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The Popular Slant-Front Desk Takes a Break for a Century

by Fred Taylor (10/03/12).

This is the “typical” Colonial Revival Depression-era slant-front desk with fitted interior, prospect door, document drawers, serpentine front and shallow carved ball and claw feet.

It is variously called a fall front, a drop front, a slant front, slant top, drop lid, Governor Winthrop and lots of other things, but they all refer to a specific kind of writing platform we know as a “desk” or even as a secretary. Writing platforms are certainly nothing new and have been around in some form or another since right after the idea to record symbols in a permanent record showed up. But the idea of a writing platform that could be closed for privacy and security is a relatively modern idea, as those things go.

Early writing platforms that could actually be called a desk were little more than boxes with slanting tops to store writing materials and provide a flat place to perform. In this case, the top was hinged at the rear of the box and the top lifted up toward the writer to reveal the interior storage space. This arrangement was used in ancient China and Egypt. In 17th century Colonial America, it was called a “bible box” after its common usage.

But many years before, during the Middle Ages, there had been a transformation in the writing box used by monks copying scripture. The box became more sedentary, often permanently residing on a table top. With the idea of portability abandoned, the table and writing box began to grow appendages, like drawers and shelves that eventually became part of the table. Gradually, the box and the table merged into a stacked unit made of two separate but matching pieces—a desk on frame.

But the real innovation came in Europe in the 16th century. Someone reversed the placement of the hinges so that the writing surface opened down toward the writer, revealing the interior in full and providing a comfortable writing surface on the protected inside of the top lid. This led to the early desk on stand called the Spanish vargueño, a type of cabinet desk with a vertical front mounted on an open stand.

This is the 16th century drop front Spanish desk called the “vargueño.” It was one of the first forms of the drop front desk. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Harlowe-Powell Auction Gallery)

Another major advance came along in the late 17th century under the direction of William of Orange, the Dutch prince “William” in William and Mary, co rulers of England from 1688 to 1702. He employed Dutch craftsmen to create a drop-front desk that would stay closed by itself without a lock or latch. The obvious answer was to mount the lid at a slight backwards angle so that gravity held the lid in place when in the closed position. Thus, the origin of the “slant-front” desk.

It turned out to be the most popular form of personal secretarial space ever devised and the form of the slant-front desk became a very popular medium of the designers of the 18th century, including Thomas Chippendale. Some of the greatest pieces of cabinetry ever made in America were examples of the slant-front desk or the bookcase secretary, a slant front with a bookcase mounted on top, made in the mid- to late-1700s by New England cabinetmakers, such as John Cogswell, Samuel Prince, Benjamin Frothingham and Aaron Chapin. Most of these were made in variations of Queen Anne and Chippendale styles.

This Late Classism abattant, circa 1840 made of crotch cut mahogany veneer, was made in New York and is one American variation of the French Empire abattant. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Butterscotch Auction Gallery)

By the end of the century, the Federal style had overtaken the older Queen Anne and Chippendale looks, but at first the changes were merely cosmetic: different decorations and slightly different shapes, but the slant front was still there—for a little while. Then more radical approaches to desk making took over during the Federal era (the early 19th century), leading to the horizontal fold out writing surfaces of the Hepplewhite tambour desk and the vertical drop-front of the secretaire abattant of the Empire period, reminiscent of the vargueño except mounted on a closed stand.

After that, the traditional slant-front desk virtually disappeared for the rest of the 19th century, except for the occasional Rococo Revival “lady’s” desk. The enclosed desk had moved on to other more adventurous closures, like the multiple fold-out surface of Late Classicism, the cylinder roll tops of the Rococo and Renaissance periods or the tambour roll top of the late century. The slant front was nearly abandoned and forgotten.

This 20th-century Colonial Revival style bookcase/secretary is a reproduction of the 18th-century Chippendale original form. (Photo: Fred Taylor)

This oak side-by-side secretary bookcase from the turn of the 20th century was a new twist on the bookcase secretary idea. (Photo: Fred Taylor)

That is until the decline of the Victorian era and the start of the Golden Oak period of American furniture in the late 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, the small slant-front lady’s desk was making a comeback, made affordable for as little as $5 by mail order houses like Sears in the 1902 catalog. Then came the side-by-side bookcase/slant front desk, a new innovation in desk design with the bookcase beside rather on top of the desk.

But the real resurrection of the slant-front desk was hastened by the Colonial Revival, the rekindled interest in colonial furniture forms ignited by the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. The traditional form of the slant-front desk or bookcase secretary in Queen Anne or Chippendale style was revived and became one of the mainstays of the American furniture manufacturing industry during the first half of the 20th century.

That makes it easy to say “probably not” when a traditional-style slant-front desk is reported to be 150 years old. It is probably either much older or much younger, because the form was almost never made in the middle of the 19th century.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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 info@furnituredetective.com.

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One Response to “The Popular Slant-Front Desk Takes a Break for a Century”

  1. Richard Vessa says:

    I have the exact slant tipe desk you have in your first article, how much are they worth approximately

    Richard Vessa

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