Avoiding the “Oops”, From the #HistoricalResearch Files
Blunders and boo-boos
I’ve just sent off my latest story Claims of the Heart, for developmental editing, and barely avoided a big “oops”.
Given the multitude of distractions in my world, this was a really hard story to write and finish. Our kitchen remodel required much more of my time than I expected, and all the eating out gave my husband stomach problems requiring much running up and down freeways for doctors’ visits.
A scene in that story involves a visit to a shady solicitor’s office. In the original draft, I had my character looking through file cabinets. The year is 1816.
Call it chance, or luck, or serendipity, but just after I wrote that scene, I came across a review of a newly released book, The Filing Cabinet, A Vertical History of Information, by Craig Robertson.
As it turns out, vertical filing cabinets were invented in the U.S. late in the nineteenth century!!!
Which proves the axiom: you don’t know what you don’t know. Duh. These seemingly small things can be death traps for historical fiction authors. Figuratively speaking of course.
Time to Rewrite
So how would files have been stored in 1816? I remembered a visit I made to James Madison’s office at his Montpellier estate. Here’s my photo:
He stored letters and documents in the pigeon-holes of this cabinet. That was a possibility for my story.
Then I poked around on the internet. There’s an actual Early Office Museum site, with a page on antique filing systems. These are mostly later than the Regency period though. Apparently, serious office organization began in the Victorian era.
Disorganized and personalized systems can be a very good thing for an author, allowing for more creative leeway.
But I needed to know more. Besides pigeonholes, what was available for the Regency era solicitor who wanted to keep his client’s files in order?
Pictures worth a thousand words
I found a fascinating article, Filing, seventeenth-century style by a Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Who would know best on this subject but someone who puzzles out old manuscripts and records.
The post includes several images. A seventeenth century French print, The Prosecutor’s Study was particularly helpful. Papers were bundled and shelved, or strung together and hung on pegs. Most surprising to me was the use of labeled pouches for storage. If you’re an author writing a historical story that touches on document storage, you want to read this.
Or take a close look at these two images from Wikimedia Commons:
Not a filing cabinet in sight! How did they find anything.
It’s no fun to write a whole story and find a big “oops” in it. What’s the worst historical error you’ve read? No author names or titles, please.