One of our strongest memories of grade school is likely to be of the rows of tan desks in our homeroom. In our adult life, the desk defines our office and the location of our work. However, the importance of the desk is a comparatively recent development in society.
For centuries, writing was done mostly by squatting with a paper in one’s lap. This, is how Egyptian scribes are often featured in still-existing busts. Until the 17th century, desks were common only in churches and other religious centers. In the ages when not even the nobility could read or write, it was only the clergy who had need for writing furniture. Many of these desks were probably quite large by our standards and were probably made of oak. Perhaps the only exceptions were writing boxes, which were just small slanting tables with a box underneath for the storage of inks, quill pens and other implements. People, especially clergymen, carried these boxes with them.
The first tables specifically designed for writing appeared in Italy in the 1500s. Writing cabinets came a generation or so later. In England, writing tables weren’t used until the beginning or middle of the 1600s. By the early 18th century, increasing luxury allowed families to own multiple furniture pieces, and books and libraries were frequently seen in private homes. Writing furniture was now being specialized and desks were becoming a normal part of life.
By 1750, there were many kinds of desks. A bureau cabinet with drawers on the bottom and a space to store papers on the top was typical. Smaller versions, including some with kneehole spaces, were made for women. Slant front desks and related bookcases were also common. These, often carved in elaborate designs, were especially popular in America.
The period from 1750 to the first years of the 19th century was a particularly creative one for American furniture carvers. Regional variations in furniture generally, and desks specifically, developed quickly. The handsome slant top desk became popular in many variations. The Townsend and Goddard families of Rhode Island, for example, made desks (and other furniture) noted for their block front and shell designs. These features spread to adjoining states, including New York.
Serpentine-fronted drawers could often be seen in Philadelphia desks, although this feature was also copied in other parts of the East.
Massachusetts carvers were the primary makers of desks in the bombe style. This design, with its swelling base, is a direct derivative of French rococo furniture although the American origins will show through on most pieces made in the colonies or the early United States.
Most of the better American pieces made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries have features such as document drawers, hidden compartments and locks. Document drawers are tall, narrow drawers on the inner sides of the desk. The nature of hidden compartments can be as wide ranging as the imagination of the carver.
The woods used in these early American desks varied. Mahogany, walnut and maple were all popular. The desk in the accompanying photo, for example, is made of tiger maple. This wood was particularly attractive for all types of furniture and often used for desks in various regions of the country. Almost always, the secondary wood (the wood used in the interior and the back of the desk, which was not visible to the casual observer) was pine. This was because the use of pine, a softer and cheaper wood, in non-visible areas reduced the cost of making the desk.
With the coming of the Industrial Age after the 1840s, desks were made in mass quantities and marketed with nothing more than commercial considerations in mind. By the 1860s, Chicago alone had 18 companies that manufactured furniture. Given this commercial bent, it is not surprising that the bulk of the 19th century saw furniture, including desks, being designed in various revival styles of earlier periods. The resulting output was often of dubious quality. There were always exceptions, however. Desks made for the centennial celebrations of 1876 were copied from their Chippendale counterparts of a century before. This centennial furniture was usually finely handcrafted.
It is relatively easy today to find an American slant top desk from the late 18th or early 19th century. Many, however, have been altered or repaired. In some instances, feet will have been replaced or shortened, or drawers will no longer be the originals. One clue, as many people know, is simply to examine the interior front of the drawers to see if the original holes line up with the present hardware. Another trick is to closely examine the wood finish and coloration from one drawer to another to see if there is any discrepancy.
In today’s world, the desk is seen as a functional object by most people. Yet, as a specific type of furniture, it still carries an aura. The “boss’s desk” is usually the largest and most ostentatious. As long as people are writing, the desk, large or small, will be an important part of our surroundings.