When we think of filing today, we think of digital files and folders, and manilla folders, hanging files, and filing cabinets. But what did filing look like in early modern England? How did people deal with all their receipts and bills and letters when they wanted to keep them? What evidence of filing systems still survives?
This is a difficult question to answer if you are looking for the answers in special collections libraries, since by the time manuscripts and other “fileable” documents like printed blank forms make it through the front door, they are usually “defiled,” far removed from the context of their creation and immediate afterlife. If they were at one time part of a family’s archives, those archives have since been dispersed, processed, and conserved. The original boxes, chests, drawers, pouches, pins, spikes, thongs, and cords that helped keep material organized and safe have long since (largely) disappeared, or have been chewed apart by rodents. Sometimes intact collections have made it through the door only to be separated once they arrived because they contain mixed materials (a practice we now resist): the printed items go to the book collection, the manuscript items go to the manuscript collection, the graphic material goes to the art collection, everything re-connectable via the accession number alone. Nearly invisible clues, such as holes (see below), have often been repaired because the reason for the holes was not known or understood.
While this seems shocking and sad to us now, it is not at all surprising. We are constantly updating, revising, and improving the way we store and arrange information, and it was no different 400 years ago. I’m not the first or last person to point out that we are still struggling with finding the ideal filing system today, as various websites and advertisements in magazines attest. PaperTIGER, anyone? NeatReceipts? The similarities in the problems and solutions are striking–what do we do with all this paper and digital detritus?
I’ve always liked this print by Abraham Bosse at the Folger because it shows a number of filing systems at work.
This office is all about documents. They hang from the walls in labelled pouches, they are folded up and bundled together on the shelf above the door, along with some books, they are folded and tucked behind taut strips, much like the items in the trompe l’oeil paintings by Anglo-Dutch artist Edward Collier in the years around 1700 (see the story behind these paintings in Dror Wahrman’s Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks), and a description of one of his paintings, shown below).
Plenty of Dutch paintings from the early sixteenth century onwards show lawyers and others surrounded by papers and paper filing contraptions. The earliest early modern example is the familiar one at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, which shows a toll-collector (previously identified as a merchant) surrounded by the tools of his trade, including two groups of loose papers hanging behind him.
I had spent plenty of time looking at this painting with Peter Stallybrass, who was able to identify the exact nature of the book in the right foreground as an almanac with writing tables for erasable writing (described in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly). But it wasn’t until I came across references to filing in letters from Sir Thomas Temple to his steward Harry Rose from the 1620s-30s (at the Huntington in 2004) that I was suddenly reminded of the items hanging in the background of Gossaert’s painting.
Harry Rose, at your next coming hither I pray yow bring my letters to yow on the pointe filed (Huntington Library, STT 2147)
That yow bring with you, whensoeuer yow come, all letters & notes filed on a pointe (as I haue appointed) … & by a pointe fastened the papers can not be lost… (Huntington STT 2284)
To thred this note & deliuer the same back to me …. To file this note of remembrance with others upon a point a string… (Huntington STT Vol. 38, fol. 23v; I am grateful to Rosemary O’Day for this last reference)
It seems rather obvious now, but these passages (and a set of Temple’s acquittances for rents held together by a leather tie) sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary, where the historic connection between filing and “stringing” suddenly became clear (the Latin word filum means string or thread).
file: n.2.I.3.a. A string or wire, on which papers and documents are strung for preservation and reference…
file: v.3.1.a. To string upon a thread (obs.); to place (documents) on a file…
Going back to the Gossaert painting, I could now see that the documents were strung together and hanging from a peg. The leaves appear to be blank because they are hung upside down and back to front, with the oldest items adjacent to the thong and vellum label, and the most recent items near the reinforced point (which loops back over the top and hangs over the label). This technology allows quick access to relevant documents by flipping the file up from the bottom.
And suddenly, I saw files everywhere. Or, I should say, I started seeing filing holes everywhere, including at the Folger.
If you line up all of the holes, it is easier to imagine what this file might have looked like with a string going through it. In the first image below, the bills are hanging upside down. In the second image, they are shown from the other side, which is the way they would have been viewed while strung up (like in the Gossaert painting), by flipping through the file from the bottom.
Peter Stallybrass started seeing holes everywhere as well, particularly on printed blank forms at the National Archives, Kew, along with “shoelace”-type strings with reinforced metal points to facilitate the filing process.
But string filing was only one strategy for taming paper. As the Bosse print shows, bundles and pouches were other popular techniques, used by lawyers and government officials as well as families for their personal papers. And for manuscripts like deeds with seals, wooden boxes (often covered with leather and lined with waste paper) and drawers were essential for long-term storage and controlled retrieval. Large presses with drawers and pigeon holes still survive in the Muniment Room at Hardwick Hall, in the Oxford University Archives, and other places. Different households and different archives had different strategies for filing, and were not always consistent or methodical in their techniques. And later generations tended to “improve” the systems that they inherited.
I leave you with a few more images of early modern filing strategies. Peter and I are writing an essay that will discuss the various technologies in greater detail, and I’ll be showing more images of files at RSA next week.