The history of the filing cabinet in the skyscraper age

i 1 90647369 verticality is power the rise of the filing cabinet in the age of the skyscraper

To be vertical is to be upright, positioned at a proper angle to the horizon. Due to this fact, to consider the vertical is to think about the group of area and to consider group spatially. That’s, verticality is a precept, a key attribute, incessantly used to arrange how objects are saved—a precept important to the filing cabinet.

In the Nineteen Twenties, scientific workplace administration guru William Leffingwell understood the innovation and worth of the filing cabinet in exactly these phrases, arguing that peak saved area—that’s, it shifted the focus of space for storing from the horizontal to the vertical. Verticality additionally locates the filing cabinet inside the adjustments that marked the growth of company capitalism at the flip of the twentieth century; it makes the filing cabinet accessible to a cloth history of effectivity. A considerably easy instance of that is the visible juxtaposition of the filing cabinet and the skyscraper in interval promoting, most famously in Shaw-Walker’s “Constructed Like a Skyscraper” marketing campaign. Such pictures promoted verticality as a traditionally particular treatment to the company articulation of spatial shortage as an issue.

This Shaw-Walker catalog cowl options each the filing cabinet and the skyscraper. This was a standard juxtaposition meant to emphasise not solely the verticality of the filing cabinet but additionally its modernity. [Image: Trade Catalog Collection, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware/courtesy University of Minnesota Press]

The filing cabinet emerged at the identical time the skyscraper was turning into a cultural image that offered capitalism and modernity as distinctly American tasks for the Twentieth century. As vertical constructions, the skyscraper and the filing cabinet stacked discrete horizontal items (flooring containing workplaces; drawers containing folders and papers). This stacking was meant to serve two important functions: to cut back the construction’s horizontal footprint and to facilitate entry to the items. Stacking, versus mere piling, invoked order. In distinction to a pile, which ends up in disorganization and congestion, the vertical was meant to offer construction, to arrange by constraint. By means of coercion, verticality would power exercise and objects into designated areas; the skyscraper as a vertical construction was an area organized to facilitate the circulate of individuals and knowledge.

Inside skyscrapers, adjustments in the design and use of desks in the early Twentieth century present how the workplace was rethought of as a web site to facilitate the circulate of paper. The emergence of a “flat-top” desk and the vertical filing cabinet provided a coordinated rethinking of the relationships between paper and work and between storage and retrieval. The efficiency-based concentrate on circulate and motion made storage a specific type of drawback. Concepts about workflow positioned storage as a sedentary state in which papers would take up long-term residence in a cabinet or desk. As a number one proponent of workplace effectivity put it, “at finest, any sort of storage system is a passive agent in enterprise.”

The more and more complementary operate of desks and filing cupboards emphasised the significance of the rethinking of workplaces as areas organized to handle the motion of paper and facilitate entry to data; this made storage primarily a temporal drawback centered on retrieval. On this context, storage wanted to take up as little area and as little time as doable. The answer was workplace tools designed particularly to retailer paper on its lengthy edge. This innovation was paired with a rethinking of the workplace desk as a “workbench.” On this new, early Twentieth-century model, “a desk ought to by no means be used for storage functions however ought to function a way for the immediate dispatch of enterprise.” The transfer from an “old-style storehouse mannequin” to a contemporary flat-top desk foregrounded a change in the mode of storage— from private to collective—as papers would ideally be moved from desks into filing cupboards.

The commonplace four-drawer cabinet in the early Twentieth century was about 51 to 52 inches excessive and 24 to 27 inches deep, though cabinet peak was typically described in phrases of drawers, not inches. Most early cupboards gained additional elevation from the addition of “sanitary legs”—sanitary as a result of they allowed for cleansing beneath the cabinet and saved the contents of the decrease drawers cleaner (in addition to making them extra accessible). To be clear, a clerk’s well being was prioritized as a result of it factored into her effectivity as a employee, not as a result of of any concern for her common well-being. The relationship between effectivity and a clerk’s physique additionally decided the depth of the cabinet. In presenting “most capability” as one of the seven necessities of workplace tools, Shaw-Walker defined {that a} drawer higher than 27 inches in depth risked turning filing from an “arm operation” right into a “strolling operation,” as the clerk must stroll to the aspect of the drawer to entry information at the rear.

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Though workplace guides argued that ladies employees ought to ignore vogue and gown virtually for the workplace, the idealized representations of workplace work in promotional literature tended to current file clerks as ladies attuned to vogue traits. This picture from a catalog cowl additionally illustrates the significance of representing ladies as capable of entry tall cupboards, normally assisted by modern excessive heels in addition to the artist’s sense of proportion and scale. Artwork Metallic, Widesections and Halfsections (1931). [Image: Trade Catalog Collection, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware/courtesy University of Minnesota Press]

The important promoting level of early filing cupboards was modularity. Absent that label, in the first many years of the Twentieth century vertical filing cupboards glided by a quantity of completely different names: unit, sectional, expandable, expansible. Workplace tools corporations meant the names to convey that workplaces may tailor filing cupboards to their particular wants, with the assumption that the companies would develop, or a minimum of produce extra paper. Early promoting sought to speak the ease with which filing cupboards may reply to the wants of a rising enterprise. Recognizing this, most corporations additionally made single-drawer items that may very well be the foundation of growth.

Aspect or prime panels may very well be indifferent to facilitate growth, with drawers added both aspect by aspect or stacked one on prime of the different; the cupboards had been designed to be linked with just some bolts. Producers claimed the ensuing “battery” of cupboards would appear like one seamless piece of furnishings. Promotional supplies for five-drawer filing cupboards (and for a lot of four-drawer cupboards) accentuated the peak of the ladies who operated them to disclaim the chance that the peak of cupboards may produce inefficiencies. In these ads feminine clerks had been drawn (or photographed) standing tall with impeccable posture to intensify not solely the rectilinear design of the cupboards but additionally their peak; if mandatory, excessive heels elevated their our bodies so that they matched the further peak of the cabinet. From this peak a tall, erect girl may simply “grasp” the filing cabinet as she gazed at the tabs inside a file drawer, whereas the catalog put her physique on view for the assumed male reader.

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[Image: courtesy University of Minnesota Press]

At the degree of workplace design, there was consciousness {that a} filing cabinet was half of a bigger assemblage. Consultants instructed that regardless of the place an workplace positioned a cabinet, there must be a minimum of three ft of aisle area to permit somebody to stroll by a clerk as she labored on a totally prolonged drawer. Filing cupboards may very well be used as partitions to demarcate departments in open-plan workplaces. The shortage of pure or synthetic mild made cupboards a fascinating different to floor-to-ceiling partitions, which tended to close out each mild and air. Due to this fact, the exterior of the cabinet, performing as a partition, divided workplace work in the identical method that the inside of the cabinet divided paper. A battery of cupboards may additionally present a barrier between employees and clients, with the prime used as a counter for ready on clients or a desk for clerks to work on.

The filing cabinet’s use as a counter or divider underscores the main operate of an workplace: to arrange objects, employees, and duties. It additionally emphasizes how necessary the concept of circulate was in the reimagining of the early Twentieth-century workplace and the impact this had on the objects positioned in workplace areas. Together with desks meant for specialised duties and the growth of commonplace paper sizes (e.g., for typing and for index playing cards), filing cupboards acknowledged a transfer from “furnishings” to “tools.” Tools (together with “workplace home equipment”) represented a extra useful and utilitarian strategy to the workplace and workplace work.


Tailored with permission from The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Info by Craig Robertson, revealed by Minnesota University Press.