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The Bible Box, Ancestor of the Desk

Among the wooden chests which made up the luggage of the first American colonists were small dual-purpose boxes of oak. Equipped with a large lock, such a box would be ornamented on the front with shallow carving and also have the initials of its owner carved just below the lock. Stored within were a bulky quarto-size Bible, seeds for planting in the new land, family trinkets, and writing materials, since it was the early substitute for a desk.

When it was placed on a joined stool or small table, its lid could serve as a writing tablet. This arrangement held until close to the end of the century when the desk first appeared as a separate piece of furniture although still resembling its parent. It was in two parts and consisted of a larger and more detailed writing box, with slanting lid, placed on a frame. From this beginning the desk evolved, taking various forms from the one-piece bureau to the secretary.

Meanwhile, the Bible or writing box did not pass wholly from the scene. Not everyone could afford a desk. Furthermore, these boxes, which had been brought over from England and Holland, were well-made and of a convenient size for storing small prized possessions. So, from about 1650 to 1800, New England cabinetmakers, working mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, continued to make them, using oak and pine as material and following the proportions, construction, and decorative details of the imported boxes.

Few of these seventeenth-century writing boxes are now found outside museum collections. Survival examples dating from the eighteenth century and probably made by country cabinetmakers turn up occasionally. Those made up to 1725 are apt to be of walnut and are uncarved; later, pine was a favored wood. The box is entirely of pine and probably the work of a farmer handy with tools. It is a little shallower than the early boxes but the proportions are similar. The base is flat instead of molded and hand wrought iron nails take the place of dovetail joints. Pin-and-batten strip hinges fasten the lid. This is most unusual. There is no decoration except for shallow scratch work, probably done with a scribing awl, of two circles on the front enclosing the initials J.A.

In this box, dating from before 1815, the unknown maker probably kept his account books, his writing paper, and any articles important enough to be under lock and key.

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