The Humble Beginnings of the Modern Office

Vox recently published a nice article about the origins of the business cubicle that included a discussion of filing cabinets – which is fine as far as it goes. But there is actually quite a lot more to say, as you’d know if you’d read a wonderful book (with a rather drab title), Control Through Communication, written by my friend JoAnne Yates of M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management.

JoAnne’s book – which her husband calls a “history of the memo” – is about the coevolution of information technology and the business world before the digital age. Of course, before the digital age people didn’t talk about information technology – but I.T. did exist, and it developed in fundamental ways that eventually changed everything. Filing cabinets are a window into those changes. (By the way, this is from memory – I don’t have a copy of the book on hand. So sorry, JoAnne, if I screw this up slightly.)

Organizations have always needed a record of their communications. Ancient Roman merchants had slaves making copies of letters, no doubt, the same way Tom Standage (in another great book, Writing on the Wall) tells us that aristocrats did, turning senatorial correspondence into a form of proto-Facebook. Much later, JoAnne tells us, some businesses used a pretty amazing system: Outgoing letters would be dampened, placed between the pages of a big book and squeezed with a screw press to create a sort of reprint.

Then came a revolution: carbon paper! Or actually carbon paper plus typewriters. Suddenly, everything was in triplicate, and keeping a record of all correspondence became easy.

The next question, however, was how to find the relevant correspondence. When damp letters and screw presses were the limits of technology, there was no choice: All you had was a chronological record to flip through. Carbon paper offered new possibilities: Now copies could be filed by subject instead, or as well. But how should they be filed?

Boxes or drawers were one possibility, but they still involved a lot of shuffling, and relevant letters could easily be overlooked. The answer? The vertical file, with a tab indicating the contents of each folder.

To complete the revolution, however, you needed a behavioral change. Previously, businessmen wrote letters that might touch on multiple subjects. With the coming of the filing cabinet, however, they had to be disciplined to write each individual document on one and only one subject, so that it could be filed properly.

So the memo was born.

I love this story on multiple levels. For one thing, I always love reminders that many of the technologies that made the modern world were humble and inconspicuous. One of the great things about the final volume in Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans trilogy is its account of things like the invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag. Beyond that, filing cabinets are an unusual illustration of the economist Paul David’s famous insight that technologies don’t really yield their full economic payoff until business is reorganized to make use of their potential – which is why productivity may not take off until decades after the big innovations have taken place.

So, great stuff. However, cubicles are still horrible.