Craig Robertson (Northeastern), “Using the Vertical”

Shaw Walker How to File Letters and Cards (c.1920)

[In the early twentieth century, office equipment companies began to issue large annual catalogs that tended to number in the hundreds of pages. In addition, companies produced smaller catalogs that spot lit particular products. As an example of the latter, the title of this catalog indicates companies often framed them to present products as solutions to specific problems. This catalog, from the 1920s, also indicates that at that time vertical filing was still sufficiently new that a company could assume that customers needed (or would welcome) instructions and advice on how to file. By juxtaposing filing cabinets and skyscrapers the cover image emphasizes what was seen as novel and distinctly modern about vertical filing – storing paper on its long edge in drawers that were stacked on top of one another. Both the paper and the drawers were understood to be “vertical.” The merging of cityscape and officescape also suggests the vertical as a specific response to the early twentieth century corporate articulation of the problem of spatial scarcity: the vertical as technique of compression.]

To think about storage and compression is to think about the principles that organize the objects that are stored or compressed. In this presentation I focus on verticality. My interest in the vertical comes from research on the early twentieth-century emergence of the vertical filing cabinet – drawers stacked vertically, containing thousands of papers stored “vertically” on their long edge, constrained in place by folders and follower blocks. Beyond this historical period, I speculate on the utility of verticality (especially the use of the vertical to subordinate parts to a whole) as a way to think about the history of storage technologies that prioritizes the problematization of the practice and space of compression.