The Life and Death of the Rolodex

Just a few years ago there were no virtual social networks, no synchronized address books, and no smartphones. But people had social networks and phones, and they had to memorize and organize thousands of contacts. Or have a Rolodex.

When I was a kid, my dad had a Rolodex. Actually, my dad still has a Rolodex. My dad is one of the least organized people I know. In his apartment, he is good at stacking things (like newspapers and bills and books) on top of other things (like pingpong tables and folded easels) on top of other things (like trunks and cardboard boxes filled with newspapers and bills and books). I was adult before I learned that you're supposed to continue to replace the toothpaste cap on the tube after you use it.

However, Mr. Grossman is organized about one thing: correspondence. He has a log book in which he draws pictures, staples post cards, and keeps notes on every phone call he has. But his greatest feat of organization is his Rolodex. No residence or phone number in his life (or my life, or my siblings' lives, or his ex's lives) has ever gone undocumented. Sometimes he throws out useless cards, but mostly they live on stuck to the little wheel, reminding me of my uncle's ex-wife's parents' phone number or my camp address from 1989 or my great aunt Betty who died last year. The cards are mostly white—or more precisely, they're nicotine white, which is actually more of a kind of gold color. Some are pink, because apparently there was a period where the stationer tried to appeal to... people who like pink. Each one has a degree of soul and meaning that no entry in my Gmail address book will ever possess.

The Wheel of Life

When I got my first job at a newspaper in 2001, I had a small Rolodex. I got it because everyone around me had one. What's more, people talked about their Rolodexes. "I think I have her in my Rolodex," they'd say. Or, "If he leaves, he's going to take his Rolodex with him." This, of course, meant that someone's "contacts" were veeeeery important. Sometimes, people would take a card out of their Rolodex if I needed it, and I'd go copy the information and bring it back to them. There were people who stapled cards onto Rolodex pages and people who hand wrote all the information. Cards could be added or tossed or shared with ease. It was a genius, efficient and highly personal way of staying in touch.

I didn't keep my Rolodex for very long. There were several reasons for this. For one, I'm actually pretty good at memorizing numbers. Like 19. And 34. And 5. 19 34 5. I just rewrote them without even looking! This is funny because my memory for everything else in life is so bad that I usually can't remember the beginning of a sentence by the time I get to the end which is why I have no idea what this sentence is about. Another reason is that my dad taught me this nifty number memorization system [http://www.the-number-thesaurus.com/Rules.asp] when I was a kid. But the main reason is that I, like (almost) everyone else, eventually started keeping numbers and addresses on my computer and phone. Now I'm at the point where I hardly do that. I just search my Gmail or text people or Google around until I find the digits and street names I need.

But just because this is the more "modern" method of keeping numbers and such doesn't mean that it's a better system. Really, the Rolodex might be one of the more important memory systems ever created.

Arnold Neustadter, Inventor

The Rolodex was the brainchild of Arnold Neustadter, a somewhat anal twentieth century inventor from Brooklyn. His daughter Jane Revasch, now in her sixties, clearly grew up putting the toothpaste cap back on the tube. "If I took a message for him, he wanted to know everything—first name, last name, where they were calling from , why, their number, the time...and I was just a little kid!" she told me.

Still, way back when, Neustadter's address book presented a kind of mess that he couldn't harness. Mid-century families were infamous peripatetic. Vaguely dissatisfied despite being well-clothed and fed and in possession of a nice station wagon and decent wet bar, they determined that the real American dream existed just two suburbs over: Between 1948 and 1970, an estimated 20 percent of all Americans moved each year. How was anyone supposed to keep track of all those new street names without having to rewrite their whole address book every few months? Plus, some people died! Pages cracked with layers of caked White-out. New phone numbers meant that, when there was no longer room under M, a coda symbol would have to indicate that those entries were being placed in W. The S's were mostly residing on an inserted piece of paper clipped to the back cover and any completely new entries were just going to have to wait until you could find a replacement book. Sure you could just start a new book every few months, but who had the time!

This was pre-Google, so think of all the hours it took to do what I did just this morning: research what happened to the boy from ET, wonder whether or not Coca Cola used to actually contain cocaine, and figure out which president came before Grover Cleveland. (Interjection from Mr. Grossman: "The library was really far. Before the Internet, if I had questions like that, I just made up the answers.")

Neustadter had combatted office disorder before. His Swivodex was a device that kept ink bottles from spilling. The Clipodex was a device that attached to the knees and helped stenographers keep pads from moving. The Punched made holes in papers. In the late 1940s, he and a designer came up with a way of dealing with the address book dilemma: a propped-up rotating wheels fitted with inexpensive removable cards. Some models had a cover equipped with a lock. (Each lock actually took the same key—but don't tell!).

All in all, it was an elegant solution. The cards were removable so that the Q didn't have to take up any space at all if it had no entries; the circular design allowed the more demanding letters to have more space when necessary.

When Neustadter first started selling the Rolodex in the 1950s, stationery shops were skeptical that anyone would want the spindly device on their desk. By the 1980s, however, the Rolodex had become such an icon that lawsuits were filed by companies who accused former employees of taking them with them when they left—having a Rolodex filled with important names meant everything. There were models selling for more than $200 and people often valued them at prices far higher than that. An entire 1986 episode of Moonlighting was devote to one stolen one being held ransom for $50,000. Hell, it was worth it! Those numbers didn't exist in some kind of "cloud" or on a hard drive in the closet. And the library was really far.

Facebook Schmacebook

Rolodexes were a testament to your relationships and your personal history. In 2008, Stanford University professors found that the average Facebook member aspires to have around three hundred friends, but that would've seemed a piddling number to the average Rolodex devotee, who often made it a point to use as many cards as the contraption could allow—and some held up to six-thousand. I remember an officemate who used to leave his Rolodex flipped open to important people. He didn't realize this made him look like a douche. But I guess people do the same kind of thing on Facebook. Did I mention I'm friends with Wendy the Snapple Lady?

Mr. Neustadter, who died in 1996, never saw the way in which digital storage would affect his iconic invention. But his daughter insists he would've argued that his Rolo-baby was as relevant as ever. When I called to tell her that I was going to include the Rolodex in OBSOLETE, my book about objects that are fading from our lives, she got huffy. She spoke in a tone that requires exclamation points. "They still work! You just can't carry them around! Places still sell them," she said. I told her she was right—the book is about things that still exist, but just barely. She continued. "They aren't obsolete! Give your book another title! You know, look at it this way: computers get viruses! But the Rolodex, it's never taken a sick day in it's life."

Anna Jane Grossman is the author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of iamobsolete.net. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Salon.com, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: AnnaJane.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaJane.

Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions, and might truly live forever.