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Early Desks

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-1880s
1840s & 1850s 1846_Counting_Room_Furniture_Stephen_Smith_Boston.jpg (71888 bytes)
Single Standing Desk, Piano Sitting Desk, and third desk, Stephen Smith, Boston, MA, 1846 billhead
1854_Bank__Office_Furniture_Stephen_Smith_Boston_MA.jpg (125454 bytes)
Four styles of desks, Stephen Smith's Desk Warehouse, Boston, MA, 1854 ad.

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1854_Desk_E_P_Wright_Worcester_MA_adv_OM.jpg (81890 bytes)
Desk, E. P. Wright, Worcester, MA, 1854 ad
Lincolns_Desk_Springfield_IL_1880s_photo_OM.JPG (66316 bytes)
Abraham Lincoln's Desk, Springfield, IL
1860s 1862_Man_at_Desk_1.jpg (111193 bytes)1862_Man_at_Desk_2.jpg (112521 bytes)
1862
1869_Desk_for_State_Dept_of_Education_J_W_Schermerhorn__Co_NY_NY.jpg (115069 bytes)
J.W. Schermerhorn & Co., NY, NY, 1869.
1870s

 

1871_Desk_3.5_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (97672 bytes)
J. Brewi & Co, Designs of Writing Desks, 
NY, NY, 1871 ad
1871_Desk_7_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (118655 bytes) 
J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad

1872_Office_Cheshire_Republican_Keene_NH_x.JPG (153076 bytes)
Desk in office of the Cheshire Republican, a newspaper, Keene, NH, 1872, 
by Jotham A. French.

1871_Desk_13_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (126267 bytes)
J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
1873_Office_Desk_H_Mott__Co.jpg (99275 bytes)
H. Mott & Co., 1873 billhead.  
Also J. Brewi & Co., NY, NY, 1871


Lawyer in Office, Minnesota, 1882.

1871_President_Desk_15_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (130656 bytes)
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 and Library). 

Office Museum Curator's Desk 1860-1880 OM.jpg (25007 bytes)
Wells_Fargo_desk_open_OM.jpg (42020 bytes)
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.

Cylinder_desk.jpg (48697 bytes)    Cylinder_desk_showing_side_and_front.jpg (72598 bytes)    Cylinder_desk_open.jpg (84037 bytes)


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.

1871_Cylinder_Desk_24_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (195116 bytes)
Cylinder Desk, J. Brewi & Co., NY, NY, 1871 ad

1874_Cylinder_Desk_Melior_Lingemann__Co_NYC.jpg (98651 bytes)
Cylinder Desk, Melior, Lingemann & Co., 
NY, NY, 1874 ad
1874_Sudden_death_of_Hon._William_F._Havemeyer_of_NYC_in_his_office_in_the_City_Hall_Mon_Nov_30th_OM.JPG (79032 bytes)
"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.

1883_Cylinder_desk_open_and_closed.jpg (114143 bytes)
Cylinder Desk, open & closed, 
Sugg & Beiersdorf Co., Chicago, IL, 
1883 ad

1883_Cylinder_Desk_F._Mayer__Co_Chicago_IL.jpg (119071 bytes)
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 Buffalo, NY. 1875_F._H._Culter_Office_Desk_Pat_No_168459_Oct_5_75.jpg (53661 bytes)
Patent illustration for a desk with a flexible pull-up cover, Fred H Cutler, Buffalo, NY, 1875

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Ransom Desks:  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 ExpositionArguably 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. 1876_Adjustable_Desk_No._1_Sitting_Closed_D_L_Ransom__Co._Bufffalo_NY_OM.jpg (193481 bytes)1876_Adjustable_Desk_No._1_Sitting_Open_D_L_Ransom__Co._Bufffalo_NY_OM.jpg (253448 bytes)
Ransom Desk No. 1 for Sitting, 1876 ad
The writing surface was at a height suitable for a sitting person.
1876_Desk_No._1_Standing_Closed_D_L_Ransom__Co._Bufffalo_NY_OM.jpg (236843 bytes)1876_Desk_No._1_Standing_Open_D_L_Ransom__Co._Bufffalo_NY_OM.jpg (435439 bytes)
Ransom Desk No. 1 for Standing, 1876 ad
The writing surface was at a height suitable for a standing person.
1880s

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 line. 

1880_Roll-top_Desk_billhead_OM.jpg (344969 bytes)  1880 Roll-top Desk billhead detail OM.jpg (99904 bytes)
1880 billhead (left) and detail (right)

1881_Abner_Cutler_Business_Desk_Pat_No_242436_Jun_7_81.jpg (67559 bytes)
Patent illustration for a roll-top desk, Abner Cutler, Buffalo, NY, 1881.
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 in 1880.  
1884_No._20_Secretary_Desk_Geo._H._Derby__Co_Boston_MA.jpg (39575 bytes)
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." 

The earliest 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.

.1894_Roll_Top_Desk_High_Roll_Extra_Grade_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (301238 bytes)
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.
Federick Douglas Desk OM 2.jpg (52657 bytes)
Roll-top Desk,
Frederick Douglass's Study,
Cedar Hill, Douglass home 1877-95,
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. 1884_National_Office_Furniture_desk.jpg (177389 bytes)
National Office Furniture, M.J. Wise, Sole Proprietor, Washington, DC, 1884 catalog.
1886_Roll_Top_Desk_with_Combination_File_on_Top_Schlicht__Field_Co_Rochester_NY.jpg (49144 bytes)
Roll-Top Desk with Combination Cabinet of Six Shannon and two US Document Drawers on Top, Schlicht & Field Co., Rochester, NY, 1886 ad
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1893_Wells_Cabinet_Letter_File_Wells_Mfg_Co_Syracuse_NY.jpg (79586 bytes)
Wells' Cabinet Letter File, Wells Mfg. Co., Syracuse, NY, 1893 ad.

Office_with_document_file_on_rolltop_desk_OM.com_0908c05.jpg (390782 bytes)
Office with filing unit on top of roll-top desk, c. 1900
Ross Desks:  Ross Desks were made by the Forest City Furniture Co., Rockford, IL

1883_Two_Men_in_Office_with_Desk.jpg (186632 bytes)
Office with Two Men at a Desk, G. L. Howe and O. M. Powers, The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883.

1883_Ross_Curtain_Desk_Forest_City_Furniture_Co_Rockford_IL_closed.jpg (93315 bytes)
1883_Ross_Curtain_Desk_Forest_City_Furniture_Co_Rockford_IL_open.JPG (94980 bytes)
Ross Curtain Desk, closed & open, 
patented 1883
1884_Ross_Perfection_Desk_Forest_City_Furniture_Co_Rockford_IL.jpg (110727 bytes)
1884_Ross_Perfection_Desk_Forest_City_Furniture_Co_Rockford_IL_open.JPG (60040 bytes)
Ross Perfection Desk, 63 compartments, 15 drawers, closed & open, 1884 ad
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.

1885_Desk_Wirts__Scholle_Chicago_OM2.jpg (28387 bytes)   
Partner Desk

1885_Desk_Wirts__Scholle_Chicago_OM1.jpg (30642 bytes)   1885_Desk_Wirts__Scholle_Chicago_OM3.jpg (18227 bytes)    1885_Desk_Wirts__Scholle_Chicago_OM6.jpg (49797 bytes)   1885_Desk_Wirts__Scholle_Chicago_OM7.jpg (42461 bytes)
Luxury Desks ~ 1870s & 1880s
Wooton Cabinet Secretary
Wooton Desk Co.,
then Wooton Desk Mfg. Co.,
Indianapolis, IN

Patented 1874
Advertised 1874-84

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.

1874-84 Extra Grade Wooton Rockefeller Patent Secretary.jpg (43482 bytes)
Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian Traders
Beverly Hills, CA
Wooton_Cabinet_Secretary.jpg (254945 bytes)
Wooton advertised this item during 1874-84 and probably later.
1874_Wooton_pigeon_holes_OM.jpg (42990 bytes)
Detail of Pigeon-Holes on right door of Wooton Cabinet Office Secretary
Wooton Rotary Desk
Wooton Desk Mfg. Co. (as of 1882), 
then Wooton Office Desk Co.
Indianapolis, IN, then Richmond, IN

Patented 1876
Advertised 1882-92
1887 Price $60-$85
Wooton_Rotary_Desk.jpg (23248 bytes)
Wooton advertised this desk in 1882.
Wooton_Rotary_Desk.jpg (238542 bytes)
Wooton advertised this desk in 1883 and probably later.
"Swing Pedestal Desks" of this style, with pigeon-holes, were advertised in the 1895 Tyler Office Fixture Co. Catalog, St. Louis, MO. (Hagley Museum and Library)
Moore Office Queen adx.jpg (44928 bytes)Moore Combination Desks
Moore Combination Desk Co.
Indianapolis, IN

Patented 1882
Advertised 1882

While Wooton desks had three sections, Moore desks had two sections.

1882_Office_King_The_Moore_Combination_Desk_Co_Indianapolis_IN.jpg (167942 bytes)
Insurance King Desk, contained 129 compartments, 1882 ad
1882_Moore_Insurance_Desk_2_OM.jpg (97959 bytes)
Photograph courtesy of Antiquarian Traders.
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.

Office_with_Moore_desk_C._Downing_right_Arthur_Wood_sten_left_OM.jpg (301492 bytes)
C Downing, right, and stenographer Arthur Wood, in front of Moore Combination Desk

1878_Moore_desk_OM.jpg (18576 bytes) 1878_Moore_desk_pigeonholes_OM.jpg (25804 bytes)
Office Queen, Moore Combination Desk Co., Indianapolis, IN
Moore_Desk_abc.jpg (92632 bytes)
Indianapolis Cabinet Company Desks
Indianapolis Cabinet Co.
Indianapolis, IN

Patented 1886
Advertised 1890

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 early 1890s.
1890_Indianapolis_Cabinet_Co_desk_OM.JPG (18994 bytes)
1890 ad
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Standing Desks

Standing or book-keepers' desks were sold from the1840s, if not earlier, until after 1900. 1871_Standing_Desk_18_J_Brewi__Co_NYC.jpg (116711 bytes)
Standing Desk, J. Brewi & Co, NY, NY, 1871 ad
1883_BookKeeping_note_Desk.jpg (194730 bytes)
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. 313)

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.
1888_Book-Keepers_Desk_Wm_Schwarzwaelder__Co_NY_NY.jpg (115142 bytes)
Book-keeper's Desk,
Wm. Schwarzwaelder & Co., 
NY, NY, 1888 ad
1894_Double_Standing_Desk_Globe_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (178235 bytes)
Double Standing Desk,  The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894/95 catalog.

1883_Desk.jpg (149458 bytes)
Book-Keeper's Desk, G
1890-1910s
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 1909-28.
1918 Modern Roll-top Desk in Office 3.11 OM.jpg (179962 bytes)
Office with "modern" roll-top desk in background, 1918.
1894_Globe_Roll_Top_Desk_adv.jpg (179962 bytes)
Roll-top desk, The Globe Co., Cincinnati, OH, 1894 ad
1902_Roll-top_Desk_with_Safe_Victor_Safe__Lock_Co_Cincinnati_OH_OM.jpg (215387 bytes)
Roll-top Desk with Safe, The Victor Safe and Lock Co., 
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.
 

 

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