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THE EVOLUTION OF THE WRITING DESK IN THE AMERICAN FEDERAL PERIOD

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Views: 3789 Added: 04/14/2009 Updated: 04/14/2009
 

Throughout most of the eighteenth century in America the writing desk was a scarce and expensive piece of furniture. In a typical small home of that period there would be little justification for devoting so much space to the function of writing. Instead one imagines that any handy table top would suffice. Desks were found only in the homes and businesses of the wealthier classes. They were all of the same general form and were called "slant front".

Until the post-revolutionary war period the typical slant front desk would have had a straight or ogee bracket foot base. The pictured example has a "French" foot typical of the new Hepplewhite style that ushered in the American Federal Period. This is the period that begins with the founding of the nation in the late 1780's and continues to about 1830. Much of the furniture made in the 1790's was based on the drawings of the great English designer George Hepplewhite. The pictured desk is interesting in that it is an earlier form that has been updated by the newer styles. It is referred to as being "transitional" in style. Notice that it is made of tiger maple, a native wood usually used in non-urban areas where the older styles lingered longer.

As the turn of the 19th century approaches commerce and wealth increase greatly in America. Larger homes are built and the new furniture forms proliferate. Over the next 20 years there is increasing interest in writing desks, especially since the new larger homes can easily accommodate them. The Hepplewhite styles mix with, and are eventually superseded by, the designs of another Englishman Thomas Sheraton. The use of veneered and inlaid surfaces gives way to carving with reeded and turned elements.

Our next example is one of the newer forms of the Federal Period, a lady's writing desk. Note that it is in the Hepplewhite style since it is angular in design with flashy inlaid and veneered surfaces.

So where is the desk? The short flat lid above the three drawers folds out and rests on the lopers. This is typical of all the desks made over the next two decades. It could not have been too comfortable to sit at these desks but, obviously, style had become more important than utility at this time

In the grander homes one could encounter impressive secretary desks that had bookcase sections above the desks. These could be covered with wonderful veneers and inlays or with beautiful carved ornamentation. People now had wealth and wanted to show it off. In the 1810's and 1820's the neoclassical designs of cabinetmakers like Duncan Phyfe in New York predominated. Now desks would be covered with the most beautifully grained mahogany veneers and further embellished with ormolu mounts and stencil decoration.

Finally by the end of the Federal Period around 1830 we encounter the pedestal base desk, a design that continued to be made until the present day and most closely captures our modern conception of the writing desk. Shown at right is one of the earliest American pedestal base desks. It is labeled in both drawers by its maker, Stephen Smith, who worked on Cornhill in Boston around 1830. It is easy to sit at and may even be used as a partner's desk since it is finished on the back side. As practical as the design was, very few desks of this type were made here in America in the Federal Period.

The years from 1780 to 1830 encompassed many changes in design and produced a great variety of new furniture forms. It is an exciting period in which to study and collect.

Author:   Jesse Goldberg
Phone: (914) 669-5971
Web-site: http://www.artemisantiques.com
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Hepplewhite tiger maple slant front desk, Vermont, circa 1800

Hepplewhite Lady's writing desk, probably Connecticut, circa 1800

 






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