The Moving History of Antique Secretary Desks

The Moving History of Antique Secretary Desks

“Still, something about writing made me spend large hours of my free time at my desk.”

John Grisham

The history of the “secretary desk” is a long and very interesting one. Originally taking its name from the French word for writing desk, secretaire, it is a term for a rectangular desk, usually taller than it is wide. The first authentic secretaire desk is believed to have been created in the 18th century by Jean-Francois Oeben; the royal cabinetmaker to Louis XV. Oeben produced the first fall-front desk (or drop-leaf desk), also known as a “secretaire a abattant,” and was known for his mastery in the creation of marquetry and mechanical desks.

These antique secretary desks were filled with drawers, pigeonholes and all types of secret compartments, all hidden behind a drop-down or pull out panel that when open acted as a desktop. As a kid many enjoyable Saturday mornings were spent discovering all the treasures that could be found in my father’s roll-top desk drawers and cubbies.

Secretary desks have evolved into many forms over time. From the late 18th century through the 19th there were many inventive styles featuring elaborate carving, inlays, and marquetry made of exotic woods or even lacquered black to resemble a piece of Chinese furniture. The most famous English maker of secretaries, and many other wonderful pieces of furniture, was Thomas Chippendale, and his son of the same name, who created painstakingly detailed pieces for houses and grand halls throughout Great Britain.

Design Toscano furniture collection includes a wide selection of these desks to fit your own home décor. For example the Chateau Anjou Demi-Desk (AF7289) is a wonderful example of an 18th century French antique with intricate wood carving, a sliding writing surface, an upright hutch with two shelved cabinets and one display shelf in the center. This secretary desk, ideal for small spaces, features three exterior drawers and is distressed just enough to resemble a true antique and charm you into writing cards and notes on its warm wood surface.

Besides the extremely detailed desks that were created in this period there were also some secretaries that comprised a far more practical side: “campaign” or knockdown furniture was made to be assembled and taken apart quickly so that military officers could easily transport them as they moved on to the next battle. These pieces were built to offer the officers as much storage as possible so the actual desk and the writing surface area was often a bit smaller on campaign secretaries than on desks designed for residences.

Created exclusively for Design Toscano, the Captain’s Davenport Desk (AF2016) was commissioned for Josiah Davenport in 1790 as a campaign desk. There is not an inch of wasted space in this compact desk with eight brass handled side drawers (four on each side) and a top box to store pens, pencils and other supplies. Lift the hinged desktop to reveal eight interior drawers for small items like paperclips and rubber bands. This desk was designed in a smaller scale so it was easy to pick up, take on a campaign and move from camp to ship. People were a bit shorter then, and space was at a premium so this desk works best with a low chair or stool. I own one of these clever desks and paired it with an antique chair that is just perfect for me. Design Toscano offers a variety of stools and accent chairs or try the Victorian Sewing Stool Petite Chair (HA6661) which is a good size for this desk.

In the United States the most famous manufacturer was William Wooton, although Wooton’s secretaries resembled a roll-top or cylinder shaped desk they continued to feature enclosed secret drawers, shelves, slots and cubbyholes. Antique replicas were popular in the 19th century, prized for their functionality, and space saving designs.

Design Toscano’s L’Escritoire Secretary Desk (AE2334) is a beautiful hand-carved antique replica in a sophisticated blend of French and English design with claw and ball Chippendale legs. Prized, detailed and intricate this solid hardwood investment in European style features an incredible amount of storage including eight cubbyholes, seventeen drawers with five secret drawers. A perfect place to inspire your best writing!

Continuously remaining in fashion and production secretary desks were created in the style of the period; wonderful examples from the Victorian age, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts periods can found with the essential elements unchanged. In the 20th century you can see them crafted from new wooden veneers and finishes, such as mahogany, walnut, cherry and maple, as well as many geometric designs.

As a mid-19th century antique replica the Carved Unicorn Drop-Front Writing Desk (AF2137) is a masterpiece of hand carving in solid mahogany, featuring stylized unicorns among flowing leaves and vine scrollwork. Fold open the embossed leather writing service edged with gold to reveal pigeonholes and five drawers to store your private papers and bills organized and out of sight. Four exterior drawers will provide you with plenty of storage space. This heirloom secretary desk is distressed just enough to resemble a true antique and will provide you years of satisfaction.

Today Design Toscano is recreating these antiques in hand-carved mahogany and hard woods. One of the principal charms of these secretary desks is plenty of storage, drawers, pigeonholes, and even secret spaces. All of our secretary desks are perfect for small rooms or limited spaces at the same time as they provide maximum storage while taking up very little area (click each desk’s product page link for individual dimensions).

A secretary desk will inspire you to write and will help to make sure your supplies and bills stay organized and hidden; they also make an inspired craft hideaway, a place to hide a laptop computer or for office storage. A neighbor of mine ordered the Unicorn Drop-Front Writing Desk (AF2137) to use in retirement community while downsizing and another customer ordered one for her daughter to use in her off campus apartment.

If you are looking for something larger to be the signature piece of your home décor check out the rest of Design Toscano’s impressive collection of desks and tables. A customer favorite, our replica of the Oval Office Presidents’ H.M.S. Resolute Desk (AF57262), stretching 6 feet long, is sure to make an impact in an executive office! Another powerful statement piece is our Lord Raffles Lion Executive Desk (AF57224) which features amazing hand-carvings of fierce lions!

Posted by Sue Mell