The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.
The filing cabinet is a milestone in the history of storage.
I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” 1 The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets. 2
The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage.
It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” 3 The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment. In countless movies and television shows, one or more filing cabinets line the walls of newsrooms and advertising agencies or the offices of doctors, attorneys, private eyes, police inspectors. Their appearance defines a space as an office but rarely draws attention to the work it does in that office. Occasionally, the neatness or disorder of a filing cabinet gives us an insight into the mental state and work habits of the office’s occupant. Sometimes, the filing cabinet plays a small but vital role in dystopian critiques of bureaucracy.
The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information.
But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. 4 But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. 5 Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored. 6
The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork.
To underscore their modernity, filing cabinets were called ‘equipment,’ ‘appliances,’ and ‘machines’ — not furniture.
How does a filing cabinet do this work? According to patents, the early manufacturers drew on techniques and practices from cabinetry and metalwork in new and useful ways. In a typical patent, a filing cabinet is a collection of steel plates, rollers, slides, walls, ball bearings, rods, flanges, corner posts, channels, grooves, locks, tops, bottoms, sides, arms, legs, and tongues. All these parts were variously combined to create a cabinet that would allow a drawer to open and close even when it was full of paper that might weigh upwards of 75 pounds. The thousands of sheets of paper that manufacturers claimed could fit in a file drawer were organized using guide cards and manila folders, both accented with tabs. Not only did these features help paper stand vertically on edge; more important, they also made visible the organization of the papers. Early user manuals quickly identified the key principle of vertical filing: “the filing of papers on edge, behind guides, bringing together all papers, to, from, or about one correspondent or subject.” 7 Papers stored this way were easy to locate and to access and, as such, essential to the functioning of a modern, healthy office. As the authors of a secretarial textbook from the mid 1920s put it: “The flat file permits the use of but one hand, while with the vertical file both hands are used, thus increasing speed. That is, papers filed vertically are accessible, compact, and sanitary.” 8
The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. 9 Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.
In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. 10 But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. 11 To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. 12 And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office.
But if the 20th-century workspace was modern, its innovations did not extend to gender roles; from its early arrival in offices, the filing cabinet reflected and reinforced the gendered division between manual work and mental work, or women’s work and men’s work. In the 20th-century office, female file clerks were expected to handle papers, but not to understand their contents; in contrast, it was male managers and executives who read the files, performing jobs that purportedly required thought.
In the 20th-century office, female file clerks were expected to handle papers — but not to understand their contents.
An advertising campaign from Shaw-Walker, one of the early manufacturers of filing cabinets, highlights this pervasive distinction. 13 The campaign, called “Built Like a Skyscraper,” depicted a series of physical encounters between male and female bodies and the company’s filing cabinets in order to emphasize various aspects of the “essentials of office equipment”: strength, rigidity, easy operation, noiselessness, economy of floor space, maximum capacity, and good design. In one advertisement, we see an illustration of a man in a suit jumping into an open filing cabinet drawer; in the background there is a sketch of the Woolworth Building in New York, then the tallest skyscraper in the world. This image shows the steel frame atop the building: a filing cabinet constructed “like a skyscraper” would thus be strong enough to support the weight of drawers packed with paper.
In addition to jumping into open drawers, men were depicted lifting their bodies off the ground and hanging from open drawers (what the catalog called “handstands”) — images that signified the “rigidity” of the drawers. In contrast, the campaign used a female body to show how easy it was to open and close a full file drawer: a drawing (“based on an actual photograph”) showed a girl opening a fully loaded file drawer by pulling on a silk thread. The decision to use a young girl rather than an adult female is notable: it clarified that anyone could operate a filing cabinet. And if anyone could file — if filing required only the strength of a girl — then only women should file; in turn men would be free to do work that women could not do.
The “Built Like a Skyscraper” campaign was not subtle. It does not take much for 21st-century scholars armed with theories of gender representation to argue that the advertisements reflected male anxieties about the arrival of female workers in offices. The phallic skyscraper, the unsheathed tip of the Woolworth Building, the rigid and erect athletic male body — all sought to make explicit the masculinity of the men who worked in offices; such masculinity was not to be questioned, including that of the men at higher levels in the office hierarchy, who “thought” their way through the day.
The filing cabinet encouraged the drive to break more and more of modern life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.
As the response to the problem of storing paper and information, the filing cabinet thus emphasizes distinctive material affordances and economic and cultural priorities. These include efficiency, exploitation of gendered labor, anxiety over information loss, and what I have come to call granular certainty, or the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts. This drive is evident in the immediate context in which the filing cabinet emerged: the project of scientific management, the manufacture of interchangeable parts, occupational specialization and professionalization, and the logic of bureaucracy as described by Max Weber, who emphasized clearly defined domains of authority while briefly noting the importance of the file. 14 Significantly, these affordances and power dynamics continue to exist in the “files,” “folders,” “tabs,” and “desktops” that we use today to interact with digital information and data.
The affordances of the filing cabinet as an information technology have produced new relationships between power and epistemology. 15 The distinct concepts of storage, filing, information, and efficiency have been activated in certain institutional settings to establish social dynamics and relationships, especially those of gender and labor. In this light there are two crucial and overlapping points: first, the filing cabinet illuminates an important moment in the genealogy of information; and second, the filing cabinet belongs to the material history of efficiency. Indeed, the vertical filing cabinet brings to the fore a commitment to particularization that shaped the use and conception of information at the beginning of the 20th century.
The filing cabinet contributed to the rise of a popular nontechnical understanding of information as something discrete and specific. Critically, it illustrates the moment in which information gained an identity separate from knowledge, an instrumental identity critical to its accessibility. In its separation from knowledge, information was granted authority based on a set of ideas and practices that limited interpretation; in contrast, a subject, someone who “knows” underwrites the authority of knowledge. 16 In turn this moment in the genealogy of information is tied to broader social and economic forces that made efficiency — “saving time” — one of the defining problems of modern life. In this historical period, filing technology provided a conceptual gateway for understanding information as a thing that could be standardized, atomized, and stripped of context — information as a universal and impersonal quantity. While this conception did not begin or end with the filing cabinet, the file became a common way of making this information comprehensible, as it continues to do in the present with the information and data encountered through digital technology.
In Burlington, Vermont, on a weedy lot owned by the city, there stands a stack of eleven metal file cabinets slightly more than 40 feet high. 17 Constructed in 2002, the stack contains 38 drawers; eight are partially open. The travel website Roadside America has named the installation “The World’s Tallest File Cabinet.” Its creator, Bren Alvarez, a local architect and gallery owner, has titled it “File Under So. Co., Waiting for…” Back then Alvarez’s intention was to symbolize — and satirize — “the bureaucracy of urban planning.” The 38 file drawers represented the 38 years that a local road project — then called the “Southern Connector” — had been under review.
Alvarez got the file cabinets from a local business that was discarding them. Some were vintage, with brass nameplates and handles on the outside and springs and levers on the inside. 18 Alvarez welded the cabinets together and used an interior steel post to position them in the middle of the path of the proposed roadway; were the Southern Connector ever built, they would have to be removed. Almost two decades later they remain in place, the road project still under discussion — still “waiting for…”
The 38 file drawers represented the 38 years that a local road project had been under bureaucratic review.
The sculpture has become a landmark, its image printed on T-shirts and shared widely online. In 2019, a group of state university students and recent graduates organized a “worship” service at the base of the cabinets; attendees confessed their “sins of disorganization” and had their foreheads anointed with correction fluid. But that year also saw the Burlington City Council finally approve a design and construction budget for the road project, now called the Champlain Parkway; as the mayor declared, “The time for debate, amendment, and appeal has long passed.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, state and federal agencies once again delayed the project. Meanwhile Alvarez scouted a new location for the tower on a friend’s property; when she took her relocation plan to the city council office, she learned that because of the height of the sculpture she had to apply for zoning variances. As of this writing, Alvarez is still waiting for approval while officials attempt to determine if “The World’s Tallest File Cabinet” is too tall for its new location. 19
No longer an exemplar of productivity and speed, the file cabinet now embodies the facility of bureaucracies to produce paper, to delay, to leave us waiting.
Alvarez’s installation succeeds as satire because now, in the early 21st century, the file cabinet is associated with inefficiency. No longer an exemplar of productivity, rationalization, and speed, it instead represents our collective failure to save time and optimize labor. A file cabinet’s storage capacity now embodies the facility of bureaucracies — impersonal and procedure-oriented — to produce paper, to delay, to leave us waiting. As the cultural historian Ben Kafka argues, bureaucracy now functions as an all too handy explanation for why people cannot get what they want; it is “the story,” he writes, “of how paperwork, even when it works, fails us.” 20 Today a cabinet jam-packed with files symbolizes the particular anxiety that is provoked by our awareness that paper records can create an alternative paper-based reality to which officials reflexively defer. 21
The file cabinet remains an icon, its meaning and symbolism reversed, because it remains operational. If, for example, you work for the federal government and you want to get paid in retirement, your paperwork must be processed, by hand, by an employee of the Office of Personnel Management whose workspace is located deep underground in a former limestone mine in northwest Pennsylvania. There your employee records will be located in one of 28,000 (and counting) file cabinets. Today these paper documents are so precious (and combustible) that hot meals (including pizza) are delivered daily to the site’s 600 workers because open flames and toaster ovens are banned in the lunchroom. Aboveground, the excess that constitutes bureaucracy-as-paperwork is no less weighty. Several years ago, at a regional office of the Veterans Benefits Administration in North Carolina, the cumulative weight of file cabinets and paperwork threatened the structural integrity of the six-story building. In this case, the backlog of claims was so great that there were some 37,000 files stacked two-feet high atop the cabinets. 22
Beyond governmental bureaucracies, the failure of file cabinets to contain paper pose a different problem for a different set of office workers. Back in the 1970s and ’80s — just before the rise of personal computing — piles of paper on the desks of managers and executives became the main way to signify the new phenomenon of “information overload” — a popular uptake of a concept that had emerged from social psychology and systems theory. In those years, according to media scholar Nick Levine, a desktop piled high with paper epitomized “the stressed-out white collar worker overwhelmed by paper and his or her contradictory expectations to be at once a creative decision-maker and an information processor. 23 The transition from the file to the pile was part of a deeper change in workplace hierarchies, as anxious executives were forced to confront the “information processing” that had long been coded as clerical — i.e., women’s work. The arrival of the desktop computer accelerated this change. Initially promoted as a kind of personal assistant, the proliferation of computers meant that many high-level white-collar workers no longer had somebody else to do their clerical chores.
At the same time, piles of paper on a desktop, if kept to a manageable height, could also be understood as exemplary information management practice. In the 1980s and ’90s, organizational researchers argued that a well-kept pile was a more efficient way to store and process information than a file cabinet. It allowed a worker to find a document simply by glancing at the edge of the pile, and noting whether the pile was organized by color or thickness, or whether the most urgent projects were on top; or it provided a place to store ideas that could not be easily categorized or that seemed important but had no immediate application. Some pile-keepers were motivated too by a dislike of formal classification found in a file cabinet. In the early 1990s, a team of researchers who interviewed workers at Apple concluded, “Piling requires less mental effort.” 24
Almost from the start, the user interface of the digital ‘desktop’ featured icons that represented files as paper documents stored in tabbed folders.
The focus on Apple employees was timely and appropriate. In those years research into the use and organization of physical desktops was to a large extent a response to the appearance, on computer screens, of icons symbolizing paper documents, manila folders, and file cabinets — an attempt to improve or replace the “desktop metaphor.” 25 In 1984, Apple supercharged the metaphor with the launch of the successful and influential Macintosh, in which the “desktop” organized a user interface that featured icons representing files as paper documents stored in tabbed folders or discarded in a wastepaper basket. 26
Apple was hardly alone in adopting the desktop metaphor. In 1983, Commodore International introduced a ROM cartridge called Magic Desk I for its Commodore 64, one of the early and relatively affordable home computers. Magic Desk extended the metaphor to create a more detailed desktop than anything Apple would ever offer. The computer user was given a desk with drawers and a typewriter, calculator, telephone, account book, and Rolodex. Next to the desk was a three-drawer file cabinet with a clock on top of it. Most of the icons were merely for show; only the clock, typewriter, and file cabinet were operational. To save a document, you had to open a file drawer by using a joystick to position a disembodied white hand with an extended index finger over the file drawer icon. Inside the drawer were ten yellow lines placed vertically in a list; each line had a tab to simulate a “folder” that you could select and name. 27 Likewise, the Windows operating systems used file cabinet icons throughout the 1990s. As an icon within a metaphor, the late 20-century file cabinet was as efficient as the early 20-century filing cabinet.
The widespread adoption of the ‘desktop’ metaphor underscored that early personal computers would become workplace technologies.
Media scholars have attributed the triumph of the desktop metaphor to its provision of intuitively clear guidelines. 28 But the widespread adoption of the desktop metaphor also clarified that early personal computers would become workplace technologies; in this sense it underscored the naturalization of the modern office. Nonetheless there have been pointed and pertinent critiques from technologists who argue that the desktop metaphor has diminished the scope of possibilities —that information is too various and complicated to be organized and categorized into individual files and folders. 29
In one especially caustic formulation, Ted Nelson, the information technology pioneer who coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia, argued that the use of paper simulations in computing is “like tearing the wings off a 747 and driving it as a bus on a highway.” 30 The dilemma, for Nelson, is that the compartmentalization of files ignores the complicated overlaps between things; he wants computers to enable us to capture the overlaps. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier has made a similar argument: “Our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light — but the file will likely live on. The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh.” 31
File cabinets eventually disappeared from computer screens; they disappeared in the early 21st century when the logic of the desktop metaphor lost its monopoly on the user interface — when cell phones and “Googlization,” which enabled keyword search, provided alternatives to the location-based search-and-storage logic represented by icons of tabbed manila folders. 32 Once again, then, the file cabinet must be perceived as a distinctly 20th-century technology — as a response to a particular moment in the evolution of capitalism, when the volume of information dramatically increased and when that information was recorded, stored, and circulated primarily on paper.
The effects of the evolution of capitalism on information are illustrated, perhaps unexpectedly, by a comic strip from 1921. In the strip, which appeared in an issue of Filing and Office Management, a male file clerk decides to quit after his boss refuses to raise his salary. Before he leaves, in an act of defiance, he removes papers from a filing cabinet and throws them wildly around the office. His boss then changes his mind, and the clerk gets the news of his pay increase while surrounded by loose papers and files. 33 I discovered this image several years into my research. It stood out because the enterprising file clerk is identified as “Mr. Google.” (That the image, which I found online, was marked as “digitized by Google” made the discovery feel even weirder.)
A century ago, the leading symbol of information management was the filing cabinet; by the turn of the millennium, it was Google search.
I don’t want to over-stress the significance of the coincidence — but it does capture the ways in which the concepts of “information overload” and “information management” have shape-shifted over time. A century ago, the leading symbol of orderly information management was the filing cabinet; by the turn of the millennium, it was Google search. In the comic strip, Mr. Google sabotages the filing system by spilling papers out of their “proper” locations. This results in a disorganized pile of papers — just the sort of pile (i.e., the web made up of pages) that Google promises to organize, via page rank, and to allow us to access easily. The chaos Mr. Google creates is the chaos Google promises to manage. The filing cabinet and the search engine are both organizing principles for the capitalist management of information, both promising access to vast stores of information at the touch of our fingertips.
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