The Rolodex

Monday 26 October 2015, 6.48am HKT

I N D U S T R I A L   I C O N S

The Rolodex with hatch open

‘Where Low Tech Trumps High Tech’

A great product that went downhill because of ‘misalignment.’

It’s one of the best productivity tools the world had ever seen. It’s indispensable in the home and office for more than 40 years. It was the second most common office equipment (after the typewriter) in nearly all workplaces worldwide. It’s dirt cheap to use.

It even gave us a verb that pre-dates our use of ‘social networking.’

But it’s practically impossible to get hold of one today — even on eBay, the mother of all landfills.

object rolodex 591843051

Industrial strength in looks and durability especially in that wonderful “greige” (that’s grey and beige), they just don’t make things like this today!

The classic Rolodex uses full-sized 3 × 5 inch (76 × 127 mm) index cards, not the current ones with smaller cards.

Super flexible for organising all sorts of data. Super quick data retrieval. I’ve even come up with a tagline for it — “Rolodex: Where Low Tech Trumps High Tech.”

Rolodex Model 3500 S

The Rolodex Model 3500 S phone desk organiser

The Rolodex was invented in the USA in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Soon after, it became standard office equipment worldwide. Many models continued with the original design, using the standard 3 × 5 inch index cards. A special card punch was also sold for making the special double slots.

Rolodex cecilianworldwide

The Rolodex was on the up and up for many years, selling literally millions annually worldwide.

By the mid-’80s, however, the Rolodex Corporation was sold off or merged with Newell Corporation (or its immediate predecessor: can’t remember which). The new overlord decided in its wisdom to go into electronics and for a brief time made several electronic Rolodex models. They were intended to behave like the card models.

Rolodex could have made a go at electronics — but for the fact that the software and the physical controls were crap, to say the least. Meanwhile the rollouts of the card Rolodexes were cut back.

The electronic Rolodexes also coincided with the advent of the personal computer in the ’80s. Many of the electronic Rolodex features were mirrored (and done better) by many PIM apps (personal information managers such as Borland’s SideKick) that were coming out then. That spelled the deathknell for the electronic Rolodexes.

The modern card RolodexTo most Rolodex users, it was a bad decision for Rolodex/Newell to get into electronics.

The manufacturer was well aware the PC was making headway in the office. Many users at the time the company should have stayed making the card Rolodexes — or at least not get into the software or electronics camp.

Newell eventually dropped manufacturing both the 3-by-5 card and electronic Rolodexes altogether, but continued making a smaller business-card-sized version of it even today (inset photo).

The Rolodex in action

Someone said it was clunky to use. You decide.


Even during the Rolodex’s early days in the 1950, it was so well received by office people worldwide that the name itself entered the realm of business buzzwords.

To rolodex your contacts

The verb “to rolodex” still means “to network with your contacts with a view to getting business” (much like users do on LinkedIn). In other words, business/social networking to those in finance, law, medicine and similar professions. Before the 1980s, “to rolodex” was the word to use, before “networking” became fashionable outside engineering and/or computing.

Many of those who didn’t use “to rolodex” also generally understood what it meant because the Rolodex card system was a common sight in offices.

The name quickly became synonymous with the product itself, much like Kleenex, Astroturf, Tampax and the correction fluid Tipp-Ex enjoyed a similar language trajectory.


This Post-Industrial Brutalist Deconstructionist contraption looks like something straight out of a dystopic Orwellian novel like Nineteen Eighty Four.

Big Brother, oh brother

In the eyes of most people, it’s probably safe to say the Rolodex has nearly zero hipster cachet — or indeed any actual utility in our modern world of personal and mobile computing. This despite the fact that it was common office item worldwide from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.

Unlike the portable manual typewriter and the Polaroid camera and instant film, the Rolodex isn’t on the hipster radar — yet — and for good reason. It has no portable show-off value. The hipster just can’t lug around a 10-pound (4.5 kg) metal object that wasn’t designed for lugging around for maximum ‘exposure.’ The special slots on Rolodex index cards also makes it less fashionably worthy too for hipsterism.

More often than not, the Rolodex in the hands of anyone today just gets thrown in the rubbish.


What have people forgotten how to do in the post-Rolodex era?

To put it another way, what are the unique characteristics of the card Rolodex that aren’t adequately mimicked in modern software programs?

Well, you can’t flip through half a dozen contacts at a time. And your software program isn’t going to go up in flames if there’s a fire in your office.

That being said, it’s a lot easier to escape an office fire with a 10- or 20-pound Rolodex under your arms than wait for your software program to sync to your USB drive.

Yer pays yer money, yer picks yer goods.


sig tnl autograf


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 26 Oct 2015. (Originally written on 1 Nov 2014.) (B15339)

Images:— First two images are in Author’s collection| Rolodex Model 3500S phone desk organiser via Empherascenti | Rolodex rotary card file via Cecilian Worldwide AB Blog | The modern Rolodex by Boquete Panama | Storing contacts in a Rolodex GIF via 4chan | The Rolodex card via Lifehack | Big Brother via c4c | Fire on fire extinguisher via c4c.

Cite this page as:—
LEE, R.C. (2015 Oct 26). The RolodexThe Naked Listener’s Weblog. Webpage. Permalink:

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