.............. Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary.

Desk styles


Bible boxes

The earliest American desks evolved from simple, sturdy boxes made in the 17th century by the first settlers. Most of these are constructed from 6 or 7 plain boards, although more elaborate examples have geometric or floral carving or painted decoration. These pieces are often referred to as Bible boxes because the treasured family Bible might be kept in them, but it seems likely that important papers and other small valuables were also stored there.

These boxes have either flat or slanting tops and were placed for convenient use on tables or benches. The top of the slanting form could be used as a writing surface.

See also:
desk box below


Bureau desk 1685-1725

Developed during the William and Mary period. It combines the slant-top box with a lower chest of drawers.

At first the lid of the box was hinged at the top, but later the hinges were moved to the bottom so that the lid could fall forward to provide a convenient writing surface. Initially, pullout slides supported the open lid,but later chains or folding hinges served the same purpose.

Besides the writing area, the interior of each box houses numerous useful pigeonholes and small drawers. The bureau desk proved so practical that it remains the basic desk form today.

While most have straight fronts, others have serpentine, oxbow, block, or bowed fronts.

French version:
Bureau plat


Carlton table

A writing table on legs with a raised back and sides, fitted withpigeonholes, small drawers, and fittings for pens and inkwells.

The desk made its appearance at the end of the 18tb century in England, and was usually made of mahogany or satinwood with inlay trim.

Sheraton referred to this as a "ladies' drawing and writing table."



Desk box

The original desk was a writing box, a small chest with sloping lid. Inside were kept writing materials and valuables. This form was known in ancient China and Egypt; it is the monastic scriptorium of the Middle Ages.

The desk box survived into the 18th century.


Desk-on-frame / Schoolmaster's desk

As the colonists gradually settled into more permanent homes, their furnishings took on increasingly substantial forms. Typical of this evolution was the addition of legs to the slant-top box to form the desk-on-frame. Perhaps the best-known example of this form, the schoolmaster's desk, developed later in the 19th century.

Many 20th-century variations, including a Mission-style version, are based on this simple desk.


Kneehole desk

During the Chippendale period, the kneehole desk developed. This innovative form, which made it easier to sit close to the desk, was especially popular in the Victorian period. Most Victorian examples have a flat top resting on 2 pedestals that contain drawers and storage areas.

Ladies' desks

Smaller desks, the type known as "ladies' desks,"appeared about 1680 in England. An epidemic of letter writing and memoirs raged in France during Louis XV's reign and, with its counterpart in England, made desks essential in every room. These were dainty tablelike affairs with small enclosed top sections, closing with lids, doors, tambours, or cylinders that rolled back.

See Carlton table above


Lap desk

See Traveling desk below

Partners' Desk 1780-1820

Has matching sets of drawers andcupboards on the front and back, enabling two people to workfacing each other.


Pedestal desk  


Rolltop desk

Tambour or flexible cylindrical hood drawn down as a hood





Slant top / slant front / drop front / drop lid desk 1750-80

Drop lid: A top or front of a desk hinged to cover an inner compartment of drawers, boxes, pigeonholes, etc.

Gothic desk boxes, growing larger, came to be mounted on stands, and presently the hinging of the lid was reversed so that the innerside formed a writing surface when opened. Hence the slant-front and fall-front types that are known today.

When the front is dropped down, the inner surface of the desk front makes a flat writing surface flush with the inner compartment.

There are usually drawers below the enclosed top area.

A desk, usually 18th-century English or American, with a drop-front writing section, set at an angle, which rests on a base made up of several drawers.

Similar to a Secretary with the bookcase element.

Usually there are pull-out slides to support the desk front whenit is dropped.

Tambour desks / Rolltop desk 1780-1820

In the Federal tambour pieces, the storage area above the writing surface was occasionally concealed by tambour doors, composed of thin wooden slats mounted vertically on a cloth backing.

In a tambour piece, the doors open toward the sides, and in the rolltop desk, the door rolls up.

Traveling desk (Writing box)

Desk that would have contained all the necessary accessories for keeping in touch while traveling

"Indirect revival of the seventeenth-century writing box but differs in construction, divides into two parts and has an elaborately fitted interior. Itmeasures 12 to 20 inches long, eight to 12 inches wide and four to eight inches high. The two parts are hinged at the back and their sides are cut on a diagonal so that the open box provides a sloping writing surface. This consists of the baize-covered, center-hinged flaps of both parts. Behind the upper flap is space for writing paper and beneath the lower one, compartments for other writing materials and frequently toilet accessories.

"Beyond this is a shallow compartment fitted for ink bottle, sand shaker and pens. Sometimes the concave pen tray is removable and has a secret compartment beneath.

"With a larger box, the lower section has a false bottom which provides space for a shallow fll-width drawer inserted from right side. Drawer is equipped with an inset brass handle with folding bail.

"Box edges are finished with narrow rounded brass strips and at thecorners there are quarter-round brass insets. The front is fitted with an inset brass keyhole escutcheon and the top generally has a small centered brass plate, inset and designed to be engraved with the owner's initials. Sometimes these brass fittings are simulated by gilding. Madein all sections of crotch-grain mahogany veneer on pine or sometimes of rosewood or black walnut veneer. Ca.1800-1840."

- Thomas H. Ormsbee, Field Guide to American Victorian Furniture, 1951, pp.263-264.



Wooten desk

See also: The Collectors Weekly: "Desks" Illustrations with ebay links

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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