A fascinating combination of office furniture types in 1906! 

1906 Advertisement for a combination card index table and telephone stand featuring a desk with the satellite combination table next to it.

The Adjustable Table Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan manufactured a combination table for both telephones and index cards. It was designed as an accessory to be stood next to one’s desk to accommodate a telephone at the beginning of the telephone era and also served as storage for one’s card index.

Given the broad business-based use of the card index at the time and the newness of the telephone, this piece of furniture likely was not designed as an early proto-rolodex, though it certainly could have been (and very well may have likely been) used as such in practice.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

14 thoughts on “”

  1. Chris Aldrich says:

    This could also be an early precursor to Twitter!

    Folks have certainly mentioned other incarnations:
    – annotations in books (person to self),
    – postcards (person to person),
    – the telegraph (person to person and possibly to others by personal communication or newspaper distribution)

    but this is the first version of short note user interface for both creation, storage, and distribution by means of
    electrical transmission (via telephone) with a bigger network (still person to person, but with potential for easy/cheap distribution to more than a single person)

  2. Chris Aldrich says:

    System: The Magazine of Business. Vol. 10, page 756. A. W. Shaw Company, 1906. https://www.google.com/books/edition/System/3qvNAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.

  3. Chris Aldrich says:

    I totally want one of these as a side table for my couch/reading chair for both storing index cards and as a temporary writing surface while reading!

  4. It’s not a ZK furniture though. Index cards were not used to store atomic notes, or have alphanumeric indexes. 🙂

    They would store communique, contact information, business transactions, invoices. The (early) 1900’s was an interesting time for businesses – with the telephone becoming more standard, and the advent of the automotive.

    Index cards were very popular for businesses during this time. Easy to transport, easy to file away, look up, etc. Libraries used it as a standard feature (I’m sure you’re all familiar with the dewey decimal system). Records, invoices, customer data were stored on these index cards due to how durable they were compared to normal paper.

    The most popular size of the time was the 5″ x 8″ index cards (owing to the emerging popularity of the Kardex filing systems), which is probably what this cabinet accommodates! This is approximately the A5 paper size.

    With the advent of digital computers, businesses moved away from these index cards and back to cheaper printed paper.

    The most common size nowadays is 3″ x 5″.

    Edit: as an aside, I’m surprised no one has ever talked about Thomas Harrison’s or Vincent Placcius’ Arca Studiorum. I mean, Vincent was practically an early alpha-beta version of Luhmann, before Luhmann was even born. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Placcius)

  5. Oh, but it is ZK furniture in every sense! The narrow definition of zettelkasten in common use (in this subreddit and in many other locations on the internet) to describe only card indexes/digital software which have the numbering scheme and form of Niklas Luhmann’s only works for his and a number of imitators from roughly 2007/2013 to the present. Prior to this it is a much more generic term in Germany and elsewhere known in English as a card index or card file, but academics and others have been using practices broadly similar to Luhmann’s for centuries in a variety of forms.
    You’re likely right that this particular piece of furniture had a business-specific market use case for the majority of its users, but I’m sure there was a subset of customers, particularly those in academia, which may have used it primarily as a note storage or personal knowledge management tool in a way highly similar to Luhmann’s. Because it was in America, it was unlikely to have been called by the German name zettelkasten, though there were many German-Americans (Gotthard Deutsch and S. D. Goitein come to mind) who had this practice and may have done so, though I’ve seen no direct evidence of this at present in their writings. Not all card indexes were used for business or library purposes. In addition to academic researchers, we know a variety of mid-century comedians used their card indexes for collation and storage of jokes over their careers.
    The quality of the advertisement is hard to make out, but on close examination it appears to have four drawers and the scale leads me to think that this would likely have accommodated 3 x 5″ index cards. Some upcoming research work may uncover the manufacturing specifics and I’ll share them as I find them.
    As for Harrison and Placcius they’re definitely there and people talk about them occasionally, though few seem as interested in the historical aspects despite the fact that they have a lot to demonstrate about the pros/cons of various practices. I remember adding them both to the English wikipedia page in July 2021. Certainly they could stand to be more widely known for their work, as could Leibniz. More on both can be found mentioned in the following:
    – Cevolini, Alberto. “Where Does Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index Come From?” Erudition and the Republic of Letters 3, no. 4 (October 24, 2018): 390–420. https://doi.org/10.1163/24055069-00304002.
    – Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. Yale University Press, 2010. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300165395/too-much-know.
    – Blei, Daniela. “How the Index Card Cataloged the World.” The Atlantic, December 1, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/12/how-the-index-card-catalogued-the-world/547271/.
    – Vincentius Placcius. De arte excerpendi. Vom Gelahrten Buchhalten Liber singularis, quo genera et praecepta excerpendi… Gottfried Liebezeit, 1689. http://archive.org/details/bub_gb_IgMVAAAAQAAJ.
    There’s also a bit on Placcius in:
    – Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. Translated by Peter Krapp. History and Foundations of Information Science. MIT Press, 2011. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/paper-machines.
    The bigger hero, in my opinion, is Konrad Gessner and his work from 1548 which outlined much of the common “rules” note takers, practitioners of ars excerpendi, zettelers, and card indexers have been using ever since, including an early idea which many would now call “atomic notes”. Much of his work, however was transferring ideas of commonplace book practices of his day into the form of paper slips which were heavily used until mass manufacture of index cards in the 20th century made them cheap and plentiful. Within the note taking space online the community also broadly ignores influential figures like Agricola, Erasmus, and Melanchthon who make some big strides in popularizing a variety of methods in the 1400-1500s.

  6. Oh, but it is ZK furniture in every sense!

    Then almost everything is “zettelkasten” in that sense. I go by the narrow definition here, because we’re talking about zettelkasten, the practice, not zettelkasten – the word. But if we want to go by the word, then I guess we can stop talking about Luhmann, and start worshipping index cards. We can call ourselves the “zeeks”, and walk around in long robes. Nah… I jest. 😉

    but I’m sure there was a subset of customers, particularly those in academia,

    Academia gets into everything, so I’m sure there were some many who adopted it in their own usage – likely influenced by how they were being used in the “real world”, as it were.

    this would likely have accommodated 3 x 5″ index cards

    Who knows? I think that’s really small and makes the desk really low to the floor. But you would have a better idea than I; more than likely you have looked into this more closely than I.

    But hey, here’s a beautiful restoration someone did of a Moore’s Cabaret Desk 1878; https://www.naples-furniture-restoration.com/images/p2157468-jpg.jpg

    few seem as interested in the historical aspects

    Yeah, I really like to read about the historical aspects because they can aid informing us about the culture of these practices as they began to use it for themselves. I’d be interested to hear more about Konrad Gessner – I’m probably going to spend a little time with Google and ChatGPT on this.

    Syndicated copies:

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