Would dearly love the Sectional Cabinet for my craft room.

  13. posted by The Great Filing System Debate: Why Mine Sucks And How I Want To Change It. Plus, What Is Your Filing System Setup? - Practical advice on personal development, productivity and GTD on

    […] my last two posts I’ve repeatedly used my filing system as an example of productivity (epic) failure. As the end of the year is coming up I thought now would be a good time to shake things up a […]

  14. posted by Maryann on

    I must admit that I think this Wooten Desk is absolutely beautiful (& would solve a lot of my home office clutter problems…)

    And here is a visual of the filing systems that Erin describes above:

    I had a temp job in the 80’s in a file room. They had a sliding seat on a “beam” and another long beam with alphabetical slots . You straddled the beam and moved up and back with your stack of papers and sorted them accordingly. And you used a Rubber Thumb. 🙂

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