Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial 16 drawer index card filing cabinet

I suppose if you’re gonna goin “all-in” on having a zettelkasten (slip box) or index card-based commonplace book you may as well invest in some serious atomic-era heavy steel hardware…

So today I took the plunge and picked up a Singer Business Furniture 20 gauge steel industrial index card filing cabinet. It’s the sort of thing that Niklas Luhmann or Roland Barthes may have only dreamt of.

Angle on an open drawer with two individual card files
One of the double drawers pulled out.

The monster has 8 sliding platform chassis with 16 removable file drawers. I’ve done a little bit of clean up on it, but it has been well loved over time. Much like my prior furniture refurbishment projects, I expect I’ll bead blast off the original finish and rust and re-enamel it. I’m debating colors or potentially going brushed steel with heavy clear coat, though that’s a lot of work for the size and configuration. I’m initially thinking perhaps gunmetal grey with metallic blue flecked paint to match my desk, or perhaps a fun orange highlight color on the drawer fronts?

Specifications

Singer Business Furniture, Corry Jamestown index card filing cabinet (114 OB)

  • 8 slider chassis with 16 individually (and easily) removeable drawers
  • Exterior dimensions: 22 7/8″ wide x 52″ tall x 28 3/4″ deep
  • Interior drawer dimensions: 9 3/8″ wide x 4 3/4″ tall x 27 3/8″ deep (or 26 1/8″ deep with the card stops installed)
  • Fits cards: 3×5″, 4×6″, 7 3/8 x 3 1/4″ (Hollerinth cards)
  • Removable metal slider card stops
  • 13 removeable index card rods (3 missing)
  • Aluminum drawer pulls
  • Aluminum label frames
  • Original industrial beige color, chipped and scratched
  • 20 gauge steel

I thought about weighing it, but the thing is just too big for any of the nearby scales I’ve got access to. It’s definitely a bear to move even by sliding and required a heavy dolly and at least two people to maneuver. Three or more would be required to pick it up physically.  One drawback to the size and weight is that it isn’t easily portable if there were an emergency, but the construction is so solid that it should definitely survive the most dire earthquakes or possibly nuclear bomb blasts. I suspect it’ll be a bit before I have multiple drawers full, so I can always individually remove active drawers.

A quick calculation on the front of an index card—no more backs of envelopes for me!—indicates that packs of relatively standard Oxford index cards should put the capacity of this monster at 55,700 index cards (with the drawer stops in place).

Photos

Features

The drawers should be nice and roomy for the 4×6″ index cards I’ve been using, but can also accommodate collections of smaller 3×5″ cards I’ve got.

While the drawers come with index card rods to hold the cards physically in their files, I suspect I won’t be using them. They seem to be of a design that would require custom cards for utilizing this feature anyway. I do quite like the rod design as the thumbscrews on the outside have small nubs on them with a key-like cut out on the drawer front with a compression washer. One then inserts the rod, fits it into the moveable card stop, and pushes it into the keyhole. A quarter or half turn of the rod and thumbscrew locks the rod into the cabinet.

The index card file stops are easily removable and have a simple springloaded clamp mechanism for moving them easily within the drawer. 

While used, the entire thing is in generally excellent shape. Almost all the original hardware is still extant and the drawer mechanisms all slide smoothly, so those won’t require much, if any real work.

Because the filing cabinet is so massive and generally immovable, a fun and terrifically convenient feature is that each of the 16 file drawers are individually removable. This allows one to take a particular drawer or two to their desk and work on them before needing to return them to the cabinet when one is done. To make this drawer movement easier, in addition to the explicit handle on the front of each drawer, there’s an oval hole on the back of each drawer which functions as a handle on the other end.  This is likely how I’ll use it, at least until I’ve refinished the cabinet and the drawers and move it into my office space permanently. 

Individual drawers of cards can be removed from the filing cabinet. Here's one that has been removed and is sitting sideways on top of the file drawer that had been pulled out.
One of the individual file drawers removed and sitting on its mate.

Because the files are wide and long enough, I might also profitably use the file for holding 8 1/2 x 11″ material stacked up in piles if necessary. 

Naming

Some have talked about naming their zettelkasten. I’ve been considering calling the whole cabinet “The Ark of Studies” (Arca studiorum) after Thomas Harrison’s invention in the 1640s as it also contains a nod to Hugh of St. Victor’s mnemonic work relating to Noah’s Ark. Perhaps I’ll hame it Stonehenge II, because I’ll rely on it as a “forgetting machine” and it’s almost as big and heavy as a bluestone from the Preseli Hills in Wales—especially if I paint it that color. Beyond this perhaps I might give each individual drawer a name. This leaves sixteen slots, so I’m thinking about naming them after famous figures in the history of note taking and related spaces of intellectual history.

Right now it’ll likely be a subset of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Rodolphus Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Thomas Harrison, Vincentius Placcius, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin (I’ve got to have a drawer dedicated to comedy right?), Twyla Tharp, and Eminem. Who else am I missing? Who should I consider?

Oddities

Being a piece of used office furniture, it naturally came with some surplus junk inside. Most of this was of the paperclip and rubber band nature with plenty of dust and lint. There were a full collection of drawer labels with someone’s handwritten numbers for the files the card index once contained. Unexpected finds included some screws, nuts and bolts, part of a hacksaw blade, a rotary saw blade, some drill bits, a socket wrench fitting, and—most puzzling—a live round of ammunition! Every zettelkasten should have one of these right? 

view of bullet from behind as it sits on filing cabinet
The oddest thing I found hiding in my new slip box.

So go ahead and bite the bullet! Get your own cabinet, and start your analog zettelkasten today.

 

Lifestyles of the Note Takers & Intellectuals: Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote most of his works including Lolita using index cards in a slip box.

The slipbox and index cards on which Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita.
The slipbox and index cards on which Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita.

He ultimately died in 1977 leaving an unfinished manuscript in note card form for the novel The Original of Laura. Penguin later published the incomplete novel with in 2012 with the subtitle A Novel in Fragments. Unlike most manuscripts written or typewritten on larger paper, this one came in the form of 138 index cards. Penguin’s published version recreated these cards in full-color reproductions including the smudges, scribbles, scrawlings, strikeouts, and annotations in English, French, and Russian. Perforated, one could tear the cards out of the book and reorganize in any way they saw fit or even potentially add their own cards to finish the novel that Nabokov couldn’t.

Index card with hand drawn table of ages and measurements
Index card on which Nabokov collated notes on ages, heights, and measurements for school aged girls as research for his title character Lolita. (via Library of Congress

More details at: https://www.openculture.com/2014/02/the-notecards-on-which-vladimir-nabokov-wrote-lolita.html