How the Office Came Home


Review of Office by Sheila Liming, and The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information, by Craig Robertson

New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021


Confession: I hate working from home. After the university I teach at transitioned to remote instruction in mid-March 2020, I reluctantly followed hundreds of my colleagues and students in abandoning classrooms, offices, and libraries, and set up shop in an extra bedroom in my apartment. Life and labor seemed to blur together as I recorded lectures in my pajamas, cooked dinner while half-listening to seminars, and even held remote office hours while riding my bike on an indoor trainer during the frigid western New England winter. I couldn’t wait to get back to my office.

As it turns out, I’m in the minority. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s that Americans have discovered that they like trading the daily slog to the office for the more flexible arrangements afforded by remote work. An August 2020 New York Times-Morning Consult poll found that 86% of Americans were “satisfied with working from home” and only 1 in 5 wanted to return to the office on a full-time basis once the pandemic is over. This sentiment seems to have endured even as increased vaccination rates enable the restoration of something resembling the working conditions of the “before times.” At the same time, it’s clear that all is not well in the COVID-reshaped American workplace. Whether at home or at the office, American workers experience the highest levels of stress compared to the rest of the world and nearly half of them say they’re more burned out in 2021 than they were in 2020.

My particular discontent stemmed, paradoxically, from my nostalgia for precisely that place which my fellow Americans appear happy to abandon: the office itself. To be clear, I didn’t miss the depressing Brutalist building that houses the UMass History department and evokes the dreary concrete aesthetics of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. Nor did I exactly pine for the physical space that houses my office on the sixth floor of the building: it is perfectly adequate but also unexceptional, and my home workspace proved just as well suited to fulfilling the requirements of Zoom university without the commute.

Instead, I yearned for what my office meant—specifically that after inhabiting shared workspaces as a grad student and postdoc, I had finally “made it” to the status of “professor.” I’d like to imagine that my yearning for a return to the office is more widely shared than surveys say, not because the office provides any real respite from the anxiety of living under late capitalism but because its presence in our lives paradoxically makes that anxiety manageable in ways that work from home does not. In simplest terms, we “labor” at the office, we “live” at home, and the spatial separation between the domestic and the professional ought to prevent work from taking over our lives and preserve time for leisure.

Yet, after reading Sheila Liming and Craig Robertson’s timely recent books, I’m not sure that the line between the private and the professional is quite as clear cut. Both writers argue that the office has been a fundamental site of meaning-making for modern life; the logics of organization, hierarchy, and political economy that developed in office space, they contend, eventually came to dominate capitalist culture as a whole. They build upon a burgeoning field of historical scholarship that has sought to understand the different ways in which human societies throughout history have produced, circulated, and stored information.

But though they are deeply versed in this historiography, Liming and Robertson are not primarily interested in making interventions into academic debates. Wearing their erudition lightly, both write instead to prompt the general reading public to think more deeply about what the office means to everyday life. They suggest that the idea that the office enabled a separation between “life” and “labor” may always have been more imagined than real. Reading their accounts, I suspect that COVID didn’t suddenly blur the boundaries between “home” and “work,” but rather accelerated a process of conflation that had long been underway. It just took the pandemic for most of us to notice that it was happening.

The office, Liming writes in her brief, witty, and utterly delightful book of the same title, began not as a place you went, but instead as a position you held. The term derives from the Latin oficium, which referred to a “post that came with certain responsibilities (as in the phrase ‘to hold public office’)” (13). This meaning inhered in how the office was understood in medieval and early modern Europe. Only during the nineteenth century did a conception of the office as “a space that could be physically experienced and also inhabited” really solidify (14).

But as with the earlier definition, an idea of “separation” inhered within this modern concept. For early office holders, that separation was between themselves and those whom they ruled. By the early 1800s, however, that separation was concerned with delineating physical space rather than political subjectivity. In this industrializing world whose political contours had been reshaped by the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, business owners and social theorists conceived of that separation as between economic, rather than political, subjects. The office was distinguished from the shop floor, a space of brainwork strictly separated from that where manual labor was performed. The connotation of this initial meaning wasn’t entirely positive: as Liming explains, nineteenth-century authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne poked fun at the office as a space of conformity and lethargy, a place “where nothing ever got invented or created or done but, merely, half-heartedly managed or arranged or overseen” (19-20).

But by the turn of the twentieth century, the office—conceived of as a space for working with your head rather than your hands—had come to be favorably glossed. The reason lay in the coupling of the office to an emerging value of industrial capitalism: efficiency. Efficiency, as the historian Jennifer Karns Alexander has shown, originated as a technical concept in early nineteenth century industrial mechanics, but soon spread seemingly everywhere in social discourse to describe “controlled” processes that maximized results in relation to the amount of effort put into them—from factory assembly lines and standardized work schedules to weapons systems and markets. How, advocates of efficiency wondered, could both people and information be organized so that the maximum amount of profit could be extracted from them?

The office, Liming explains, came to be seen as a place where work could be made efficient. During the twentieth century, the human sciences sought to study how efficiency (itself a historically specific concept) could be maximized and in turn shaped the culture of the modern office. Two developments were particularly crucial in this regard, Liming shows. First, the emergence of “scientific management,” associated with the early twentieth century American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, which sought through empirical investigation to discover principles of labor organization that would maximize productivity; and second, the embrace of verticality as an architectural principle for designing office space, a development pioneered by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Vertically organized workspaces, Wright thought, would cultivate a sense of awe and wonder in workers, akin to the feeling of entering a cathedral. As businesses applied Taylorism and other theories of management within these erect physical spaces, the office came to be seen as the locus of productive efficiency—the place where you went to “get work done.”

This culture of management inhered not only in the space of the modern office, but also in the things that distinguished its physical geography—what the anthropologist Shannon Mattern has influentially termed “intellectual furnishings,” those objects for creating, sorting, and using information (bookshelves, writing desks, and media walls, for example) that construct and shape the terms upon which thinking itself happens. To the “efficient” workplaces of the twentieth century, Craig Robertson argues, the most important of these furnishings was the metal filing cabinet. As Robertson shows in this enthralling history, the vertical filing cabinet was the central technology that shaped both the aesthetics and values of both modern office and domestic space. At both work and home, Americans adopted the technology of vertical filing to make space “efficient.”

I have a metal filing cabinet in my office on campus, but I’ve never used it except as a coat hanger. I suspect some of my undergraduate students—born, let’s be honest, in a different century than I—may not even know what it is. Yet, as Robertson shows, the vertical filing cabinet embodied the governing logics of both work and home in modern capitalist society. It did so by instrumentalizing into a hunk of metal the particular concept of “information” that lay at the heart of capitalist modernity. Following its invention in the 1890s to store paper so that individual sheets could be easily retrieved, the filing cabinet served to define “information” as discrete, instrumental, and easily accessible. Moreover, the filing cabinet rendered information valuable precisely because it made it efficient—easily and quickly retrievable, nontechnical, and thus able to be quickly mobilized in the office and the home to maximize productivity, profit, and speed.

That the humble filing cabinet could achieve all of this might seem remarkable not simply because of its simple structure but also because other intellectual furnishings for filing papers had existed for centuries prior to the filing cabinet’s invention. Why did these modes—the tablet, the codex, the manuscript, the folio, to name just a few examples of ancient, medieval, and early modern methods of storing information—ultimately give way to the filing cabinet?

The answer, Robertson argues, lies in the latter’s cultural status as the embodiment of efficiency. Unlike older methods of storing information, the filing cabinet was seen as a mode of rapid retrieval that vertically organized paperwork in terms of hierarchies of importance and allowed for the consultation of discrete pieces of information in the form of unbundled sheets of paper. The filing cabinet was therefore particularly well-suited (in a way these earlier methods were not) to the demands of the modern corporate milieu in which height signaled importance (think of the “corporate ladder” and the skyscraper) and speed equaled money.

Crucially, however, these values—and the filing cabinet that embodied them—could not be confined to the office. During the 1920s and 1930s, Robertson shows, filing quite literally came home, as “cabinet logic” infiltrated kitchens and bedrooms with the rise of “planned storage” modes of domestic space that enabled its efficient division according to principles of “scientific housekeeping” that enabled the easy retrieval of supplies such as dishes, ingredients, toiletries, and clothes by housewives (104, 223-224). As the spread of efficiency blurred the lines between the home and the office, ideologies of “home economics” encouraged Americans to organize their domestic space like their offices—around values of productivity and efficiency. In kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms, they installed storage units that divided space so as to allow for the rapid retrieval of discrete personal objects just as the filing cabinet’s logic of separation allowed for the rapid retrieval of discrete information in the workplace.

The efficient model of the cabinet came to define the organization of both the modern home and the modern office. In the process, it muddled the distinction between them, subjecting both to a uniform logic of organization that pervaded both private and public spheres. Even as the filing cabinet itself now seems like a largely vestigial structure, replaced by personal computing and cloud storage, and electronic modes of communication appear to have rendered paper documents obsolete, the structure of organizing information into discrete units that vertical filing pioneered and encapsulated remains ubiquitous—as does its underlying ideology. Look no further than the way computer operating systems organize information into “files” and “folders”, and the proliferation of “productivity apps” that promise to help you “get things done efficiently.” As these books show, much hyped technological changes that touched both work and life—typewriters replaced by computers, paper files by the cloud, and landlines by mobile devices—belied a deeper continuity: well before the pandemic began, the ethos of the office had become that of modern life itself.

In this sense, bold pronouncements that “COVID Killed The Traditional Workplace”, that “office work will never be the same” in the aftermath of the pandemic, and that we will “never go back to the office” obscure the more complex—and far more interesting—circumstances so effectively demonstrated by Liming and Robertson. The borders dividing home from work, the private from the public, and the official from the personal have long been porous, and both have been shaped by the same logic of efficiency at the heart of modern capitalism. The pandemic simply made this process explicit, and our own insistence that work is a “public” space while home is a “private” one masks the fact that both have been shaped by the same organizational logic of the market. As hard as many of us will now struggle to erect firm divisions between these spheres in a slowly reopening world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find that it’s a battle we’ve already lost. We don’t have to “go back” to the office because, as Liming and Robertson’s timely, incisive, and impressively imaginative books suggest, we never really left.



Posted on 9 July 2021

ASHEESH KAPUR SIDDIQUE is an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is currently completing a book about the relationship between archives and government in the early modern British empire.