Antique File Cabinets: Exploring Unique Storage Styles

Updated March 17, 2021
antique file cabinet

Antique filing cabinets can bring a sense of old-world charm to any industrial office space with their warm tones and solid craftsmanship. As historically useful as they currently are today, antique filing cabinets represent an underrated facet of the past - the mundane aspects of life. To honor these hardworking drawers, take a look at how filing cabinets developed and why antique filing cabinets are still used and collected today.

Filing Cabinets in History

The first traditional filing cabinets were developed in the 1830s to replace the pigeon hole cabinets (cabinets with hole openings) created by manufacturers like the Tyler Office Fixture Company of St. Louis in the early-19th century. By the end of the 19th century, the vertical filing cabinet that offices know and love today was introduced. These early filing cabinets were mostly crafted out of hardwoods like oak and made with three to four tiers. Of course, as demand for these organizing aids developed, so too did the variety of styles, shapes, and stains, and manufacturers began making occupancy-specific cabinets to service the needs of jobs like artists, dentists, entomologists, and so forth.

antique file cabinets

Antique File Cabinet Manufacturers

Of the number of recorded antique filing cabinet manufacturers, two companies stand out for their contributions and innovations to the organizational system. These manufacturers are:

  • The Cameron Amberg Company
  • The Globe Wernicke Company

Cameron Amberg Company

In the late-19th century, the Cameron Amberg Company produced filing cabinets which were specifically designed to hold letter files. Letter files were paper folders which were used to archive documents for safekeeping. Although this is now considered by many to be both messy and tedious, the Cameron Amberg Company's cabinet's sales excelled at the time and the company came to be known as one of the most common filing cabinet makers of the period.

Globe Wernicke Company

While there is some debate over who actually invented the vertical filing cabinet, the Globe Wernicke Company certainly popularized the filing system at the turn of the 20th century. The company, known for its stackable office bookcases, became an impressive contender to the Cameron Amberg Company's success; the manufacturer was seen as such an instrumental part of American business that the Smithsonian Institute has digitized some of the company's trade catalogs and design pamphlets that reside in their collections.

Identifying Antique Filing Cabinets

Given their unassuming design, it's quite likely that your parent's house or your employer's building has an antique filing cabinet still in use in some long-forgotten corner. If you suspect that a filing cabinet may be an antique, be sure to investigate these criteria before hauling it to your local antique store:

  • Check the materials - Most antique filing cabinets were made out of solid hardwood.
  • Look for maker's marks - Look at the bottoms of empty drawers, or underneath the cabinet itself for any maker's marks, logos, or serial numbers that could authenticate its manufacturer and age.
  • Dig around a little - Dig around inside the filing cabinets and see if there's any extant papers lying around that could help you date the cabinet; you just might find a telegram or form giving you a precise date.
Identifying Antique Filing Cabinets

Antique Filing Cabinet Values

As is typical with any furniture, antique filing cabinets are generally worth a few hundred dollars, ranging on average between $150-$450. The larger or more unique the filing cabinet, the more it'll be worth. Similarly, those in pristine condition with all their drawers intact can fetch impressive amounts. For example, this mid-century modern four-drawer filing cabinet is listed for nearly $700, and this unique 1920s tambour filing cabinet is listed for just over $1,000. Similarly, this Shaw Walker Oak Stacking File Cabinet recently sold for $850. Ultimately, if you're interested in buying an antique filing cabinet, you're going to have to prepare to spend a good chunk of money. However, you do aim to receive a nice profit if you're prepping to list an antique filing cabinet for sale. Yet, as with all antiques, if you find yourself interested in a specific piece, make sure to communicate with the owner to ensure that you're aware of its condition and any potential repairs that might need to be made, as those can significantly affect the item's value.

Antique Filing Cabinet

Office Supplies Never Go Out of Style

Blessedly, once someone perfects a useful office tool, very rarely is it modified or changed in any substantial way. Take such hardware examples as scissors, staplers, desks, and of course, filing cabinets for instance. So, if you find yourself with the chance to take a hardwood antique filing cabinet home with you, set it up in your office with pride. Who knows, maybe a hundred years from now, someone might get immense joy out of that invoice from the billing department that you absentmindedly filed away.

Antique File Cabinets: Exploring Unique Storage Styles