There are two types of locks. A "cam lock" is activated with a key that rotates the lock. A "plunger lock" is opened with a key but can be closed by merely depressing the body of the lock. The plunger lock allows a user to quickly close and lock several cabinets in a short amount of time.
Henry Brown, an American inventor, patented a "receptacle for storing and preserving papers" on November 2, 1886. This was a fire and accident safe container made of forged metal, which could be sealed with a lock. It was special in that it kept the papers separated.
The invention of the vertical file remains an unsolved mystery. The Vertical Filing Cabinet section in the Early Office Museum website begins with a discussion of the erroneous conclusions by highly credentialed “secondary sources,” concerning the origin of vertical filing. The secondary sources claimed that a gold medal was presented at the World’s Fair of 1893 for a vertical file. The Early Office Museum found no evidence to substantiate those claims. However, the information presented in the Early Office Museum’s discussion of vertical filing cabinets suggests that the commercial introduction of vertical filing may have occurred in 1900 when a company named the Library Bureau (founded in 1876, later a division of Remington Rand) published a catalogue that included a vertical filing cabinet.
The four-drawer vertical file, letter width, is the version purchased by most businesses. The two-drawer file is sold mostly for use alongside a desk. The five-drawer file is mostly purchased by Federal, State, and Local governments 710 mm) version, as it typically provides the lowest cost per filing inch. Three drawer files, the least popular version, have the advantage of being at "countertop" height so end users can easily retrieve files and use the top of the cabinet as a work area to examine file contents.
The drawers of most vertical filing cabinets are engineered to accept hanging file folders, as these have come to dominate the way most users store information. Some files still have a "follower block" in each drawer. This is a device that adjusts the apparent depth of the drawer interior so that files are kept upright in the drawer. These are the legacy of a time when most filing was done with manila folders rather than hanging files.
For home offices or lighter use applications, vertical files are manufactured in 460 mm versions. These typically have two-member suspensions and the drawers do not fully extend.
Lateral files are typically 20 inches deep and manufactured in 30-, 36-, and 42-inch widths and 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-drawer versions. The 30-inch-wide (760 mm), two-drawer version is popular for use inside cubicle workstations, as it is engineered to fit under or alongside the cubicle work surfaces. Logic for the use of 3-, 4-, and 5-drawer files is similar to that of vertical files. Unlike vertical files, most lateral files allow for side-to-side or front-to-back filing.
For letter-size files arranged front-to-back, the 30- and 42-inch-wide files are the most effective, as the maximum amount of filing per cabinet is enabled. A 36-inch-wide (910 mm) file, with letter-width filing front-to-back has no more capacity than a corresponding 30-inch-wide (760 mm) file, as the additional space would be wasted.
Some users prefer side-to-side filing, as they can search index tabs from a seated position. All-width lateral files can accommodate this configuration, though the capacity of the file is somewhat diminished.
An advantage for lateral files is that access and view of all files can be easier than with a vertical file because the drawers do not extend as far.
In most instances, the top "5th drawer" of a five-drawer lateral file is a flipper door with pull-out shelf, as most people would not be able to access the top of a drawer at this height.
A shelf file is a cabinet designed to accommodate folders with tabs on the side rather than on the top. The cabinet has no drawers, only shelves. Some shelf files come with doors that recede into the cabinet. These cabinets are typically 12" or 18" deep, for letter or legal size folders respectively. Like lateral files, they are made in 30", 36", 42" and 45" widths but are usually only installed in 5-high and 6-high applications.
Side tabbed files often use color codes that represent an alpha-numeric filing system. This methodology is a way to ensure files which are frequently retrieved and returned are easy to find and do not get lost. Finding a file is easy as to color-coded tabs easily lead the human eye to the appropriate location in the filing system. Similarly, a misfiled folder is obvious as an out-of-sequence color code is obvious to the user.
Businesses such as doctors, dentists, veterinarians, police, and government agencies use shelf files and end-tabbed folders to manage large filing systems.
Variations on traditional shelf files, designed to offer increased capacity for a given floor area, include Rotary Storage systems.