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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Old Desks And Secretaries



The average collector will not be likely to devote his chief attention to old desks and secretaries, but two or three of these old pieces in a house are highly desirable. In fact, the old-fashioned secretary, with bookcase, desk, and drawers, is about as useful a piece of furniture as the past has bequeathed to us.

A study of old desks and writing-cabinets presents an interesting development. The desks of the seventeenth century were simply boxes that locked, with flat or sloping tops. These were placed on an ordinary table when used.They were generally made of oak and were frequently carved. A very few were placed upon legs or frames, with a shelf beneath.

As early as 1660, however, the "scrutoir" (a corruption of escritoir) was invented, though it did not become common until 1700. This was a desk resting on a chest of drawers. The sloping front of the desk portion opened on hinges, forming the writing-desk. This was sometimes held in position by chains, but usually rested on two small drawers, one at each side, that could be pulled out when needed. Later wooden slides replaced the little drawers. Inside the desk portion were usually pigeonholes and small drawers. The lower portion consisted of a chest of three or four drawers on short ball feet, or one drawer supported by turned legs. Maple, oak, walnut, and whitewood were used, sometimes with a veneer of bird's-eye maple on the slant top and the fronts of the drawers. The older examples are extremely rare, but scrutoirs of various styles built between 1690 and 1710 are occasionally to be found.

There is one Queen Anne type that is also rare oak desk box and drawer resting on a four-legged frame-made between 1702 and 1714.

These scrutoirs were mostly of English manufacture, but a few of French make found their way to this country early in the eighteenth century. By 1710 American cabinet-makers also built a number of them, chiefly of cherry, and occasionally of walnut. These were quite plain and simple in form, and consisted chiefly of the desk top resting on a chest of three or four drawers. After 1730 there were some very handsome bureau-desks made in America.

In the English development of the scrutoir Dutch elements appeared during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Some of these pieces were very graceful, especially a type that resembled the Dutch low-boy in general outline, with the desk resting on top. The lower portion consisted of cabriole legs, with one or two drawers and a scalloped apron be neath. A slanting front opened on hinges and rested on slides. Within were pigeonholes and small drawers. This form of scrutoir is also rare, and very valuable because of its beauty. Some of them were more or less elaborate. Maple and cherry were chiefly used in this country, walnut in England.

Between 1740 and 1750 another style was made, more like the older ones, with four large drawers standing on short cabriole or ogee legs. Brass drophandles were generally used on these early eighteenth-century pieces.

By 1750 furniture for writing purposes, now called variously desks, scrutoirs, escritoirs, and writing-bureaus, had become an important part of the household furnishings, and pieces of the last half of the century are less difficult to obtain. Mahogany, cedar, cherry, apple, black walnut, and other woods were employed, both solid and veneered.

Among the many styles manufactured between 1750 and 1780, two types are prominent. The first was a development of the early scrutoir, made generally of mahogany, cherry, or maple, with a slant top on hinges, large drawers below, and short ogee, turned, or carved legs.

The other type was the forerunner of the secretary or bookcase desk. On top stood a cabinet with shelves and doors. These were usually of paneled wood, though glass and mirror doors were used as early as 1750. The desk top, which opened on hinges and rested on slides, was sloping, covering a row of pigeonholes and small drawers. Often there were sliding candle stands. Below these were large drawers, with short cabriole, ball, or turned feet. Rarely the ball-and-claw foot was used. The top of, the cabinet was at first square; later the broken arch appeared. These were often called bureau desks.

French desks of this period were not common in this country, and need hardly concern the average collector. Various types were made in Louis XV and Louis XVI styles, more or less elaborate, some of them very beautiful, especially the ladies' writingdesks.

Chippendale's designs included several desks. Especially noteworthy were his secretaries, with Chinese fret designs in the glass doors and various ingenious arrangements of secret drawers, etc. Most of his designs, however, were for table desks.

Among the designs of Ince and Mayhew, published in 1770, were a few interesting desks, though for the most part they were rather florid and inartistic.

In 1790 Heppelwhite's designs appeared, including secretaries and bookcases. They were usually severe in shape, with straight fronts, and with two glass doors above, often fancifully framed. The desk portion consisted of a drawer, instead of the sloping top on hinges; this pulled half-way out, and the front was let down on metal quadrants.

Sheraton's desks and secretaries were often extremely beautiful, with many valuable features of a practical nature. His scrutoirs and ladies' writingcabinets, of which he offered many designs, were delightful. They were inlaid and veneered in mahogany, satinwood, tulip-wood, etc. In 1793 he produced designs for secretaries with inlay, the lower portion consisting of a cupboard in place of the usual drawers.

Sheraton's inventions were often very ingenious. His bookcase-desks and writing-cabinets were fitted with small sliding doors, secret drawers, and various other clever devices.

Most of the bookcase desks and secretaries now to be found in this country are post Revolutionary, and many of them were made here. They were of various types, and ranged from the very plain to the very elaborate. There were veneered pieces with square tops, plain turned feet, and straight fronts; there were also beautiful creations of solid mahogany, with curved, serpentine, or block fronts, carved or inlaid ornament, brass handles, beautiful workmanship inside, the broken arch at the top, and small ball-and claw feet. Naturally, while all these old secretaries are of value to the collector, their valuation is largely determined by the degree and purity of the style and ornament.

Bookcases in the upper portion, with wooden or glass doors, were commonest, but a few of the pieces had, in place of the bookcase, a cupboard, about two feet high, containing drawers, pigeonholes, etc. Occasionally a desk is to be found built like a bureau, with the top drawer, or a portion of it, opening out to form a desk.

After 1800 a few French Empire desks found their way to this country, and our domestic work was in fluenced by that style. The American-made secretaries became less graceful, and their chief beauty lay in the grain of the selected mahogany veneering. The opening desk top, instead of sloping up to cover the pigeonholes, was usually nearly flat, and the small drawers and pigeonholes were often placed above it, sometimes inside the bookcase doors.

Besides the secretaries there was a late type of desk which, though very rare, is interesting. It stood on slender legs, and had a tambour top, much like our modern roll top, covering a wealth of little drawers and pigeonholes.

Values in old desks and secretaries vary widely. In general, the block-front desks and chests of drawers are held in highest esteem-both the English pieces and the rarest pieces of American furniture of this character.



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