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:
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.
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.