Connections: Rolodex History

A Rolodex used to be indispensable in almost any office

If digitization makes keeping track of everyone and everything easy, what do those of us with old, pre-computer address books do with them? I don’t remember how I managed to get all the information from my Rolodex transferred to my computer; perhaps I spent long nights keyboarding (or maybe I hired someone)?

For those of you born after, say, 1990, a Rolodex used to be indispensable in almost any office. It is a rotating spindle on a metal stand with removable address cards arranged alphabetically. When people left a job, they sometimes made a big show of taking theirs with them, if they didn’t want anyone in their old office to access their data. I, of course, have not left my job in lo! these many decades, and I still have a huge Rolodex on a low office shelf. The Rolodex company seems to have gone digital, but I have found a couple used and old-stock units available on eBay, starting at $7.50. Each of the listings reads “Only one left.”

By now, however, the data in the folder on my desktop labeled “Old Rolodex” is historic. It contains names, addresses, and phone numbers of people and businesses I don’t remember, as well as (I must confess) many who are no longer alive. It would seem disrespectful to pluck them out.  

Although my digital address book has grown huge on my email accounts, I do frequently look up the entries in the “Old Rolodex” file. I had occasion to do that the other day, but had a strange guilty feeling as I clicked through. Guilty for not keeping up with various old friends who live on, on my Rolodex cards. Guilty for not staying in touch with a relative. Guilty for having entirely forgotten the existence of an old acquaintance. Guilty about those whose information is still listed with a now-divorced spouse. 

Sociologists — someone writing a dissertation, for instance — might be able to mine old Filofaxes (remember those?) and Rolodexes (remember when the letter “X” seemed to signify modernity?) to learn about the time and place when the data were entered. But as my file cards were done without dates of entry, perhaps not. Indeed, I have to admit that I sometimes still add people to my Rolodex. I wonder how many people still do that? All too often, I surprise myself by finding they are already accounted for. Well, forgetfulness: I guess that’s why they invented Rolodexes in the first place.

Jeannette Edwards Rattray, the late publisher of this paper and my mother-in-law, died at the age of 80 in 1974. I am uncertain why it fell to me to care for her red, leather-bound “address and telephone” book. Perhaps it was just left in the desk. She filled its narrow lines with a remarkably fine hand, and a postcard with an 8-cent Dwight Eisenhower stamp on it fell out when I picked it up this week. It gave me a turn to discover that postcards were 8 cents in the year she died. 

Mrs. Rattray traveled quite a bit, so it was not surprising to find addresses of people living in far-flung places, from Cuba to Holland, France, and Yugoslavia. She even saved the name and contact information for the maitre d’hotel of the S.S. France in 1973. 

My own Rolodex is equally revealing of the times in which I have lived and worked. Yesterday, I noticed the name of Carrie Moritz under letter “M.” I remember Carrie quite well. My mother feared I would grow up with a Brooklyn accent, even though we lived in New Jersey, so she sent me to Mrs. Moritz for elocution lessons. Thank you, Mrs. Moritz!

Unfortunately, I also remember a poem Mrs. Moritz had me memorize and recite in what was supposed to be an Italian accent. “Giuseppi da barber, ees greata for ‘mash,’/ He gotta da bigga, da blacka mustache.” I can’t imagine what good she thought it would do me or my elocution.