Mr Squercum's office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web
Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added).

Letter Copying Press. Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum
Letter Press. Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum
I am not so interested here in office rivalries or the little interpersonal difficulties that needed quieting, but in solutions to the difficulties created by the unmanageable amounts of paper in late-Victorian offices. Kissing makes enemies of the other clerks by wielding a heavy letter book and the none-too-amiable Mr Squercum is certainly not in control of his office papers. According to JoAnne Yates, at the end of the 19th century and through the start of the 20th, letter books were increasingly impractical. Letter books, sometimes called press books, contained between 300 and 1000 sheets of tissue paper designed to fit into a letter copying press. Each outgoing letter was written using special copying ink so that the letter’s contents could be transferred to the tissue paper in the press book before the letter was sent out, leaving the sender with a copy of outgoing correspondence (an improvement, to be sure, on the older copy book which was the responsibility of a copy clerk who entered a copy of outgoing correspondence by hand). Press books were perfectly practical for small single-office businesses that, before the correspondence boom made possible by cheap rail and up to 12 mail deliveries daily, only needed to record a trickle of external correspondence; however, as companies grew, required inter-branch communication, and developed internal communications via what would later be called memoranda, letter books, with their chronological content became impractical. Anyone who wanted to look up a particular outgoing letter would have to know almost precisely when it had been sent. Furthermore, letter books did not help correlate outgoing letters to the corresponding responses.

Pigeonholes and pasteboard boxes for storing loose-leaf letters offered a partial solution. Loose-leaf filing let office workers control the order and sorting of correspondence, arranged not chronologically, but, perhaps, by topic or by correspondent, eliminating or reducing the need for indices (the key to all press books!); however, as Fawkes’ illustration suggests, it was difficult to organize loose-leaf files. The nineteenth-century solution, one which we still use today and which, through the power of metaphor, shapes how we interact with computers, was the vertical file. As Martin Campbell-Kelly points out, without a way to organize loose-leaf paper, 20th century businesses would not have been able to build up the facts, knowledge, and managerial expertise created by their very own records (25).

Melvil Dewey’s library furniture supply company, The Library Bureau (whose famous decimal system we know and love) first exhibited vertical files at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Vertical files required only 10% of the space taken up by pasteboard boxes, which stored papers flat rather than on their edges. The Library Bureau’s vertical files won a gold medal at the World’s Fair, not just because they saved space, but because they also allowed for the topical arrangement of contents, by subject, by place, or by correspondent. Since they allowed companies to more readily “build up a body of knowledge on some issue, whether from internal or external sources, and … [gave] manager[s] rapid access to that body of knowledge” it would be well worth the study to see how odious managers, like Kissing, deprived of their letter books, used this new power and new office equipment to make nuisances of themselves (Yates 20).

For more see,
Campbell-Kelly, Martin et al. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. 3rd ed. New York: Westview Press, 2013.
Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Department of Library Bureau. N.p., 1890. Print.
Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1865.
Trollope, Anthony. The Three Clerks. London: Richard Bentley, 1858.
Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. London: Chapman and Hall, 1875.
Yates, JoAnne. “From Press Book and Pigeonhole to Vertical Filing: Revolution in Storage and Access Systems for Correspondence.” Journal of Business Communication 19.3 (1982): 5–26.

I can’t resist a sidebar: before writing this post, I hadn’t visited the Canada Science and Technology Museum website for years. If you, like me, haven’t seen their collection’s beautiful online documentation (be still my archivalphilic heart!) I recommend heading over to their site.


2 thoughts on “A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

  1. Connie, your post is well-timed as it got me thinking back to a book I finished a couple of months ago: Cornelia Vismann’s Files: Law and Media Techology (Stanford, 2008; first published in German in 2000). You might particularly like her final chapter, “From the Bureau to Data Protection,” which runs the gamut from office file-management technologies from the late-19th and early-20th centuries to the declassification of Stasi archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a remarkably well-written book, and achieves a rare synthesis between historical thoroughness and theoretical provocativeness. What she doesn’t really do, however, is read filing technologies through their incidental representations in cultural works such as illustrations for novels, as you’re doing here (though she does use advertisements, and offers a brilliant reading of Bartleby the Scriviner). One of my favorite scholarly sub-sub-subgenres is the discussion of reading/writing technologies as they’re depicted in illustrations, engravings, paintings, woodcuts, and such, regardless of period, and I’d love to see more of this in Victorian studies.

    Something else your post got me thinking about is how this 19th-century sense of the inundated office contrasts with — or partly motivates — the narrative device of the single, elusive document whose discovery changes everything. (I’m thinking of the church register of births in The Woman in White, or the fateful discovery of revised wills in any number of novels such as Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend; and that doesn’t even get into detective fiction yet!) There’s a gothic legacy to this trope, of course, but I wonder if the period saw a transformation of the sites of those documents’ lostness, moving away from ruined monasteries and dreary manor-houses and toward bustling offices of the kind you’re describing—where information can still be just as lost.

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