Antique Office Desks
Desks with flat tops at the height of tables and drawers were common
throughout the period since the 1840s. In addition to providing writing surfaces and drawers, some desks
provided pigeonholes for documents and slots for ledgers. This exhibit is limited to desks of the latter
types that were marketed in the U.S.
Desks with writing surfaces, drawers, pigeonholes, and slots for ledgers existed
in England by the end of the 17th century. (See illustrations in Mark Bridge, An
Encyclopedia of Desks, 1988.)
|Standard Office Desks,
|1840s & 1850s
Single Standing Desk, Piano Sitting Desk, and third
desk, Stephen Smith, Boston, MA, 1846 billhead
Four styles of desks, Stephen Smith's Desk Warehouse,
Boston, MA, 1854 ad.
Desk, E. P. Wright, Worcester, MA, 1854 ad
Abraham Lincoln's Desk, Springfield, IL
J.W. Schermerhorn & Co., NY, NY, 1869.
J. Brewi & Co, Designs of Writing Desks,
NY, NY, 1871 ad
J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
Desk in office of the Cheshire Republican, a
newspaper, Keene, NH, 1872,
by Jotham A. French.
J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
H. Mott & Co., 1873 billhead.
Also J. Brewi & Co., NY, NY, 1871
Lawyer in Office, Minnesota, 1882.
President's Desk, J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
Because a desk of this style appears in a c.1856
photograph of a Western Union office, one can infer that this style
was introduced by c. 1856 or, alternatively, that the photo in question is
not correctly dated..
Desks of this style were
advertised in 1873 (Kehr, Kellner & Co., Designs of Writing Desks,
New York, NY) and c. 1882 (T. B. Wigfall, Chicago) (both Hagley Museum
Pigeon-holes and ledger case in desk similar
to the one pictured immediately above
Cylinder Desks: There is a distinction between cylinder desks and roll-top
desks (a.k.a. curtain desks). On
cylinder desks, the top that swings into place to cover the writing
surface is not flexible, and the track is therefore a circular arc. On
roll-top desks, the top that rolls into place is flexible, and the track
typically has an S shape, although in some cases it is a circular arc.
P. Talbott states that roll-top desks were introduced in the US
in the 1870s, and that "by the 1870s the most commonly illustrated desk was
the cylinder, or roll top, desk." ("The Office in the 19th
Century," in J.C. Showalter & J. Driesbach, eds., Wooton
Patent Desks, 1983, pp. 15, 18.) Talbott's references to
roll-top desks must be references to cylinder desks.
The earliest ad we have seen for cylinder desks dates from 1871
(immediately to left). Cylinder desks were advertised in the US in 1873
& 1876 (Kehr, Kellner & Co.)
and continued to be advertised in the early 1880s. The earliest
illustrations we have seen of offices with cylinder desks date from 1874
(far right) and 1876.
Mark Bridge (p. 42) reports that what may have been the first cylinder
desk was built for Louis XV during 1760-69. Cylinder desks were
popular in France for at least the following century. A c. 1776
French cylinder desk is on display at the National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC. Bridge (pp.
70-71) indicates that tambour, or roll-top, writing tables with drawers
and pigeonholes existed in England by 1788, but these were much smaller
than the roll-top desks that were popular in the U.S. a century later.
Cylinder Desk, J. Brewi & Co., NY, NY, 1871 ad
Cylinder Desk, Melior, Lingemann & Co.,
NY, NY, 1874 ad
"Sudden Death of the Hon. William F. Havemeyer in his Office,"
New York, NY, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Dec.
1874. Havemeyer (b.1804) was mayor of NYC during 1848-49 and died on
Nov. 30, 1874.
Cylinder Desk, open & closed,
Sugg & Beiersdorf Co., Chicago, IL,
Cylinder Desks, F. Mayer & Co., Chicago, IL, 1883 ad
|Fred C. Cutler: In 1875, Fred H. Cutler, of Buffalo, NY, was
awarded a patent for a desk with a flexible top that pulled up rather than
down (see patent illustration immediately to right). We do not know
whether this design was manufactured, but it appears to be a predecessor
of a roll-top desk. Notice that Fred H. Cutler, D.L. Ransom & Co. (see
row immediately below), and Abner Cutler (two rows below) were all in
Patent illustration for a desk with a flexible pull-up cover, Fred H
Cutler, Buffalo, NY, 1875
In 1876, D. L. Ransom & Co., Buffalo, NY, advertised large office
desks with flexible pull-down tops. These desks were exhibited at
the 1876 Centennial Exposition.
Arguably these were roll-top desks, although the word
"roll-top" was not used to describe them. At a minimum,
they were precursors of the roll-top desk.
Ransom Desk No. 1 for Sitting, 1876 ad
The writing surface was at a height suitable for a sitting person.
Ransom Desk No. 1 for Standing, 1876 ad
The writing surface was at a height suitable for a standing person.
Roll-top Desks: The earliest illustration and use of the term
"roll top desk" that we have found are on the 1880 billhead
below. The term "roll top desk" appears in the handwritten
1880 billhead (left) and detail (right)
Patent illustration for a roll-top desk, Abner Cutler, Buffalo, NY,
In 1881, Abner Cutler of Buffalo, NY, presumably a relative
of Fred H. Cutler (see two rows above), was awarded the earliest patent we have found for a
true roll-top desk (although the patent did not use the term
"roll-top"). Abner Cutler filed the application for this patent
Roll-top Secretary Desk, Geo. H. Derby & Co., Boston, MA, 1884 ad. "The Fifth
Illustrated Catalogue of the Derby Roll-Top Desks," published in 1884,
stated that "Thousands of Derby Roll-Top Desks
are now in use." This suggests that production of Derby Roll-Top
Desks may have begun c. 1880.
| The earliest use of the
term "roll-top desk" that we have found was in 1881. The
catalog for the Fourteenth Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable
Mechanic Association, Boston, MA, 1881, p. 98, states that Smith
& Co., Boston, MA, exhibited a "Roll-Top Desk." The
Literary World, Oct. 22, 1881, p. 370, states that "...a publishing
house does not necessarily consist in frescoed ceilings, black walnut
counters, roll-top desks, and Brussels carpets."
advertisement we have found for a roll-top desk was published in 1884; we have found
1884 advertisements for roll-top desks made by numerous companies.
The earliest illustration
we have seen of an office with a roll-top desk dates from 1887.
Roll Top Desk, High Roll, Extra Grade, The Globe Co.,
Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog. At $100 in oak or walnut or $125, this
was close to the top end of the roll top desks in the catalog.
Frederick Douglass's Study,
Cedar Hill, Douglass
Anacostia, Washington, DC
|Filing Cabinets for the Tops of Desks: Manufacturers marketed filing units that were designed to be placed on top of
flat and roll-top desks.
National Office Furniture, M.J. Wise, Sole Proprietor,
Washington, DC, 1884 catalog.
Roll-Top Desk with Combination Cabinet of Six Shannon and two US Document
Drawers on Top, Schlicht & Field Co., Rochester, NY, 1886 ad
Wells' Cabinet Letter File, Wells Mfg. Co., Syracuse, NY, 1893 ad.
Office with filing unit on top of roll-top desk, c.
Ross Desks: Ross Desks were made by the Forest City Furniture
Co., Rockford, IL
Office with Two Men at a Desk, G. L. Howe and O. M.
Powers, The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883.
Ross Curtain Desk, closed & open,
Ross Perfection Desk, 63 compartments, 15 drawers,
closed & open, 1884
|Wirts & Scholle Desks: The images in
this row come from the 1885 Office Furniture Catalog of Wirts &
Scholle, Chicago, IL. These desks incorporate elements from desks
that were marketed in the 1840s-1880s.
Desks ~ 1870s & 1880s
Wooton Cabinet Secretary
Wooton Desk Co.,
then Wooton Desk Mfg. Co.,
According to Yates (pp. 29-30), "The pigeonhole desk was expanded to
its utmost extent in the Wooton Patent Desks....The desk catered to the
one-man business....While it might handle the personal papers of such
Wooton owners as John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, or the firm records of
very small businesses, it could not begin to handle the external and
internal correspondence and records of growing, systematically managed
firms." The Wooton Desk Mfg. Co. went out of business in 1884.
Other companies produced Wooton-style desks for a few additional years.
Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian
Beverly Hills, CA
Wooton advertised this item during 1874-84 and probably later.
Detail of Pigeon-Holes on right door of Wooton Cabinet
|Wooton Rotary Desk
Wooton Desk Mfg. Co. (as of 1882),
then Wooton Office Desk Co.
Indianapolis, IN, then Richmond, IN
1887 Price $60-$85
Wooton advertised this desk in 1882.
Wooton advertised this desk in 1883 and probably later.
Desks" of this style, with pigeon-holes, were advertised in the 1895
Tyler Office Fixture Co. Catalog, St. Louis, MO. (Hagley Museum and
|Moore Combination Desks
Moore Combination Desk Co.
While Wooton desks had three sections, Moore desks had two sections.
Insurance King Desk, contained 129 compartments, 1882
Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian
|Moore combination desks were produced in standard, extra,
and superior grades. Standard grade combination desks were $110 to
$185. Extra grade desks were 40% to 50% more expensive.
Superior were more expensive.
C Downing, right, and stenographer Arthur Wood, in front of
Moore Combination Desk
Office Queen, Moore Combination Desk Co., Indianapolis,
|Indianapolis Cabinet Company
Indianapolis Cabinet Co.
On Mar. 23, 1886, the president of the Indianapolis Cabinet Company,
Indianapolis, IN, obtained US
Patent No. 338,632 for a double-pedestal desk with two hinged Wooton-like
sections that were attached to the upper part of the desk and that opened
to the sides. The desks produced by this company probably did not
fall in the luxury category, but they are included here because of their
relationship to Wooton desks. The company went out of business in the
|Standing or book-keepers' desks were sold from the1840s, if
not earlier, until after 1900.
Standing Desk, J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
Book-Keeping Office with book-keepers' desks and a
desk in the style or Wooton or Moore,
G. L. Howe and O. M. Powers,
The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883.
|Why did book-keepers stand while they worked?
"It is conceded by all that a book-keeper's desk should be of
sufficient hight [spelling in the original] to require him to stand while
at his work, for the posting and checking from one large book to another
necessitates constant moving, and it would be very inconvenient for the
accountant to seat himself and then rise again whenever it become
necessary to refer to an entry in another book. The books of an
establishment of sufficient size to employ the services of a book-keeper
are usually very cumbersome, and should lie upon the counter or desk in an
accustomed place, while the book-keeper passes to and fro from book to
book, as occasion requires. Many firms will not employ a book-keeper who
would attempt to do his work by sitting down. The book-keeper's desk
should slant on top, and be provided with a rack [above the slanted
surface], for convenience in laying aside indexes, tablets, etc., where
they may be easily reached when needed from time to time. Under the desk
may be arranged shelves and places for books, or if these are deposited in
the safe or vault each night, this would not be necessary." (G. L.
Howe and O. M. Powers, The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883, p.
The shift toward use of loose-leaf ledgers and book-keeping machine that
began in the late 1890s presumably reduced the use of standing desks.
However, we have seen advertisements for standing desks as late as 1917.
Wm. Schwarzwaelder & Co.,
NY, NY, 1888 ad
Double Standing Desk, The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH,
Book-Keeper's Desk, G
|In the 1890s and first decade of the 20th
century, roll-top desks were widely
advertised. We have seen ads for traditional style roll-top desks as
late as 1917. We have seen ads for "modern-style"
roll-tops desks during 1909-25.
Office with "modern" roll-top desk in background, 1918.
Roll-top desk, The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894 ad
Roll-top Desk with Safe, The Victor Safe and Lock
Cincinnati, OH, 1902 ad.
|The Decline of
the Roll-Top Desk
In a 1914 book on the American office, J. William Schulze states, perhaps
as prescription as well as description: "The roll top desk is
fast disappearing from efficiently managed offices, the chief objection
being the fact that it becomes a receptacle for important papers which are
forgotten. Also the pigeon holes frequently become filled with
'truck' which might as well be thrown away.... Most papers that are filed
in the pigeon holes should be placed in the files where they are
accessible to every one who needs them. Moreover, the unnecessary
height of a roll top desk cuts off valuable light and air." (The
American Office, 2nd ed., Ronald Press, New York, NY, 1914) To
the extent that the preceding comments are correct, they apply to all
desks with high backs illustrated above that were popular in the second
half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the 20th century.