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EVEN THE COLONISTS HAD LAPTOPS:
The History of the Writing Desk

Written by Dan Weaver

    In the age of personal computers and home offices, desks have become permanent fixtures in just about every American home. However, desks have been an integral furnishing in homes for centuries. Most of us spend considerable time working at a desk, yet we probably never spend any time pondering the history of the familiar item. So let’s take just a little time to look back at the history of one of the furnishings that has definitely withstood the test of time. 

  European desks were often quite ornate and sometimes quite large. Many had elaborately carved feet that were supposed to look like the feet of animals. Others were accented with finials and other decorative embellishments. In contrast, most early American desks were pared down considerably in the interest of functionality and simplicity. Typically made of pine, cherry or maple, early American desks often were designed to include a lift-up, slanted writing surface, which concealed a storage area. Some designs included slots, drawers, or even shelves. 

  One of the most famous desks from colonial America is actually nothing more than a portable rectangular box with a locking drawer and a lift-up lid. It was upon this desk that Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. During the 18th century, most early homes would have had some type of writing desk designed in similar fashion for the purpose of making letter writing comfortable and convenient.
  During the second half of the 17th century and certainly during the entire 18th century, letter writing, diary keeping and penmanship had reached a golden age. Clearly the need to have an appropriate writing surface was critically important. Although the wealthy certainly did have large, well-appointed desks, many early Americans could not afford them. That these large desks had limitations should be noted. For example, they were not convenient to move from room to room, and it was impossible to take them along during one’s travels. The solution for both of these limitations was to develop a writing desk that was relatively inexpensive and portable. Cabinetmakers were quick to design desks that would meet the needs of consumers.  

  Bible boxes had been used not only to store the family Bible, but also to store writing materials. The lid also provided a solid surface upon which one could write. Based on these designs, portable desks became the fashion of the day. They varied considerably in size and design. The larger models were intended to be placed on a tabletop and provided a sloped surface upon which one could comfortably write. The smaller version was intended to be held on one’s lap. Yes, laptops have been around for centuries!  

​ What has been written about the history of early writing desks could fill volumes, and this article has offered only brief glimpse into their history. While we often collect and appreciate early furnishings used by the American Colonists, this is one example of a utilitarian item that has withstood the test of time quite well and one that we still very much use for the same purpose today.