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Early Filing Cabinets

Antique Filing Cabinets

All the types of filing cabinets shown below were produced in wood.  The earliest advertisement we have for metal file cabinets is from 1886.  Steel filing cabinets were advertised as "absolute protection against loss of your records by fire" (1906). Over time the share of filing cabinets made of metal increased while the share made of wood decreased. In the 1910s, some companies were supplying "cabinet safes," which were filing cabinets inside comparatively lightweight safes.  Go to the Early Office Museum page on Safes, and scroll to the bottom..

Letter Filing Cabinet

Letter Filing Cabinets have file drawers in which papers were stored horizontally, that is, lying flat. Drawers contained metal devices to hold papers in place as well as alphabetical dividers, e.g., the A drawer would have a divider for Aa to Ac followed by a divider for Ad to Ae, etc.

Cameron Amberg & Co. was established in 1868 and made its first Cabinet Letter Files in 1875, when they won an award from the American Institute, New York, NY. (Asher & Adams' Pictorial Album of American Industry 1876). In 1876, its Cabinet Letter Files were awarded a medal at the Centennial Exposition. The metal devices in some of its drawers bear an 1878 patent date.  In 1881, 1,000 firms were using its cabinets. By 1893, the company name changed to Amberg Letter & File Co. (However, the Cameron, Amberg & Co. name appears to have been resurrected later, because the latter company published an office supplies catalog in 1930.)  Shortly thereafter, its letter filing cabinets had patent dates from 1878 to 1896.

Globe Files Co.'s Letter Filing Cabinets received awards in 1882-83.

Earliest advertisement 1876
Earliest patent 1878
Ambergs_Letter_File_in_use_from_1900_front_closed.JPG (50638 bytes)
Ambergs_Letter_File_in_use_from_1900_front_open.jpg (41128 bytes)Ambergs_Letter_File_in_use_from_1900_drawer.JPG (117937 bytes)
Amberg's Letter File with tambour cover closed and open and inside of drawer.  This cabinet was used for a number of years beginning in 1900. A virtually identical Wabash Cabinet was advertised by Rockwell & Rupel Co., Chicago, in 1899. (The Book-Keeper, Mar. 1899, p. 128b) The bottom image in the column farthest to the right shows the 1907 Globe-Wernicke version of this style of cabinet.

1876_Amberg_Letter_File_Cabinets_Asher__Adams.jpg (94248 bytes)
Amberg's Patent Double Indexing 
or Cabinet File, 1876 ad

1881_Ambergs_Peerless_Cabinet_Letter_File_Cameron_Amberg__Co_NY_NY.jpg (73684 bytes)

Amberg's Peerless Cabinet Letter File, Cameron Amberg & Co., Chicago, IL, 1881 ad

Amberg_Letter_File_Cabinet_with_1878_patent_date_OM.jpg (53031 bytes)
Amberg Cabinet Letter File

1885_Globe_Files_Co_Letter-Filing_Cabinets.jpg (81792 bytes)
Globe Letter Filing Cabinet, Globe Files Co., Boston, MA, 1885 ad.  Globe advertised letter files of this type by 1883.

Amberg_Patent_Cabinet_Letter_File_OM.jpg (33996 bytes)
Amberg Patent Cabinet Letter File. This particular cabinet was in use by 1898.

1873_1881_Amberg_File_Drawer_with_patent_dates_for_index.jpg (108371 bytes)
Drawer from Amberg Cabinet Letter File, with Index patented 1873-1881; advertised as the standalone Peerless Letter File, 1881.Drawer
1886_Shannon_Cabinet_File_Schlicht__Field_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (37657 bytes)
Shannon Filing Cabinet, Schlicht & Field Co., Rochester, NY, 1886 ad

1886_Shannon_Filedrawer_Schlicht__Field_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (55331 bytes)
Shannon File Drawer, Schlicht & Field Co., Rochester, NY, 1886 ad

1886_Universal_Filing_Cabinet_Office_Specialty_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (129529 bytes)
Universal Filing Cabinet, Office Specialty Mfg. Co, Rochester, NY, c. 1888

1886_Universal_File_Office_Specialty_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (71537 bytes)
Universal File, Office Specialty Mfg. Co, Rochester, NY, c. 1888

1894_Sixty_File_Cabinet_Letter_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (242305 bytes)
Sixty File Letter Cabinet,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.

Globe_File_Tim_Hesse_The_Joinery_Wichita_KS_1_x.jpg (82287 bytes)
The Globe File. This cabinet was in use in 1889.  
Courtesy of Tim Hesse, 
The Joinery, Wichita, KS
Globe_File_Tim_Hesse_The_Joinery_3_x.jpg (97596 bytes)
Detail of Globe File immediately above.
1907_Globe_Wernicke_Fifteen_File_Letter_Cabinet_cat_adv.jpg (32778 bytes)
Fifteen File Letter Cabinet, Globe-Wernicke, Cincinnati, OH, 1907 ad. The predecessor Globe Co, Cincinnati, OH, advertised this type of file cabinet during 1895-1899.
Document Filing Cabinet

During the 19th century, documents (particularly legal documents) were often folded twice before being stored on edge with the flat portions of the papers parallel to the fronts of the drawers. Document Filing Cabinets have relatively narrow vertical drawers known as Document Files and were advertised "for folded legal documents." In effect, the drawers are vertical pigeon holes. "A very popular style in general use by railroads, attorneys and others." (1906)

Earliest advertisement 1884

Document filing cabinets were advertised as late as 1936.

1884_National_Office_Furniture_cabinets.jpg (268591 bytes)
Document filing cabinet, National Office Furniture, 
M. J. Wise, Sole Proprietor, Washington, DC, 
1884 catalog.
1884_National_Office_Furniture_cabinet.JPG (184233 bytes)
Document filing cabinet, National Office Furniture, 
M. J. Wise, Sole Proprietor, Washington, DC,
1884 catalog.
1886_US_Document_File_Cabinet_Office_Specialty_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY.JPG (35986 bytes)
Document Filing Cabinet, Office Specialty Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY, c. 1888


1884_Mr_Kimballs_Rm_Int_Rev_Office_US_Treas_Wash_DC_Nat_Off_Furn_Cat.jpg (165524 bytes)
Mr. Kimball's Room, Internal Revenue Office, US Treasury, Washington, DC, National Office Furniture, M. J. Wise, Sole Proprietor, Washington, DC, 1884 catalog


1886_Metal_US_Document_Cabinet_w_500_Files_Schlicht__Field_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (77713 bytes)
U.S. Document Cabinet, metal, containing 500 files, 
Schlicht & Field Co., Rochester, NY, 1886 ad.  In 1887, Schlict & Field advertised both iron and wood document files. (175735 bytes)
Office with two document file cabinets supplied 
by Geo. D. Barnard, St. Louis, MO.

Woodruff_File_invented_1868_Smithsonian.jpg (53174 bytes)
Woodruff File. Display at National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. The individual document file boxes were patented by Woodruff in 1868. Both  Woodruff file boxes and Woodruff file cabinets were advertised in 1887.
1894_Cabinet_for_Woodruff_File_Holders.JPG (80674 bytes)
Cabinet for Woodruff File Holders, Library Bureau, 1894 ad
Globe_document_file.jpg (96512 bytes)
Globe Document Cabinet
1894_Twenty-Four_File_Document_Cabinet_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (171309 bytes)
Twenty-Four File Globe Document Cabinet,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.
Globe_Filing_Cabinet_Document_File_antiquarian_traders_3_OM.JPG (9351 bytes)
Detail of Document Files in Globe Combination File. Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian Traders, Beverly Hills, CA
Globe_Filing_Cabinet_Document_File_inside_antiquarian_traders_2_OM.JPG (26936 bytes)
Detail of Document File in Globe Combination File. Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian Traders, Beverly Hills, CA
1894_Document_File_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (241056 bytes)
Globe Document Files,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.
Combination Filing Cabinet

Combination filing cabinets were assembled to order by the manufacturer from modules.

Earliest advertisement 1888

1886_Steel_Combination_Cabinet_Office_Specialty_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (107566 bytes)
Steel Combination Cabinet, Office Specialty Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY, c. 1888

1894_Revolving_File_Cabinet_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (172525 bytes)
Revolving File Cabinet,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.
.1894_Combination_Cabinet_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (220872 bytes)
Globe Combination Cabinet, The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.

1897_Globe-Wernicke_Cabinet_The_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH.jpg (190035 bytes)
Globe-Wernicke Cabinet, 
The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1897 ad

Globe_Filing_Cabinet_antiquarian_traders_1_OM.JPG (28976 bytes)
Globe Combination or Sectional File. Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian Traders, Beverly Hills, CA


1903_Railway-Commercial_Cabinet__File_Co_Chicago_IL_OM.jpg (314966 bytes)
Railway-Commercial Cabinet & File Co, Chicago, IL, 1903 ad
Pigeonhole Filing Cabinet

Cabinets with open pigeon holes appear in a 1672 painting of a notary's office and a 1867 image of a Wells Fargo office.

The document case at the bottom of the cell to the immediate right has 100 pigeon holes, each with a door. To open a door, one lifted its handle and slid the door upward. This pushed all doors above it upward as well.

For cabinets with closed pigeon holes:
Earliest advertisement 1883.
Earliest patent 1887. Other patents through 1894.
1883_Monitor_Filing_Cabinet.jpg (193803 bytes)
The Monitor, G. L. Howe and O. M. Powers, The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883.
Ohmer_Document_Case_Ohmer_File_Case_Co_Dayton_OH.jpg (39533 bytes)
Document Case, The M. Ohmer's Sons Co., Dayton, OH.  While this image is undated, the company exhibited filing cabinets at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chiaco.
Cabinet with pigeon-hole boxes OM.jpg (193803 bytes)
Courtesy of Jerry & Linda Turley,
Oak Tree Antiques, Yorktown, VA
1892_Pigeon-hole_cabinet_illustration.jpg (42071 bytes)
A.C.T. Case of 24 Pigeon-Holes, A.C. Thomson Co., Glasgow, Scotland, 1892 ad.
1894_Pigeon_Hole_File_Cabinet_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (111920 bytes)
Pigeon Hole File Cabinet,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.1894_Pigeon_Hole_Case_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (191995 bytes)
Pigeon Hole Case, The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.
1895_Tylers_Handy_Office_Cabinet_Tyler_Office_Furniture_Co_St_Louis_MO.jpg (102124 bytes)
Tyler's Handy Office Cabinet, Tyler Office Fixture Co., Catalogue, St. Louis, 1895.

Revolving_Bookcase_John_Danner_Mfg_Co_Canton_OH.JPG (14173 bytes)

Revolving Bookcase, John Danner Mfg. Co., Canton, OH
Vertical Filing Cabinet

The earliest advertisement we have found for a filing cabinet for storing unfolded letters in a vertical position is in the 1900 Library Bureau catalog.  Click on the following link and scroll down one page to page 113:  1900 Image of Vertical File

According to secondary sources: Perley Morse, Business Machines, 1932, states that the vertical file was invented in 1892 by Dr. Rosenau and exhibited in 1893 at the World's Fair.  Allen Chaffee, How to File Business Papers and Records, 1938, p.4, repeats this. (See note at bottom of this web page.) Yates (pp. 56-57) states that "Vertical filing of papers,...which evolved from the vertical file card files used by librarians, was presented to the business world in 1893....In 1892, the Library Bureau devised guides and folders for filing correspondence on edge and had file cases designed for them.  They presented that system at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, where it won a gold medal....However, the changeover [to vertical files] was not immediate and universal."

Based on our research using primary sources: The Library Bureau, which was a well established supplier of furniture to libraries by 1893, had an exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The catalog of the exposition states that the Library Bureau exhibited a "Card-case for records of charitable societies."  (World's Columbian Exposition Official Catalog, Part VII, Department G, Chicago, 1893, p. 35) Other accounts indicate that the Library Bureau also exhibited other library furniture. However, we have not found evidence in primary sources that the Library Bureau exhibited or won a prize for a vertical file in 1893.

The Library Bureau published an annual illustrated catalog that was over 100 pages long during the 1890s to promote its furniture to prospective customers.  No vertical file is advertised in the 1894, 1897, or 1899 catalogs, although these catalogs did advertise card catalogs.  For the first time, the Library Bureau's 1900 catalog includes a Vertical Filing Cabinet, which was designed for storing letters.  The catalog states: "This practical construction, [was] first used in card catalog cabinets."  The catalog states that the company "next manufactured vertical filing cases for invoices and loose sheets, about 5" x 8" inside," and that "a still larger file is now made having inside dimensions 10" x 12" and 22" deep.  This file is designed for letters, pamphlets,....."   (Library Bureau, Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau, Boston, 1900, p. 112, emphasis added)  These statements suggest that it was not until 1900 that the Library Bureau marketed vertical files large enough for an unfolded letter to be filed vertically. These vertical filing cabinets apparently used technology that was patented or licensed by the Library Bureau beginning in 1892, but that technology was probably developed for card catalogs.

We reviewed many illustrated catalogs and ads from the 1890s showing filing cabinets made by various manufactures. We also reviewed numerous photos of office interiors from the 1890s. None of these catalogs, ads, or photos showed or mentioned vertical filing cabinets. After extensive searching, the earliest evidence we have found of a vertical filing cabinet being marketed is the 1900 Library Bureau catalog cited in the preceding paragraph.  Other companies began to advertise vertical filing cabinets in 1901 (see below). A large number of companies were advertising vertical files in 1903.  Yates reports that, according to a report by a government commission, by 1911 "vertical flat filing [had] practically supplanted all other systems" in the large companies it investigated.  See also Flanzraich.

For the image of a vertical filing cabinet from the 1900 Library Bureau catalog, click on the following link and scroll down one page to page 113:  
1900 Image of Vertical File

Steel vertical files were advertised by Art Metal Construction Co., Jamestown, NY, in 1903.

1902_Vertical_File_Library_Bureau.jpg (42473 bytes)
Vertical Filing Cabinet, Library Bureau, 1902 ad
1903_Globe_Wernicke_vertical_filing_system_ad_OM.JPG (25730 bytes)
Vertical Filing System,, Globe-Wernicke, 1903 ad

1892_1903_Vertical_file_cabinet_Library_Bureau_patent_dates_1892-1903.jpg (26849 bytes)
Library Bureau, 
patent dates 1892-1903


1901_Vertical_System_of_Filing_Yawman__Erbe_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY_OM.jpg (259865 bytes)
Vertical System of Filing, Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY, 1901 ad
1903_Yawman__Erbe_Vertical_System_of_Filing_Rochester_NY_adv.jpg (465106 bytes)
Vertical System of Filing, Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY, 1903 ad
Vertical_File_Cabinet_Yawman__Erbe_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (29225 bytes)
Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY.


Transfer Filing Cabinet

At the end of each year, offices often moved filed papers to "transfer filing cabinets" in storage areas to make room in the primary filing cabinets for papers to be filed during the coming year. Transfer filing cabinets were more cheaply made than the primary filing cabinets, as the advertisement to the right illustrates.

Globe-Wernicke_Transfer_Filing_Cabinet_adx.jpg (54317 bytes)
Vertical filing cabinets, Regular (left) and transfer (right), Globe-Wernicke

Vetical_Transfer_File.jpg (31890 bytes)
Vertical transfer file
. .
Sectional, Elastic or Expansion Filing Cabinet

Sectional Filing Cabinets were assembled by the customer from modules sold by the manufacturer. They could be rearranged and expanded as the customer's needs changed.

Earliest advertisement 1897
1901_Sectional_Cabinet_with_Vertical_Files_Yawman__Erbe_Mfg_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (71144 bytes)
Sectional Filing Cabinets, Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY, 
1901 ad
1902_Macey_Sectional_Filing_Systems_adxx.jpg (32968 bytes)
The Fred Macey Co., Grand Rapid, MI, 1902 ad
1905_Globe-Wernicke_Elastic_Cabinet_System.jpg (207785 bytes)
Elastic Filing System, Globe-Wernicke Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1905 ad
1907_Globe_Wernicke_elastic_filing_cabinet_cat_adv.jpg (67293 bytes)
Elastic Filing System, Globe-Wernicke Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1907 ad.
Document file sections like that at the top of this cabinet were advertised along with other modules of sectional files at least as late as 1928.

MBHT_Automatic_File__Index_Co_Vertical_File_p._2.jpg (232154 bytes)
Automatic File & Index Co., Green Bay, WI, Catalog 16. This company was founded in 1905.
Courtesy of the Museum of Business History and Technology

. 1912_Filing_Instruction_Albany_Business_College.jpg (106629 bytes)
"Two cases similar to the one shown in the above illustration are used in the commercial and shorthand departments at the Albany Business College for teaching vertical letter filing and card indexing," Annual Catalogue, Albany Business College, Albany, NY, 1912.
MBHT_1914_General_Fireproofing_Co_Youngstown_OH_Allsteel_File.jpg (234743 bytes)
Allsteel File, General Fireproofing Co., Youngstown, OH, 1914.
Courtesy of the MBHT
Globe_Combination_File_w_Vertical_Files_front_OM.JPG (52274 bytes)
Globe Sectional File with Vertical File Drawers
Globe_Combination_File_w_Vertical_Files_open_OM.JPG (39238 bytes)
Globe Combination or Sectional File with Vertical File Drawers open
Wells Filing Cabinet

Earliest advertisement 1896
1896_Wells_Filing_Cabinet_adv.jpg (63282 bytes)
A. J. Wells Mfg. Co., Syracuse, NY, 1896 ad
. . .
Social Security Data Storage Systems, Baltimore, MD, 1937-1940

1937 Social Security Records Await Filing Baltimore OM.jpg (63282 bytes)
Records on Tabulator Punch Cards Await Filing, 1937
1939 Filing Permanent Social Security Records Baltimore OM.jpg (234743 bytes)
Records on Tabulator Punch Cards Being Filed, 1939. Files occupied thousands of cubic feet.
1939 Visible Index of All Social Security Accounts OM.jpg (52274 bytes)
Visible Index of Files, 1939
1940 Mrs Evelyn Schlachman Roll of Recordate Film Social Security Office OM.jpg (39238 bytes)
Mrs. Evelyn Schlachman Inspecting a Roll of Recardate Film, 1940
Chaffee, 1938, p. 4, states: "The vertical filing of papers was first tried by a Dr. [Nathaniel S.] Rosenau, secretary of the Associated Charities of Boston, after long experience in card filing.  The following year, several firms tried it, and the Library Bureau..received a gold medal at the World's Fair at Chicago in 1893 for its vertical correspondence file."  Chaffee provides no source to support  these statements.


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