Featured image of post The strange case of the missing Index Card

The strange case of the missing Index Card

I have told this story before, but it’s a fun bit of unexpected cultural difference.

Index cards. They are ubiquitous in the English speaking world. Especially in the US, I think. They are used to study (there is a whole method of study based on flashcards!), they are used to jot down ideas, to organize them, to… well, to play story games, for example (writing sad things on index cards, anyone?). And they are so handy! The standard size is “just right” to store a short concept, it has a space for a title, they come in several colors and the paper is rather thick and holds a fold very well…

Here is the shocking reveal: Index Cards are completely unknown in Italy. And unless things have changed in the last 3 years, they are also almost impossible to acquire. Office suppliers and stationery sellers don’t have them, even for custom order online. Rolodex contact cards are the ONLY kind one can (with a bit of effort) find.

They don’t even have a name in Italian!

English-language story game authors for example take them completely for granted. “To play this game you’ll need a couple of pencils, two dice and some index cards”. Right. Translating the books often took some linguistic gymnastics, paraphrasing, or calling them “little sheets of note paper” (we have small rowed or more often squared notebooks with tearable sheets… but they are quite thinner than index cards and for example it’s not that handy to make tents out of them: paper is too soft!).

From what I gather, it seems that Index Cards started being in wide use (and standardized in size) around the ’10s and ’20s of 1900. They started as filing cabinet cards, to store contacts and other sortable content, such as book cards in libraries. Entire filing systems were created, including mechanical means to do crude “queries” on the card drawers, using pins and punched holes. From there, they spread. People had them around, and they used them for other stuff.

During those years… well, Italy was quite busy becoming a militaristic dictatorship completely closed off to foreign “bad influences”. During fascism we had laws forbidding to use foreign words, new foreign concepts and methods were scoffed at, and what little cultural development there was, it was certainly not in the bettering of knowledge organization. So index cards never came to Italy.

What’s even weirder is that it’s pretty hard to order them, even from abroad! Last time I tried, it looked like shipping them to Italy was never an option. I came to suspect that there is some patent issues, because that’s pretty weird.

Anyway, that’s my version of the story. If anyone knows better, I’m all ears. This is the kind of silly detail that always delights me.

UPDATE: good news everybody, things are a-changing! In recent years index cards did make an appearance in some Italian stationery stores; they are not that common yet, but they are now available on Amazon, so there’s that. But also, I discovered an unexpected source for them: Switzerland! In the little stationery isle at coop in Ticino they do have index cards in several colors (all in ISO formats I think, so they are not exactly the same as US ones, but close enough).

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