Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Secretary (Secretaire)

Federal secretary - Hosmer's Inn

An eighteenth century term for a writing desk.

A secretary combines a desk with a storage unit for books and writing materials. There is a desk surface with a space for writing appliances which is combined with a drawer base below and a book case cabinet above.

Probably because of the scarcity of books in Colonial America, the combination did not develop until the mid-18th century in the Queen Anne style.

17th century

In the 17th century, it was essentially a bureau (a writing table on a chest of drawers with a hinged desk arrangement equipped with brass quadrants).

18th century - Queen Anne

Secretaries of the Queen Anne period are either flat-topped or crowned by an elaborately carved bonnet top.

18th century - Chippendale

Chippendale secretaries have the same basic form as the Queen Anne, but are usually much larger and may be crowned by a massive cornice.

18th century - Federal

Although large slant-front secretaries continued to be made throughout the Federal period, smaller types developed as well. In one of the most common forms, a writing surface is created when a hinged flap folds outward to rest on slides or a drawer.

Other innovations include the pullout writing shelf and the tambour secretary. In the latter, tambour slides, consisting of thin wooden strips attached to fabric, roll into recessed areas in each side of the desk section.

In some Federal pieces, the upper section was also modified to include glazed doors, made possible by the greater availability of glass. Federal cabinetmakers separated the glass panes by thin wooden strips, or muntins, often arranged in complex geometric patterns.

19th century - Empire

Empire-style secretaries are less varied than their Federal predecessors and almost always incorporate heavy Empire-style pillars and massive feet. Doors are often glazed, and the arrangement of shelves and cupboards is simplified.

19th century - Eastlake

Cylinder front: A quarter-round front of a desk or secretary mounted so that it can be pivoted.

Cylinder desk: Features a rolltop cover that differs from the tambour top in that it does not roll up on itself. The cylinder desk was eventually replaced by the rolltop desk.

19th century - Victorian

Typically, variety flourished during the Victorian period. Although traditional forms like the slant-front secretary were still made, more extravagant pieces incorporated elaborate bookshelves, china cabinets, clothes hooks, and even mirrors.

Also produced in this period was the Wooton desk, an oversize piece with a number of drawers and as many as 100 pigeonholes that swing out from behind an ornate front.

20th century - Arts and Crafts / Mission

At the turn of the century, a conservative trend set in. Arts and Crafts secretaries are austere, as are Mission-style pieces. Surface decoration is minimal, and the pigeonholes and drawers that are commonly found behind desk lids of earlier periods are often replaced by plain exposed shelves.

Colonial Revival

Colonial Revival


After 1920, the secretary became something of a rarity, and of those that were made, most hark back to earlier Colonial styles (Colonial Revival). As bookcases became increasingly common, there was less need for a combination desk and storage area, and the form underwent a reduction in size as well as a decline in popularity.


Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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