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History of the Desk

Updated on November 29, 2016

A desk is a piece of furniture of table or cabinet form that is used primarily for writing or reading. The earliest desk was probably a box that had a sloping lid for writing, under which there was storage space for writing materials. Boxes of this type were used in the scriptorium (writing room) of medieval monasteries. Eventually, these boxes came to be mounted on specially constructed stands- the form of the desk, or writing table, that lasted into the 18th century. In France the tops of such writing tables were covered with a woolen cloth (baize) called bure.

By the 17th century, drawers were added to the table frames. This addition produced a chest of drawers, from which the kneehole desk was later evolved.

In the 18th century a bookcase or cabinet top and a hinged writing surface were added to the chest of drawers, to form the secretaire (secretary). Also in the 18th century, when letter and memoir writing thrived in France and England, small desks, often called "ladies' desks", were placed throughout the house. These pieces had either lids or sliding doors (often of tambour construction), or cylinders that rolled back. (The 19th century rolltop desk was an outgrowth of cylinder construction.)

In the early 19th century, straight drop-front cabinets of Empire style replaced the more elaborate architectural forms of the earlier secretaries. Modern desks, constructed of synthetic material as well as wood, are designed in both new and traditional forms.


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