How have office filing procedures transformed as a result of 20th Century revolutions? In today’s blog, LESA’s Distinguished Adviser, the Honourable J.E. Côté, explores former office filing practices and procedures, including what has been lost in translation and what today’s lawyers should know.
Many lawyers have to navigate a company’s or organization’s older office records – especially if the lawyer handles estates or matrimonial property, or conducts constitutional, administrative taxation, or aboriginal litigation. It is certainly true if the lawyer ever uses archives.
A generation ago, all lawyers understood basic office procedures, and had no trouble inspecting clients’ business records. But the 20th Century saw two big revolutions in how offices make and keep records. Now, no lawyer knows the methods used before the first revolution, and many lawyers are not familiar with the methods used before the second revolution.
Let us go in date order. We will start before the first revolution. That is partly to illustrate what caused office practices, because some old problems have now resurfaced – and partly for curiosity. Next comes the first revolution. Then we will look at the long period ensuing which has great practical importance for all lawyers. Then comes the second revolution.
Long before either revolution, offices had ways to make exact copies of documents. Despite what Dickens says, it was not usually necessary to write out a copy (transcription) of the original. Photographic copies have existed since the 1860s, but they were expensive and not possible in an ordinary office. (Cheaper photostats from the 1920s and 1930s were white on black and so hard to read.)
A century ago, an office clerk wanting a copy simply dampened a sheet of thin paper using a sponge, and then pressed the damp sheet against the ink of the original. In those days, every office had a metal screw-down letter press for that. The resulting offset copy was backwards, but since the copy’s paper was translucent, one just turned it over and read it through its back.
All originals were either written with pen and ink, or pencil, or a typewriter. How would damp paper make a copy from pencil? “Indelible” pencils were extremely common, even as late as the 1950s. Their writing turned into purple ink when dampened. Many early typewriter ribbons were purple, and had similar features. (One Edmonton law office used purple ribbons into the 1960s.)
It was tricky to make more than one copy with damp paper and a letter press, but one usually sufficed.
The big significance of this letter-press process was that the copies were not usually loose sheets. Thin paper is easier to handle and preserve when bound in books. So stationers sold large bound books of thin copy paper; often the blank pages were consecutively numbered. To make a copy, the clerk dampened the next unused page, and inserted the original letter next to the damp page. The whole book was then closed and squeezed inside the letter press.
But that means that an incoming letter and its reply could not be kept together. Not to mention enclosures. So incoming and outgoing correspondence were always kept separate. A file containing both was unknown and impossible. Incoming letters were often punched and put into big arch files, sometimes alphabetically by author. (The arch files might hang on hooks on the office wall.) The copies of outgoing correspondence were the bound thin-paper volumes.
Governments would sometimes have printers create printed (typeset) copies of important or often-used sets of correspondence. That was the only way physically to collate incoming letters and outgoing replies.
How could an ordinary office keep track of correspondence on one topic or between two correspondents? All incoming and outgoing correspondence was logged by hand into large ledgers, each page of which was for a particular customer or a particular topic. That is why the English, and our courts, often call a file room “the Registry”.
The First Revolution
The first revolution in methods came during World War One. The famous engineer, Herbert Hoover, reformed American civil service practices. (Later he became President.) Hoover recognized that the invention of non-smudging carbon paper made it easy to make simultaneous copies of anything written with a pencil or a typewriter. Damp paper and letter presses had been very annoying to use, and he abolished them. Carbon copies could be made anywhere on any type of paper, and multiple copies (up to about 5 or 6) were easy on a typewriter. Copies were made on loose sheets.
Cross-copies of letters were often made on special thin-paper letterhead, bearing the word “COPY”.
It was traditional to make the file copy of a letter on newsprint paper, which was almost always canary yellow. Of course the carbon copy did not show the letterhead or the signature. Presence of a yellow carbon copy on a file strongly implied that the original letter (or memo) had been signed and mailed out.
So the bound book of copies of outgoing mail ceased to exist. But it left behind a ghost in North America. That was a chronological file of extra carbon copies on green paper. They persisted in Canada well into the 1960s, maybe later. They were used for internal archival purposes, and to circulate correspondence, to keep everyone in the office informed.
Now that copies were made on separate sheets, it became possible to store together an incoming letter and the reply to it. Hoover also introduced the cardboard file folder and the filing cabinet. (Before then, a “file” meant a bundle of papers attached with a string or ribbon, not a pile of papers inside a folder.)
Introduction of economical teletype (telex) machines in the 1950s changed only one detail. On some machines, there was also a carbon copy roll, thus giving a chronological file of all incoming and outgoing teletype messages. Teletypes persisted in Europe long after North America dropped them.
The 1960s made popular satisfactory office copying machines. At first, they did not change filing practices. But by the 1980s, clerical staff got into the habit of making file copies of outgoing letters by photocopying, rather than carbon paper. Those copies showed the letterhead, and maybe the signature. Rarely was the copy on colored paper, and it usually was not even marked as a copy. File copies could be hard to identify.
Fax machines became very common by the 1980s, but did not change filing systems.
The 1970s introduced computers for office word processing and accounting. That alone did not change much in office record keeping. Therefore, the regime in place until fairly recent years meant locating relevant records was locating the relevant file (folder) or files. Those were usually numbered and created for a specific topic or by project, though in a commercial organization they might be for a customer or supplier. If the files were not simply in the name of a customer or a patient, there would likely be an alphabetical (often card) index to the individual files. There might be a chronological list of files too. In large organizations there could be other indexes, e.g. by land legal descriptions. Police and governments might keep an index of people mentioned in files or reports. There might be a log of people who signed out or accessed files.
The Second Revolution
Then came the century’s second revolution. Offices started using the internet more and more, usually with desktop or portable computers. Business people, executives, and professionals increasingly personally keyboarded without any intervening assistant or secretary. Business emails became exceedingly common. Now even a formal letter, with letterhead, is usually sent only electronically, not via courier or post office.
That second revolution is now still playing out. Most offices now probably have a mixed filing regime, with some correspondence kept on paper in cardboard folders, some preserved somewhere on computer, and some not really preserved at all (such as texts). Indeed, one could say that some correspondence today is much like pre-Hoover days, with some incoming and outgoing correspondence not linked nor kept together – even if it is between the same people on the same topic. One can write an email as a reply to a previous email, but one does not have to. Some people transfer most of their emails to appropriate electronic folders, but many do not. (And one easy way to do so is not really reliable or permanent.) Just how to file multiple linked exchanges of emails among different addressees is a puzzle. So how clients and law firms keep their correspondence and notes varies a great deal.
Orders in Council
I will end with a few words about Orders in Council. Alberta Orders in Council are straightforward. Each is accompanied by a formal recommendation by a Cabinet Minister (since the 1930s, in any event). (Now some of those recommendations are electronically signed and sent.) The recommendation and the Order in Council are very similarly worded. The Order in Council of course reads like a regulation (and many are immediately registered as Alberta Regulations).
But federal Orders in Council used to have peculiarities. First, sometimes one sees printed (typeset) copies of commonly-cited Orders in Council. Some of their details may be altered from the original. Why? At one time, there was no actual document worded as a federal Order in Council! There was only the formal handwritten (or typewritten) Minister’s recommendation for an Order in Council. On the upper corner of the recommendation, the Governor-General would scribble in his own handwriting “Approved”, a date, and his signature. That is all there was.