This chest on a stand is a Spanish 16th-century drop-front desk called a vargueño. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Harlowe-Powell)
A reader recently wrote me saying she had a desk that belonged to her grandfather that was more than 100 years old. What did I think it was worth? I think it was a waste of her time and mine to send a letter with such a paucity of information.
What did she leave out? First, how does she know it’s more than 100 years old? What kind of wood is it? What condition is it in? What has been done to it? But even more basic is the question of what kind of desk it is?
Off the top of my head, I can think of several types of desks that are totally dissimilar but still qualify as desks. How many desk types can you think of?
The most frequent picture that comes to mind when I hear the word “desk” is the basic pedestal desk. A pedestal desk is a writing platform supported by two columns usually, but not always, with drawers in one or both columns. The space between the columns is called the “kneehole” and allows a person to sit close to the writing surface with legs underneath in the kneehole space. Just a basic desk.
A variation of the pedestal desk is the partners desk, an oversize pedestal desk that can accommodate a person on each side in a face-to-face position. Perhaps the original idea was to save a newly formed partnership space and money by combining two desks into one piece of furniture, but more likely it was so each partner could keep a close eye on the other.
Although most commonly seen spinet desks are from the 1930s Depression era, this rosewood example is from the late Victorian period (Photo: Live Auctioneers.com/Montrose Auction)
A desk that could be closed to conceal its contents was a great way to keep personal and business affairs away from the prying eyes of associates, partners, employees and family members. A desk with a front door was developed in the 16th century by the Spanish in the form of the vargueño, an enclosed desk on an iron stand with a drop front that opened out to reveal the contents and provide a writing surface. The idea was a hit, and the form of the drop front became a staple in the desk business.
In the 18th century, the form evolved to the slant front, with an angled front rather than a vertical face so the drop front had a natural closing feature powered by gravity. The slant-front desk eventually came to be called the “secretary” and that evoked another series of desk types beginning with “the…”
The bookcase secretary
The secretary was useful as it was designed, but early on it was quickly apparent that it would be even better if it had a bookcase on top for reference materials. At first, bookcases were just stacked on top of a secretary but soon the form morphed into one cabinet—until it changed again around the turn of the 20th century to become the side-by-side bookcase-secretary with the bookcase portion located on the side of the drop-front portion, as opposed to on top of it.
This is late-model Eastlake cylinder desk from around the turn of the 20th century.
The drop-front secretary traditionally had a solid-front surface that dropped down toward the writer to open the desk and provide writing space. But around the mid-19th century, innovation came along that marked a major new branch on the desk family tree. That was the cylinder top. Instead of a flat front that fell forward, the cylinder was a rigid cylindrical cover that rolled up and back into the cabinet to reveal the interior. Usually, the writing surface could then be pulled out toward the writer for more space and comfort. The cylinder secretary of course became the cylinder bookcase-secretary not long after.
In the 1850s, a young desk maker from Buffalo, N.Y. became interested in flexible cylinder mechanisms, and while he didn’t actually invent the concept, he did receive the first American patent for a flexible horizontal tambour roll to replace the rigid cylinder. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter of the century that roll-top desks became popular, but by the end of the century they were the first choice of both home and commercial offices for desk space.
Oak roll top – This is an excellent example of the ubiquitous turn of the century oak roll top desk. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers/com/California Auctioneers)
A specialized form of the original drop-front desk was found in the plantation desk, used mainly in the antebellum South, but also used elsewhere. This desk consisted of a tall, drop-front desk that sat on a flat table. The upper section had handles on each side of the cabinet for ease of carrying. At harvest time, the upper section was loaded onto the back of a wagon and taken to the fields where it could be opened up and used to tally the crops as they were harvested. When harvest was done, the desk was returned to the table.
A final variation of the drop-front desk was a flat-front unit concealed in the top drawer of an early 19th-century chest of drawers. When the top drawer was pulled out, the drawer front opened down and out to reveal a desk interior in the drawer. Legend has it that the form was used because the butler was supposed to never be seen sitting and this allowed him access to a desk while standing.
So what kind of desk did the reader have? She never said. What kind of desk do you have?
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.
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