Index Card Cases, Wallets, Covers, Pouches, etc.

I’ve had an oddly large number of emails over the past few months asking me for advice about what sorts of index card cases and carrying options I use on a daily basis.  Rather than tip out my zettelkasten in fits and spurts on the topic, I thought I’d pour out all those ideas out here instead. 

If you’re all-in on the ever-growing neo-index card lifestyle, then you should really work at adding some actual style to your fichier boîte practice. If your note taking has you going through cards like water, you’ll likely want something to carry them on the go, and often it can be useful, especially in meetings, to have something that not only looks nice, but will hold up through heavy use over the years. Maybe you want something fashionable to fit the change of seasons? Something to suit the occasion whether it’s a corporate board meeting or something to go with your red carpet black tie look? Are you taking notes at romantic wedding get-aways or at the beach? What are you using for storage?

In the vein of my article The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage, below I’ve collected a number of various sorts of daily carry index card cases, wallets, covers, and folios one might consider using. Some, where indicated, are items I use regularly, but others are interesting options I’ve run across in my travels, and though they didn’t fit my particular needs, they might fit yours. I don’t (yet) consider it to be the ultimate guide to this space, so if you’re in the market, feel free to check back occasionally or add your thoughts, suggestions, or reviews to the comments below. Since some items aren’t designed specifically for index cards, notes about their usability and portability with respect to note taking or zettelkasten practices are appreciated.

As I did for boxes, I’m going to focus primarily on the 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch index card form factors which are more common, and for which these products are often more readily available. If you’re using larger cards, then you might consider searching for folders, cases, and related containers for equivalent sizes of paper in terms of notebook covers, filing solutions, and other binders keeping in mind that equivalent European or DIN A-sizes (A5, A4, etc.) may also suit your needs as long as they’re big enough to physically accommodate your cards. If you find something spectacular, let us all know.

Please double check sizing as I have run into instances where some items were fractions of an inch too small to fit the cards I wanted to use.

If you’re doing your own targeted searches some of the following words can be useful: cases, wallets, covers, pocket briefcases, folios, pouches, bags, pen and/or pencil cases, and fountain pen cases. While some of the pen related cases may not be as suitable, some are free-form pouches which will easily accommodate index cards in addition to other items you may want to carry with your cards. You can’t take notes without a writing instrument, so having space for a pen or pencil or two isn’t a bad thing. You’ll probably notice that some items come with pen loops for such eventualities. Trawling through some of the fountain pen and stationery communities can also give you some creative ideas for portable index card storage. 

A grey pen case with a zippered pocket on the left, a partition with space for five pens to be held in elastic loops with a mesh net pocket below it. Not pictured, there is a space for more pens or index cards which could be placed under the partition.
While not the most spectacular option, this double zippered, expandable pen case fits a huge number of pens and small office supplies as well as loads of either 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 inch index cards.

It bears noticing that one could also go the DIY route and make their own portable index card holders. This would allow one to have the exact form factor and specifications for their personal note taking styles. If this is you, hopefully some of the options below will give you some ideas about what form factors are available for designing your own. You’ll find that there are options in a variety of materials including leather, cotton, canvas, waxed canvas, sailcloth, metal, and even Harris Tweed. 

What will you choose?

Size independent options

Before we delve into some of the card size-specific choices, let’s look at a few that are size independent.

Binder Clips. Everyone is likely aware of it, but we will mention that in true old-school hipster PDA-style (aka Parietal Disgorgement Aid), one could certainly use a binder clip, which makes a certain statement, though not the one that many might wish. In a similar vein, I’ve heard people say they rely on rubber bands, or especially in hot climates where rubber bands break down quickly, plastic sandwich bags (Ziploc to keep out the moisture), or even envelopes. Envelopes may present an intriguing practice for those into slip-based project management or forms of kakeibo (家計 簿).

A stack of about 30 3 x 5 inch index cards with the traditional top red line and subsequent blue lines for writing all held together with a brass binder clip.
The classic Hipster PDA dressed up with a brass binder clip.

Binder rings. If you want to go flashcard style, then you’ll want to search for a good hole punch (I recommend the Mutual Centamatic Punch No. 250) and some binder rings which come in a huge variety of sizes, materials, and even colors.

Chicago Binding Screws. If you appreciate the flashcard style, but not the esthetic and would rather look a bit more corporate than playground, then perhaps Chicago binding screws (available in various sizes and finishes) will give your deck of index cards a more buttoned up look? For those who are fans of index card filing rod solutions, these can also be used to bundle up cards on the go using your pre-punched cards. Higher end metal finishes (brass, copper, oiled bronze?) can really up the game on this option. 

Gangnam Style. Just kidding—I’m just checking to see if you’re still awake. But seriously, the stiff upper body movements in the video were the result of decks of index cards in the suit jackets. I swear!

Uninspired Plastic. If you really must… Only for the indiscriminate completists, I’ll mention the ubiquitous cheap plastic cases, some with snaps or elastics for closure which hold 50 to a few hundred cards. If you carefully follow some of the zettelkasten box market, you can get a solid antique or vintage wooden box for almost as much as you’d pay for a dozen of these cheap toys. I don’t want to shame anyone, particularly those who are still test driving the analog index card life, but perhaps this is what you’ve got now and you’re here searching for a modest upgrade? Good! Keep exploring to find your new index card lifestyle.

Two plastic index card holders with snap closures. One is a is a greyish beige and the other is black. They hold about 100 index cards each.
Everyone has a few of these plastic holders lying around. Do they spark joy? Probably not.

3 x 5 inch index card versions

Not only are there a variety of custom solutions specifically designed for 3 x 5 inch index cards, but one can also profitably search for and use items designed for passports (3.5 x 5 inches) or pocket notebooks which are slightly larger, but still serviceable. A variety of high quality solutions are designed specifically for a variety of common brand name pocket notebook products including Field Notes (3.5 x 5.5 inches), Moleskine (3.5 x 5.5 inches), Leuchtturm (A6), Hobonichi, Midori, Jibun, etc., so searching for these within the space can provide some additional options for the discerning buyer.

In some cases, products meant for A7 size paper (74 mm x 105 mm or 2.91 x 4.13 inch) may also work, but check the sizing as A7 is physically smaller than 3 x 5 inches. Similarly A6 size paper (105 x 148mm or 4.13 x 5.83 inches) products should work as they are slightly larger than both 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch index cards, though depending on your card size they may be a bit roomy.

Products

 Simple leather wallets. I have an inexpensive, but nice leather notebook cover/wallet that I usually have a few 3x5s in. Searching for covers for pocket notebooks or A6 notebooks one will find lots of these which are more ubiquitous than those that will hold the larger 4×6 inch cards. Hundreds of variations of this sort can be found on Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and other online and leather retailers. After you’ve seen a few you can pick and choose ones with the number of pockets or slots you’d like, whether or not you want a pen loop, the ability to use it as a wallet for your cash and credit cards along with your notes, etc. Prices can generally range from US$15 to well over $100 with a variety of colors, types of leather, and even personalization options.

A brown leather pocket notebook wallet with two sets of pockets on the left (two slots for credit card sized inserts and another index card sized slot) with some credit cards and a 20 dollar bill sticking out. The pocket on the right is full of index cards next to which is a pen loop with a Retro 51 pen inserted.

Passport wallets. Similar to the above, there are a huge number of commercially available passport wallets in a variety of shapes, configurations, and materials. Most should fit index cards within the pocket designed for the passport. Search and see what you come up with. One correspondent said they loved their Aspinal of London passport cover.

Levenger carries some nicer index card-specific “pocket briefcases”. Their offerings are only for 3 x 5 inch form factors, but they do have a variety of those size cards and small notebooks as well as the ability to custom print stationery at that size if you’re looking for something personalized.

Kaitiaki has a unique form factor. It not only holds cards, but can be stood up as a display as well as be used as a small writing desk while you’re on the go. 

Rite in the Rain has a variety of notebooks and index card products whose primary premise is that they are waterproof. Naturally they also carry a variety of protective cases and pouches, most made of cordura, with a variety of configurations to suit a variety of needs. Browsing around here will find a variety of interesting and rugged options. Also of note, they have an index card wallet designed specifically for 3 x 5 inch index cards. Some may also appreciate their field desks for writing on the go. Slightly more difficult to find amid their cordura offerings are their Guide and Sherpa leather wallets which should comfortably fit 3 x 5 inch cards.

Lochby is primarily in the notebook and planner space with a variety of offerings featuring a durable waxed canvas esthetic. Their Pocket Journal case, meant for pocket notebooks, will easily hold a hundred index cards with additional internal pockets for business cards or credit cards and external pockets for miscellanea as well as a pen. It is small enough one could use it as a wallet and it will fit in most back pockets, though depending on its contents, it may not be comfortable to sit on for extended periods. Their larger Venture Pouch has two zippered sides, one for pens and the other with two separate spaces for index cards or other portable office supplies. If you don’t mind a bit more bulk in your portable office, Lockby’s Tool Roll should easily fit 150 index cards along with a variety of pens and side pocket for miscellaneous needs. If you’re price sensitive, sign up to their newsletter as they have regular sales and discounts throughout the year.

An opened brown wax canvas Lochby pocket journal case with a zipper closure. Pockets on the left contain some money and credit cards while the pocket on the right is full of 3 x 5" index cards. An index card and black pen are sitting over the top of the left side to provide scale indicating that folded up the entire case is just larger than a 3 x 5 index card.

Lochby tool roll in brown waxed canvas with a yellow cloth interior. There are eight slots for pens which are filled with a variety of fountain pens and other writing instruments. Behind these are three pockets each with small stacks of 3 x 5 inch index cards. On the left is a small mesh zippered pocket with a ruler and an eraser in it.  There are flaps at the top and bottom of the pen section which fold over to protect them when the assembly is rolled up and clasped with a metal clasp visible on the right hand side.

IF provides some off-the-beaten-path options for the avid reader and note taker. Of particular note in their line up, is the Bookaroo Notebook Tidy, which is available in a number of colors. It provides eight elastic bands on the front for a variety of storage options, one of which could easily be your 3 x 5 inch index cards (it sadly won’t fit 4 x 6 inch though one could use a binderclip to attach them to the back of the tidy in a pinch). Turned over, the back is a firm surface that could be used as a small writing desk. Also included is an adjustable elastic band which can be used to attach the tidy to an A5 notebook or to a wide variety of standard hardcover novels and non-fiction (9.5 inch tall) books. Just attach your tidy with some note cards and you’re ready to read and take notes at your favorite home away from home.

A black Bookaroo Notebook Tidy has a stack of index cards inserted underneath two of its elastic straps and a pair of glasses is tucked under another strap. At the back is a blue mechanical pencil in a black pen loop. The whole tidy is attached by an elastic strap to a hardcover copy of Paper Machines written by Markus Krajewski.

Rickshaw, an offshoot company from Timbuk2 bags, offers a wide array of bags, wallets, pouches, and miscellanea in a huge variety of materials and form factors. While some of their larger items will certainly fit 3 x 5 inch cards, some of their smaller offerings include: The Diplomat, a wide variety of pocket notebook folios, and lots of pouches and wallets.

Traveler’s Notebook  manufactures passport size notebook covers meant for their range of notebooks which are held in by way of elastic bands. This makes them potentially less useful the index card afficionados as unbound or unclipped cards may not stay in them as easily. However, if you’re making or using small index card pads of the sort I’ve discussed in the past, then you can easily slip them in and go. TN also makes a variety of other useful inserts which may make this a intriguing choice.

4 x 6 inch index card versions

In this category, there aren’t as many custom made solutions, so searching specifically for them has generally been fruitless. The better bet for this size factor is to search for the slightly larger A6 sized notebook covers, holders, cases, and pouches and be comfortable with them being slightly larger. In most of my experience this is fine and there’s isn’t so much extra space that the difference is worrisome or noticeable. Some particular brands that might work include Hobonichi, The Superior Labor, Leuchtturm, etc.

Products

King Jim makes the cotton Flatty Works , an A6 horizontal pouch with small internal and external thin pockets and a clear front plastic window. At H4.8×W6.8×D1.4 inches it easily fits not only 4 x 6 inch index cards but has enough clearance for tabbed dividers as well. I have one I use as a daily carry and love it. I’ve written more details and a review elsewhere on the site.

Green canvas Flatty Works canvas envelope-style case with a clear plastic front through which one can see a handful of 4 x 6" index card dividers and index cards.

Lochby. Mentioned above, their only product which will fit 4 x 6 inch cards is their  “Adventure Pouch”. It will also provide you with space for a variety of pens, pencils, a pair of glasses and other small niceties. 4 x 6 inch cards won’t fit into the pockets of their tool roll (pictured above), but if it’s compelling enough, you could roll them into the apparatus and they shouldn’t fall out when clasped shut.

A brown waxed canvas pouch with two zippers with brown cord zipper pulls. At the left is a Lockby label next to a brown carrying handle. Sticking out of the top of one of the open zips is a stack of gridded 4 x 6 inch index cards. A silver Pentel Kerry mechanical pencil sits on top of the bag and a black Mont Blanc fountain pen sits in front of it on a wooden surface.

Rite in the Rain. Also mentioned in the 3 x 5 inch section, Rite in the Rain offers a handful of covers and pouches which are slightly bigger than 4 x 6 inch and will easily accommodate these index cards. Weatherproof, most are made out of cordura and have a rugged appearance and feel.

ateliers PENELOPE makes a variety of canvas bags and storage solutions, but their large Diary Pouch may be a classy solution for some of your larger index card on-the-go storage. Given its size, it’s got space for both index cards as well as some of your other portable storage needs. It’s small enough that it should fit easily into a briefcase or other larger bags or purses. If you have some index card “notebooks”, you might also consider their A6 canvas covers which are lovely and colorful.

Rickshaw. With a pedigree stemming out of Timbuk2, this San Francisco purveyor of bags for a variety of purposes offers two that look like solid options for the portable 4 x 6 inch index card fan (and which are certainly big enough for 3 x 5 inch users). The first is their Travelers Notebook Case and the second is the Coozy Case. Some may find that their larger A5 cases or their pouches may also suit their needs. The benefit of these options is that they come in a huge array of colors with customizable options. Browse around their site to see if something here strikes your fancy. Houndstooth anyone? Harris Tweed!?! Add-a-Patch? Yes, please. May I have some more?

Galen Leather. Galen, generally beloved within the fountain pen and stationery communities, offers a wide variety of leather notebook covers, folios, bags, and zippered cases which are compatible with a variety of index card sizes. One unique option here is their Writing Box, inspired by a writing desk owned by Thomas Jefferson. 

Custom solutions

I’ve been trying to get Aaron Aiken to make a custom leather billfold/cover, but it’ll be a few months before he gets around to it. If this is of interest to you, do ping him with your interest. (See conversation thread for details.)

Thoughts?

Have I missed anything interesting? 

What is your favorite index card holder when you’re out on the go? What’s holding your fleeting notes?

Vintage desktop Remington Rand 10 5/8 inch card index for 3 x 5″ cards

I’ve bought (yet another) card index on April 22nd. This must mean that I’m officially a collector, but if I keep this up I may have to start a museum soon.

Close up of a bronze metallic art deco designed plaque on the front of a small card index that reads "Remington Rand / Library Bureau Div." sandwiched in between the words "Made" and "in U.S.A." Two small nails hold the plaque on to the box. In front of the box is a white index card that read in red typewriter print "The power of information" with a quote typed in black below it.

This model is a Remington Rand Library Bureau Division 10 5/8″ x 5 5/8″ x 2″ dovetailed wooden box with steel follower and toothed sliding track. The sides of the box are 1/4″ thick and was designed for 3 x 5 inch index cards. The box has a softer brown color and wider grain typical of the mid-century Remington Rand Library Bureau Division products. Because it is short enough, it can fit inside my larger card catalog filing cabinet if necessary. 

Angle down on a small, light brown wooden card index. The box has several manilla 1/5 cut 3x5" card dividers inside along with some white index cards. Outside of the box on the table in front of it are a typewritten index card and a black metal Rotring 800 0.5mm mechanical pencil. Off to one side is a white ceramic bowl full of lemons.

Given that Remington Rand used the Library Bureau Division brand name from its acquisition in 1927 into the 1950s and the materials and design used, I’m guessing that this model is likely from the late 40s to early 50s. This was likely used as a desktop card index or possibly as a charging tray in a library. Sadly it didn’t come with any information about provenance. With the follower all the way back it’s got 8 1/2 inches for cards which means space for about 1,200 standard index cards.

There are no nail holes on the bottom indicating that it had feet, but it does have the faint appearance that it may have either had felt feet or a felt sheet glued to the bottom to prevent it scratching one’s desktop. As I expect to use it on a glass top, I probably won’t modify it. Beyond this and a few small scuffs showing very moderate use, it’s in exceptionally fine shape.

Bottom of a 10 5/8" card index featuring two wooden slats on the sides and a metal strip down the middle for the card follower inside the box. A faint black item number "6015" is printed on the bottom.

I’d picked up an 11 inch Shaw-Walker card index recently, but I couldn’t help making a knee-jerk purchase of another vintage desktop card index. I got it used on eBay for the pittance of $16, which compared to some of the modern cardboard,  plastic and metal options is honestly a steal, especially since it’s got a much nicer look and permanent feel compared to some of the more “modern” zettelkasten containers. Who wants a $20 cardboard box from Amazon when you can have a solid piece of history made of hard wood and steel on your desk?

Since my father worked in manufacturing for both Ingersoll Rand (no relation) and Remington at different points in his life, its quite a nice reminder of him sitting on my desk on a daily basis. Because it bears the name Library Bureau, it also harkens back to the early days of mass manufactured library card catalog equipment beginning with Melvil Dewey in 1876.

Of course, I ought to quit picking up these 3 x 5 inch card boxes and get some more 4 x 6 inch boxes since I primarily use those on a daily basis. 

Any ideas what I ought to use this box for? Perhaps it ought to be an address card index/rolodex? I’ve already made the decision to do my “memindex” in 4 x 6″ cards and the Shaw-Walker is accumulating cards with jokes and humorous observations (jokerzettel anyone?).

View from the front of an empty Remington Rand card index box toward the back featuring a steel card follower sitting in a steel slider tray with teeth on the right side for adjusting the follower in the box.

View of the back of a tan painted steel card follower in a Remington Rand card index. It has a silver steel button on the top which has a spring loaded pin lever to allow the follower to be positioned in the box at one of approximately 42 evenly spaced teeth in its metal tray.

Of course I now have a small voice inside saying that I need a Remington typewriter on my desk to match it.

Vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ cards

I’ve been watching the secondary market for used card indexes for a while and finally caved and purchased a vintage wooden desk top Shaw-Walker 11 inch card index for 3 x 5″ index cards. It was dusty and dirty and in reasonably good shape, but with some cleaning and some wood polish, it’s in much better shape.

Close up of the black and gold lettered Shaw-Walker Logo on the front of a 3 x 5 inch card index

I removed the original tacks on the bottom which appeared to have once held down some red felt. I cut out a new rectangle of green felt and reattached the tacks so that the index won’t scratch up my desktop. The dovetails are in good shape, but it seems like in a year or two some of the joins may need to be re-glued.

In all, for a small $10.00 investment, it’s a stunning addition for my zettelkasten card collection. Compared to some of the cardboard and metal options out there, it was half the price, but is far prettier and infinitely more durable.

Of course I’ve got a strong preference for 4 x 6″, so I’ll be on the look out for something bigger, but this was just too good a deal to pass up. Perhaps I’ll use it like a Memindex or a related productivity tool?

Oblique angle on a Shaw-Walker 11 inch 3 x 5 inch card index View from the back of the wooden card stop mechanism on an 11 inch card index. Close up of a reddish sticker on the bottom of a wooden card index. View of the bottom of a Shaw-Walker card index featuring two slats separated by a metal rod.

 

The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage

Invariably, when one is starting out on their analog zettelkasten or index-card based commonplace book journey, one of the first questions besides what size and type of cards should I use, is naturally what sort of box should I put them in? This is one of the more frequently asked questions I’ve seen of those who have detailed their systems or especially in online fora.

Generally until you’ve made the commitment to keep up at it beyond a few hundred cards, a simple cardboard box, shoebox, or something sitting around the house will generally do. If a simple box worked so well for Vladimir Nabokov‘s work, surely you might do as well? Eventually you might want to move to something larger or more permanent, or at least something that looks nice on your desk or tucked into a corner. Those who, like Niklas Luhmann, Gotthard Deutsch, Gershom Scholem, Roland Barthe, S.D. Goitein or many others, are in it for the long haul and may need storage for more than 10,000 – 100,000+ cards might prefer something larger and more permanent, or at least something modular that might grow with their collection over time.

Whatever your choices, budget, and ultimate path, it might help to have a list of some of the more common options available to take a look at to see what might work for you now or in the future so you can begin thinking (or if you’re smitten: dreaming) about what your ultimate path might might be. Hopefully this guide will be helpful in that endeavor.

While storage for 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch index cards are the most ubiquitous and easy to find (with there being a fairly larger market for 3 x 5 inch card storage), one can find larger cards (5 x 8, 6 x 9, etc.) and storage boxes for them, they just may take more searching or cost a bit more. One should keep in mind that the larger the card and box, the harder and more expensive sourcing them will usually become. Your home country may also play a factor in your card size and box choices. I generally wouldn’t recommend that those in the United States opt for the European standards like A4, A5, or A6 cards as they’re slightly harder to source here and there aren’t nearly as many options for the range of storage options unless you’re willing to buy and ship cabinetry from overseas which can become expensive for the more budget conscious. A similar caveat should be noted for those in other countries looking at the standards in the United States. One of the greatest benefits of the A size standard is that larger slips can be folded in half to create the next smaller size down, so for example you could use A4 slips, but fold them in half and have them fit very neatly into your A5 standard box.

Your personal working needs may also play a factor in your choice. Nabokov, mentioned above, may have opted for simple shoebox like boxes because he preferred to be able to work easily on the move. However as seen in the example in Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An Enquiry into Morals, you might also want to guard against your box tipping over and spilling all over your room. This incidentally is the purpose of the holes in library card catalog cards which are held into their drawers by long metal rods. One should keep in mind that death by zettelkasten as seen in Anatole France’s book L’Île Des Pingouins (1908) is rare, but given the vending machine size and weight of some of the larger index card filing cabinets below, one might consider some care. 

My personal preference has been for the 4 x 6 inch form factor, so most of the suggestions below are geared toward that size, though in many cases options for 3 x 5 inch cards are all readily, if not more readily, available. Card storage for larger form factors may not be as readily available for more modern options, but with a little bit of looking, perhaps you’ll find something functional and within your budgetary range. I have definitely seen some lovely storage options for larger cards.

Of course if you go all-in on a gorgeous restored wooden card filing cabinet for something in the $5,000+ range that you intend to use for the next 50 years, the $100/year storage cost over time may seem like a drop in the bucket for something that will help to develop and expand your knowledge and creativity. When you compare this to computers in the $500 – $2,000 range, it’s really not so bad, particularly when you realize that these won’t need replacements or upgrades over time the way your computer might. They also don’t come with the recurring costs for data storage, back up, or software subscriptions that digital zettelkasten methods entail.

One of the few caveats in purchasing a box for your cards is to make sure that they’ll actually fit. While many boxes may advertise that they’re for a specific size and usually those will fit, you may actually want them to be slightly larger. For example, a box may fit your 4 x 6 inch slips, but will it also accommodate the tabbed index cards you use to help organize them? As a result you may actually want something that will accommodate 4.5 – 4.75 inches in height instead of just 4 inches. If you’re shopping for boxes in person, it may behoove you to carry around an index card or two or even a tabbed card to make sure your potential new box will work for you.

DIY and Makeshift Boxes

As I recommended above, your best bet on a first box is something that you have on hand, can upcycle, or that you can make for yourself in DIY fashion. Cardboard boxes, shoeboxes, or even custom cut and glued/taped cardboard can serve as a useful and functional zettelkasten box. One practitioner I’ve encountered swears by her upcycled Sam Edelman shoeboxes which are incredibly sturdy and colorfully handsome boxes which others might spend upwards of $40 on otherwise. Some recycled cardboard and duct tape can give you a custom-sized box for pennies on the dollar and fit anywhere from 500 – 2,000 cards pretty easily.

If you want to go crazy you can decorate your box with stickers, construction paper, or even wrap it with fabric or contact or shelf paper with a variety of patterns and designs. Because they’re cheap, you may as well spend a few dollars and minutes decorating and making your box something you enjoy working with for the coming weeks and months.

Modern Boxes

Before exploring boxes made specifically for index cards, keep in mind that there are some vendors who make boxes for other purposes, but which will easily accommodate your index cards as well.

Recipe boxes

While these tend to be relatively small and only hold somewhere from 200 – 1000 cards, they can be excellent starter boxes that allow some portability and more style options than many of the other options on the market. You can easily find these sorts of recipe boxes in online stores like Amazon and Etsy in a variety of styles, colors, and materials (wood, plastic, metal, etc.) A wide variety of these should be easy to find in the $10 – $100 range from such a wide variety of vendors and suppliers that I won’t bother to mention them.

My first box was a small tin, green box that I’m reasonably sure was from the Martha Stewart collection from Macy’s that I repurposed until it outgrew its 300 card capacity.

photo of desk featuring a green index card with a fountain pen on top of it. Surrounding it are a book on a book stand, a green card index and a pair of glasses

Microfiche boxes

Library supplies company Brodart has a selection of potential boxes including Microfiche boxes. These should easily fit 4 x 6″ index cards as well as card dividers with taller tabs which commercially don’t often get taller than 4 1/2″. See also their microfiche divider guides which might be used for sectioning one’s work.

Postcard boxes

Brodart and some other art and photo supply manufacturers make boxes for postcards or photos. (N.B. presuming the 4 1/8″ H dimension of Brodart’s postcard box is even the outer dimension, this means that one can’t easily keep tab cut dividers which often go from 4 3/8″ to 4 1/2″ tall in these boxes with the lids on properly.)

Another subtle difference between Brodart’s postcard and microfiche boxes is that the smaller postcard box is 60-pt paper versus 40-pt for the larger microfiche box, which means that while sturdy, isn’t quite as sturdy. A side benefit in addition to their stackability is that they’re designed for archival storage purposes which may help in long term storage of your collection.

Photo boxes

While they’re no longer available, Ryan Holiday has previously indicated in many places that he prefers and uses Cropper Hopper plastic photo boxes to keep his index card-based commonplace book. Though those aren’t around anymore, there are certainly others that will fit the bill well since 4 x 6 inch standard photo size are the same size as many index cards. And of course, if you’ve got a favorite index card or two, why not buy a photo frame to feature it on your desk?

Decorative boxes

Kuggis is a generic, but fashionable IKEA box with a lid that can be used for card storage. At 7 x 10.25 x 6 inches its a nice size and just about the perfect size for 4 x 6″ index cards. The lid has a slight indent to make it easily stackable. At $5.99 its a nice budget-conscious option.

Surely there are a wide variety of other decorative boxes one might find with a bit of looking. The downside may be that while these might look nice on a desk, they’re less likely to be high capacity, modular, or able to grow beyond a certain point.

a white wooden crate with rope handles at each end and a red placard on the side that reads "Joy" with the "o" replaced with a snowflake.
I recently saw a simple decorative holiday box from Kohl’s that could be repurposed into a holiday themed zettelkasten. Does your zettelkasten bring you this kind of “joy”?

Universal Storage Boxes

There are a number of available mass manufactured boxes made for a variety of general use purposes which can be used for zettelkasten containers. Some of these include:

Room Essentials™ 6qt Clear Storage Box White, a clear plastic box with a white lid whose interior measurements are 11 1/2″ x 6 3/8″ x 4 3/8″ and retails for $1.50. These are billed as nested/stackable as well. (Example in use

Sterilite 1751 – 6 Qt. ClearView Latch™ Box, a clear plastic box with handles whose interior measurements are 11 5/8″ x 6 1/8″ x 4 5/8″ and retails for $3.89 at vendors like Target, Home Depot, TruValue, and Big Lots. (Example in use)

Boxes made specifically for index cards

For the more serious zettler, one may prefer to have boxes which are custom made for storing index cards. These usually have some nice refinements for daily use, are more rugged, and come in a variety of colors and styles and are generally meant for easy use in a desk drawer, on one’s desktop, or for easy storage on office shelves. As a result, they’re also generally a bit more expensive than their non-custom brethren.

Acrimet makes a number of box sizes (3 x 5, 4 x 6, 5 x 8, and 6 x 9) and a variety of colors in metal with plastic lids. They all hold approximately 600 index cards and range from $28.00 – 45.00 depending on the card size they’re meant for. While these are quite beautiful on a desk, their hinged lids don’t lend them to easy stackable accessibility if you have a larger collection. This is what I personally used after making the step up from a recipe box, though I opted for purchasing a few additional plastic dividers for $4.20 each 

A small metal zettelkasten with a clear plastic lid sitting on a wooden table with a fountain pen and index card in front of it

コレクト (Collect, or sometimes translated as Correct) MDF boxes from Japan, $40 and up holds approximately 1,000 cards. The dimensions for these are usually given in centimeters, and so are more likely to be found for DIN sized cards (A6 or A7). These were the boxes used by Hawk Sugano who used a Correct Indexcard Dock (C-153DF) box for some of his 3×5″ index card “Pile of Index Cards” practice.

Globe-Weis/Pendaflex Fiberboard Index Card Storage Box, $20 – $25, holds up to 1,000 cards. These are the boxes used by writer Robert Green to write his books. When they were originally manufactured by Weis, these were also the boxes used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. They’re made of some sturdy archival quality cardboard and their simple structure makes them fairly large and easy to stack. 

Snap-N-Store Index Card holder is a collapsible box fits that will fit 1,100 4 x 6 cards for $10 – $15.

Max Gear business card/index card boxes are made of bamboo and will hold up to 600 cards for about $40.00. 

JUNDUN index card holder can contain 1,200 cards, comes in 3 x 5 and 4 x 6 options with several available colors from $18 – $30. While being portable, these are also lockable and fireproof. 

Steelmaster card files manufactured by MMF Industries are one of the more industrial/serious options in this category. Their 263644BLA Index Card File Holds 400 4 x 6 cards with dimensions of 6 3/4 x 4 1/5 x 5 inches. $80- $100.

Library Charging Trays

These boxes were originally intended for use in libraries to help librarians keep physical track of the books which were out on loan. Because the 3 x 5″ index cards used in the pockets of library books were primarily used in portrait orientation instead of landscape, these boxes are meant to accommodate that specific size and orientation. These might be an interesting choice if you use a non-standard card orientation or perhaps if you’re recreating the old Memindex card productivity system. A few manufacturers like Brodart still make them or they might be found on the used market as libraries continue computerizing. You’re exceptionally unlikely to find them for larger card sizes. I’ve seen them in 1 to 5 tray styles in a variety of lengths and colors and some even with lids. Used versions of Remington-Rand and Gaylord Brothers versions can be found used online (eBay often has them), but they’re usually misidentified as drawers and very rarely identified as library card charging trays.

Update [2023-11-30]: I’ve written a bit more about these boxes and provided photos of a couple I’ve collected for those interested in more information about them.

Side view of a three row charging tray with index cards sitting in it.

 

Brodart Full-Length Single Charging Tray Intended for desktop use, it holds 1,000 5″H x 3″W cards, has an adjustable steel follower block with automatic lock, and felt pads on tray bottom to protect your desktop.

Brodart Mini Single Charging Tray holds 600 5″H x 3″W cards, adjustable steel follower block with automatic lock, felt pads on tray bottom 

Modular and Industrial options

For the more serious long term zettelers who have rapidly growing collections, there are some options for modular systems that will allow you to easily add additional boxes over time.

Vaultz 2 drawer card file both with/without locks, $69. These are the type used by many in the zettelkasten space including Scott Scheper.

Steelmaster by MMF Industries, mentioned above in a smaller form factor, also manufactures a two drawer modular card cabinet that holds up to 3,000 cards. Their model MMF263F4616DBLA runs in the $75-100 range. If you’re interested in these, they seem to be becoming harder to find, so you may wish to purchase a few up front in case they are discontinued in the coming years, which seems to be the general case for these sturdier metal filing boxes over the past several decades.

Office furniture manufacturer Bisley has a relatively wide variety of small modular boxes in a variety of form factors and vibrant colors. Some of these aren’t as readily sourced in the United States, but can be ordered from their New York offices. They are not only meant to be stackable, but have options for locking them as well. 

Tennsco is one of the few remaining index card filing cabinet manufacturers left in the United States. They make significantly larger cabinets with a variety of sizes, numbers of drawers and colors. Amazon carries a variety of them as does the aptly named Metal Cabinet Store. For purchasing new card filing cabinets that can hold tens of thousands of cards, this seems to be the only stop. Depending on type, number of drawers, and your particular card size these can range from $1,800 – $2,300 and will store up to 43,400 index cards. On the positive side with such high capacities, two of them will likely to take you a lifetime to fill. I’ve not seen exact specifications for these, but I suspect they’re made of slightly lighter 18 gauge alloy steel which makes them fairly sturdy while still being only about 220 pounds. They’re not quite as industrial as the 20 gauge steel filing cabinets made in the mid-1900s which can much stronger as well as much heavier.

FireKing Card, Check & Note File Cabinet, 6 Drawers (6-2552-C) FireKing International manufactures a 1-hour fire protection filing cabinet with index card inserts, that has options for various locks, is rated for 30 foot drops, and is sealed against potential water damage. They offer both four and six drawer options with the larger clocking in at a massive 863 pounds. With each of the 18 sections on the 6 drawer model capable of 25 15/16″ of storage, this beast should hold about 64,800 index cards. The rough news is that this king of cabinets, while providing great protection and security for your zettelkasten, runs a fairly steep $6,218.00 and up which makes it one of the more expensive options out there. Despite the initial sticker shock though, keep in mind that it should provide a lifetime of secure and worry-free storage for just under 10 cents per card.  

Brodart libary card catalogs. Brodart is one of the few companies still manufacturing library card catalogs, and they’re doing so in a modular way so that you have a bit more selection about how big your filing cabinet is and how it’s configured. Generally you can choose a table base or not, how many sections of drawers you purchase, whether or not it includes writing board sections (for having writing surfaces for quick note taking in front of it), as well as the ability to remove the top and add new sections. The down side here is that they only make them in the 3 x 5 inch form factor. I’ve previously written about them and some of their available supplies in detail in the past here: Brodart Library Supplies for the Analog Zettelkasten Enthusiast.

Vintage Boxes

Commercial demand for card index files has waned dramatically since the advent of commercial computing. Fortunately they were so tremendously ubiquitous from the late 1800s through the mid-to-late 1900s, they can readily be found in acceptable to excellent used condition, and sometimes even in restored condition for a reasonable sum in comparison to purchasing new filing cabinets. Because the market for people looking for these used boxes and filing cabinets is so thin they’re not terribly expensive. The one caveat to this seems to be for larger restored/refinished wooden library card catalogs from the early 1900s in part because they are stunning pieces of nostalgic furniture and can still function as curiosity cabinets or high end wine storage cabinets.

These cabinets can be searched for at specialty office liquidation companies, surplus government/school/library companies, auctions, and vintage and antique stores. However, some of the quickest places to find these on the less expensive side can be your local Craigslist furniture listings, E-bay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, Offerup.com, and even Nextdoor.com. I recommend looking around at all of these venues for the variety of what’s available versus your particular style, taste, and budget level. Looking and waiting can be particularly useful if you’re budget conscious, but I’d also advise that once you know what you want and have fallen in love with something, buy it immediately as you may not come across a particular piece again.

A wooden 12 drawer index card filing cabinet (or zettelkasten) sitting in an antique store.
I ran across this 12 drawer 4 x 6 inch index card filing cabinet at an antique store in Southern California in December 2022.

Because some of these cabinets are so large and the demand is so low, many sellers may be motivated to offload them for much less than they list them for. I purchased my own Singer Industrial cabinet for $200.00 while I’ve seen similar ones listed online (and unsold for long periods of time) for over $1,000. Sellers of refinished pieces are much less likely to drop their prices for obvious reasons.

Another factor to consider in purchasing larger cabinets is that in the 200+ pound range, these can be harder to package and ship and may require freight or furniture shipping methods. As a result, shipping can easily cost as much as the piece itself, so when shopping, keep this in mind. If you’re more budget conscious, narrow your search to local sellers which may make pick-up or shipping significantly cheaper.

Once you’ve gotten something, keep in mind that the original wear and tear and potential patina of a piece can be part of the allure and nostalgia. Sadly, second and third hand owners may not realize the functionality of some pieces of these files and as a result they may be missing some hardware like card rods, following blocks, locks, or other pieces which may be hard if not impossible to find or replace. 

If you’re inclined, you can either send them out for refinishing or refinish them yourself. Some of the larger metal pieces can run from $500 – $1,500 to bead blast and re-paint or re-enamel, but have the benefit that you can choose which color(s) you’d like them to be to fit into your decor. You may have to search around to find refinishing shops for these, but you might also find that your local auto-repair firm is well set up for stripping, priming, and repainting these as well (some of them are almost as large as a car, but without wheels and engines.) 

Wood

Cabinets in the late 1800s and early 1900s were primarily manufactured out of wood. Some midcentury and later cabinets mixed wood with steel drawers or in the late century wood cabinets with plastic drawers inside mounted to wooden fronts. Many were made with quarter sawn oak or with “tiger oak”, which can often be a useful key search term for finding them. Sometimes it can also be useful to search for the key phrase “apothecary cabinet” as many who have these either don’t understand the difference or add it to increase their search exposure for potential buyers who seemingly no longer desire to store large quantities of index cards. Another useful search phrase is midcentury modern (or the abbreviation MCM) especially if you like that particular esthetic. 

While a number of manufacturers focused on the library card catalog space with catalogs containing 10-30 or more drawers almost exclusively for the 3 x 5 inch index card, many also made file card furniture for business use and these can usually be found with 1-10 drawers in size. Possibly most common are the two drawer files which can often be stacked in a modular way to allow for growth of one’s desktop system. In these areas it is more common to find 3 x 5 inch and 4 x 6 inch form factors, but often larger card sized furniture was built and distributed, though these are rarer on the second hand market.

Oblique angle on a Shaw-Walker 11 inch 3 x 5 inch card index
An 11 inch Shaw-Walker wooden card index that I picked up for $10.

With some searching, one can also find combination cabinets that have drawers not only for index cards, but also contain standard hanging file drawers for 8.5 x 11 inch files and paper filing purposes. These sorts are particularly more common in the very early 1900’s as modular systems which were focused on the business market.

A two drawer wooden card index sitting on a wooden table

Some of the more common manufacturers for wood card catalog files include: 

  • Library Bureau (Ilion, NY) (1876), Sometimes listed as “Library Bureau Sole Makers”
  • Yawman & Erbe 
  • Globe-Wernicke
  • Gaylord Bros. Inc. (Syracuse, NY and Stockton, CA) (1896)
  • Remington Rand
  • Weis (Monroe, Michigan)
  • Wagemaker
  • Tucker File & Cabinet Co. (Ilion, NY)
  • The Fred Macey Company, Ltd. (Grand Rapids, Michigan) aka Macey

Update: In September 2023, I’ve written more detail about the state of the used Library Card Catalog market, for those who might be interested in going that route for 3 x 5″ index cards: Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023.

A waist high Gaylord Bros. library card catalog with a smaller desktop card index and black Smith-Corona Clipper typewriter on top.

Another option on the secondary market are used library charging trays, but it’s rare that sellers know what these were called or how they were used, so searching for and finding them can be difficult at best. Most often sellers confuse these with card catalog drawers or tray inserts. Additionally searching for charging trays directly results in modern accessories for charging cell phones and other personal electronic devices. Because they’re difficult to search, there’s a greater than necessary implied rarity to them, and as a result, they can be listed for several hundreds of dollars though most often they sell in the range of $5-15 per row of cards in the tray and are frequently found in configurations of one, two, three, and sometimes up to five rows of cards in a single unit.

Library charging tray with two rows for storing 3 x 5" index cards in portrait orientation. It's sitting on a small library card catalog.
A two row charging tray sitting on top of a library card catalog.

In addition to the more standard run-of-the-mill card files in single or multi-box form, you might also find some rarer combination furniture like the Satelite Combination Card Index Cabinet and Telephone Stand (circa 1906), though something like this could also be used as a semi-portable or movable piece of furniture that one could place as a small writing surface next to their favorite reading chair to write and file notes away on a leisurely evening.

1906 Advertisement for a combination card index table and telephone stand featuring a desk with the satellite combination table next to it.
1906 magazine ad from the Adjustable Table Company

Steel

As the 20th century progressed, many manufacturers switched from wood to steel as their material of choice. Most library card catalogs continued to be made of wood though a few can be found in steel. The larger proportion of steel filing cabinets cabinets were manufactured by companies that also manufactured desks and other industrial use filing cabinets. 

Again, here desktop two drawer modular/stackable cabinets abound though 8 – 10 drawer and even larger free-standing filing cabinets can be found. Many of these include tab and slot features to lock them together for safer stacking. A good example of a modularly built collection can be seen in this photo from a 2017 New York Times article of Joan Rivers’ collection of index cards with 36 drawers of 4-by-6-inch index cards containing jokes she’d accumulated over her lifetime of work. 

Credit: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Somewhat rarer, but findable, one may encounter filing cabinets meant for Hollerinth or punch cards which eventually standardized at 3.25 x 7.375 inches, which was also the standard size for paper currency of 1862–1923. Often these will have drawers high enough to accommodate 4 x 6 inch cards, but one should double check this prior to purchase.

Some of the more common steel cabinet makers include:

  • Yawman & Erbe 
  • All-Steel Equipment, Inc. (ASE) (Aurora, Illinois) 
  • Steelmaster (Art Steel Co., Inc.) (New York)
  • Browne-Morse (Muskegon, Michigan)
  • Cole-Steel Equipment Company (New York) 
  • Singer Business Furniture
  • Globe-Wernicke
  • Buddy (later Sandusky/Buddy)
    • They seem to have ceased manufacturing them some time around 2016
  • MMF Industries
  • GWS

The smaller 1 to 3 drawer vintage metal card files are readily available on a variety of online shopping sites usually between $15 and $40. This isn’t bad given how expensive new files can run. Many were made with small fittings that allow them to be stackable. Usually these are sturdy, but light enough for relatively inexpensive shipping. If they’re in bad shape, they can usually be easily cleaned up and primed and repainted in more modern colors to suit your taste and style. 

The larger multi-drawer full cabinets can often run from $200 to over $1,000, but their bigger issue is that they’re so large and heavy that they can be in the range of $800 or more to ship anywhere. If you want something like this, your best bet is to try to find something local that you can drive to and pick up locally.

If you’re into 4 x 6 inch cards, double check with the seller to make sure that they’ll fit as most sellers won’t list the card sizes for drawers since they don’t expect them to actually still be used as card indexes and they’ll neglect to not additional clearances for tabbed cards. Keep in mind that often even the somewhat larger cabinets are a 1/4″ too short for 4 x 6 inch cards, much less the slightly taller tabbed cards (A-Z) you might use for separating sections. 

A while back I personally picked up a large Singer Business Furniture card index which I’ve written a fair bit about. Some of the information there may help to provide some more context about these larger cabinets.

Custom made

Of course given all this selection, you still may not have found the right box for your taste or your working style. In this case you may want to have something custom made. Given this, however, it may still behoove you and your designer to be aware of what has existed in the past when designing something specific for your needs. 

Some common features you might find useful in either designing or choosing your own cabinets include:

  • follow blocks to bunch cards to the front of the drawer and hold them upright or at a slight angle without falling over;
  • bail stops, a mechanism to keep the drawer from being accidentally pulled completely out of the case and dropping your cards everywhere;
  • card rods as often seen in library card catalogs which insert from the front to the back of the bottom of drawers to prevent accidental card spillage.

I don’t have many examples of custom made set ups, but I’ll add links to what I find below and some individuals may add others in the comments section below as well.

Examples

Been working on this Zettlekasten for my thesis for nearly a year… Made some personal modifications to the system, so it includes a chronological stack of cards and lots of images.
byu/fer_mese inantinet

In late 2022/early 2023, Scott Scheper commissioned a two drawer solid wood (cedar) desktop zettelkasten box similar to those from the early 20th century. He had it listed on his website initially for $995 and then later for a reduced price of $495. He created a waitlist sign up for copies like it, ostensibly to test the interest in  manufacturing/selling them as a product. To my knowledge he never made any beyond the initial prototype, but it does show that one could custom make their own if they prefer.

Foreign Made Zettelkasten

Particularly missing from this collection is a wide array of European standard furniture and boxes for A4, A5, A6 etc. cards. There are some great German, Russian, and other cultural design specific pieces I’ve not included, in part because they’re not as readily available in my market and I haven’t yet had the time to delve into their histories. If you’ve got experience here, I’d love to hear what’s available.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the IKEA Moppe will work for A7 cards. Additionally, I’ve heard that some Chinese practitioners have used Taobao cabinets.

Others?

In addition to the A-standard types mentioned above, surely I’ve missed some boxes and cabinets along the way, though this may be one of the more complete collections of boxes I’ve seen compiled. If I’ve missed any that should be included, or you have an example (your own perhaps?) that I can feature or link to, please let me know in the comments or via a reply in social media. Particularly appreciated are examples of non-standard boxes in use as zettelkasten or custom made examples, particularly if they include photos and/or DIY instructions for construction.

Remember that you shouldn’t have to settle for your zettel… Happy zettel casting!


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