Desks And Secretaries
( Originally Published 1905 )
BEFORE the invention of printing (about the last half of the fourteenth century) books of every kind — school-books, medical and cooking receipts, as well as all public and private documents — were written by hand.The copyist was a man of importance, who had a lucrative employment. Even the monasteries had an office, called a scriptorium," where missals, prayer-books, and other holy works were copied and illuminated; and from these works a substantial income was received, since no document or volume was approved unless it had ornamented or decorative initials and capitals. This work was done upon tables or standing-desks attached to the wall, while in private houses there were few enough of even such conveniences.
In 1459 Margaret Paston, of Norwich, England, was having her husband's room rearranged during his absence, according to his directions. She writes to him about it, saying,
" I have taken the measure in the drawte chamber there, as ye would your coffers and your cowsatewery (desk) should be set for the while, and there is no space beside the bed for to sett both your board and coffers there, and have space to go and sit beside."
This desk seems to have been in the nature of a table, but the common desk of an early period was a small box which locked and could be carried about when travelling. We can imagine that the earliest corners to this country did not hamper themselves much by bringing even such simple affairs as these, though, in addition to their being used for writing on, they were called on as strong boxes for papers and gold, and in many cases were furnished with a till.
The greatest treasure they were used to protect was a copy of the Bible, and they were often called " Bible boxes " from this fact. One of these old boxes, made of native oak, carved in low relief in a pattern of tulips, is shown in Figure 263; the lid, which is of deal, has but a moderate slant, and the box contains a till. It is not dated, but belongs to a period between 1650 and 1675.
Another of these rare old Bible boxes is seen in Figure 264. This has a slanting lid, is made of oak, and has rude carving on the front and base. It is dated 1651, and has the initials of its owner, A. W., on the centre of the front. The old iron hinges show on the top, and, in view of its age, the box is in an excellent state of repair. This box is twenty inches long and thirteen inches high. It once had a small shelf at the back.
The term " desk " occurs with extreme rarity in the old inventories, and even so refers to these box-like desks with either a flat or sloping top. By 1700 writing-tables were in use in Europe, and the French " scrutor," as it was most often called, began to be found over here.
The combination of drawers with a desk top was one of the early forms taken by this useful piece of furniture, and by as early as 1710 such desks were found here, both of domestic and foreign make.
When we take into consideration the activity of every maker and designer of furniture to publish a book containing his ideas, we are not surprised that so many pieces resembling English work are to be found here, and were the product of our native cabinet-makers. As early as 1739 works more or less valuable were being constantly presented to the public, and perhaps William Jones, when he published his " Gentleman's or Builder's Companion," in 1739, could call himself the pioneer in this line, in England.
I am tempted to give the titles of some of the most valuable of these English books since I have received inquiries where such may be found. Not in this country, except in some cases as reprints, save in the cabinet of the collector of rare works. Yet some may be stowed away, their value quite unappreciated. An undated but early volume was brought out by the Society of Upholsterers and Cabinetmakers, and they called it by the high sounding title of " One Hundred New and Genteel Designs, being all the most approved Patterns of Household Furniture in the present Taste."
Then came William Kent, who not only laid out the gardens of the nobility, but published a book in 1744 in which he discussed furniture, and gave designs for tables, chairs, candlesticks, and mirror frames, and even for styles in dress. In 1750 William Halfpenny published his " New Designs for Chinese Temples, etc.," which meant summer-houses in Chinese taste, and which book also gave his ideas on furniture. Then appeared Chippendale's first edition of " The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director, being a large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese, and Modern Taste." This edition was published in 1754, and there was an-other edition in 1759, and a third in 1762.
Thomas Johnson, a carver, came next with designs for picture frames, candelabra, ceilings, clock-cases, etc., which came out first in parts, and then was bound up. This was in 1758. In 1761 he published another book, called " One Hundred and Fifty New Designs," many of which were wildly rococo.
Copeland and Lock brought out sets of plates and some small publications between 1752 and 1769. " A New Book of Pier Frames, Ovals, Girandoles, Tables," was brought out in 1769 by Matthias Lock, and has in it many of the long-billed birds which we are so prone to call Chippendale. Edwards and Darley made their contribution in 1754, and Robert Mainwaring, in 1765, published what he was pleased to call " The Cabinet and Chairmaker's Real Friend and Companion." Mainwaring, although his name has no importance now, exerted quite an influence upon the cabinet-makers of his day, and his book had a. large sale. While the charge is brought against him that he copied from Chippendale, it might be more just to say that they both drew from the same sources, but that Chippendale improved on his models, while Mainwaring but accentuated their faults.
Ince and Mayhew, about 1770, gave to the world " The Universal System of Household Furniture," which was more florid than Chippendale's most fanciful designs. Their book contained three hundred designs. N. Wallis, 1772, published " The Complete Modern Joiner "; Thomas Crunden, 1765, " The Joyner and Cabinetmaker's Darling," 1770, " The Carpenter's Companion for Chinese Railings and Gates," 1776,
The Chimney-piece Maker's Daily Assistant."
Hepplewhite and Thomas Shearer with some others brought out in 1788, " The Cabinetmaker's London Book of Prices," and Hepplewhite and, after him, his widow brought out, " The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer's Guide or Repository of Designs for every Article of Household Furniture." There were editions in 1788—1789 and 1794. Last of all came Thomas Sheraton, the most refined of all the great makers and designers. His books were called, " The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer's Drawing-book " published, 1791, 1793, 1794. The " Cabinet Dictionary " came out in 1803, and the " Cabinetmaker, Upholsterer, and General Artists' Encyclopoedia," from 1804 to 1807.
Books dealing with the subject of cabinet-making and joinery were published late in the eighteenth century, by William Pain. Some of them were, " The British Palladio," " The Carpenter's Pocket Dictionary," " The Carpenter's and Joiner's Repository." There were also several others.
Robert and James Adam also belong to this period, and though their avowed calling was that of Architecture, the " Adam Style," as it was called, had a great influence on furniture makers of the time. For their own houses and those that they remodelled, the Adams designed the furniture. This family was a great factor throughout the entire eighteenth century. The father, William Adam, designed and remodelled many Scottish mansions, for he was known by the high-sounding title of " Master Mason of Scotland." His four sons followed his profession, and of these the best known and most distinguished were Robert and James. Their most important books were " Works in Architecture by Robert and James Adam, Squires," which came out in parts from 1773 till 1778. To them we are indebted for the introduction of satinwood as a material for furniture and inlaying, and for a certain classical style of ornament which they rendered in a purer form than their contemporaries. They used in their ornaments octagons, ovals, hexagons, rounds, lozenge-shaped panels, husks, fans, sphinx, Greek and Roman vases, wreaths, honey-suckle, medallions with figures, festoons, fauns, goats, cupids, eagle-headed figures, drapery, ribbon-work, caryatides, mythological subjects, rams' heads, lions' and eagles' claws for feet, griffins, sea-horses, Greek and Roman pateræs, and draped figures. From this it will be seen how they drew on every kingdom for their purposes, and how they used not only their own finds, but adapted the finds of others.
Michael Angelo Pergolesi produced a work on " Decoration," which also showed many furniture designs, and he was distinguished for the exquisite decorations which he painted on such furniture as the Adam brothers de-signed. He dedicated his book in the following high-sounding terms : " To the Memory of the Late Most High and Puissant Prince, Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland, who was a Patron of the Arts, and to whose Virtues this work is Dedicated by His Most Grateful and Humble Servant." The book contains over seventy large pages of the most exquisite and dainty designs for ceilings, walls, chimney-pieces, furniture, frames, etc., and is a mine for those in search of beautiful ornament.
In France also many books on furniture and decoration were produced. These were brought to England, and from them the English makers drew many choice designs which they copied bodily or adapted to suit their customers. After such a list as this, it does not seem strange that we made good work. Among the illustrations in these books one is rather surprised to find, comparatively, so few desks and secretaries. Many pieces of furniture for strictly bedroom use, like dressing-tables and stands, have in them a drawer which is called a " furniture drawer," in the description. In this drawer, which was cut up into many compartments, were spaces for pens, ink, writing paper, pins, wax, wafers and all the things which went to make up the writing paraphernalia, before the days of the fountain pen. So much furniture, other than what it appeared to be, was made during the eighteenth century that in many of them could be tucked what was needful to indite a billet-doux, or receipt a due bill.
The combination of drawers and a desk top, which I have referred to before, is shown in Figure 265, and there are few such desks which do not contain some-where one or more secret drawers or receptacles. With the advent of safe deposit companies, and strong boxes which may be rented, the necessity for places to hide away valuables becomes less each year.
The novelist delights in placing love letters in these old secret drawers, but such inflammable material was seldom placed there except by romantic souls, to whom such tokens were invaluable. In making these desks, mahogany was sometimes used, cherry was more common, and occasionally walnut desks are to be met with, but these are rare.
A very plain walnut one is given in Figure 266, and is very solid and substantial. It was made about the middle of the eighteenth century, or perhaps a little earlier, and the chair beside it is of about the same age. Another of mahogany is given (Figure 267), an interesting fact about it being the carved ball-and-claw legs. There are also a number of secret drawers, some of them being concealed behind the pigeon-holes, and some below the lower row of drawers. This desk has a further claim to our notice from the fact that it once belonged to General Israel Putnam, and is now the property of Mr. George Ropes, of Salem, Massachusetts.
By the middle of the eighteenth century reading and writing became less of an accomplishment and more of a is necessity, and the number of desks rapidly increased. Writing appliances were also fitted in bureaus; some-times one drawer opened out into a desk, sometimes only a section of it let down, forming a small shelf with drawers behind. Many cabinet-makers indulged their own fancies in making desks. One of these odd shapes is shown in Figure 268, where the desk is shown closed ; the whole front above the long drawer is a solid piece of wood, with the two borders at the side. When in use for writing, this top is supported by two rests which draw out for that purpose. In Figure 269 the desk is shown open; all the drawers are of curly maple, while several of them still retain the old brass knobs. The handles on the long drawer at the bottom are new and too modern in design. This drawer has a panel of the maple, and a band around it of the mahogany. The desk is at the Whipple House, at Ipswich, Massachusetts, that valuable repository of so many Colonial relics.
Very pretty little writing-tables were made for ladies' use, with tops which folded up, or opened out and were supported on rests. They had two drawers below, and looked much like the little work-tables that appeared about the same time.
In fact the branch of cabinet-making which related to ladies' desks was one of considerable interest. Sheraton made many of them, and in his books are designs for many more. A pretty and characteristic specimen of this maker is shown in Figure 270, the woods composing it are maple and satinwood. Little drawers are concealed behind the doors, and compartments in the lower drawers are for the necessary implements.
I have spoken of the fact that much of the furniture of the late eighteenth century was other than what it appeared. Under this head I give a description taken from Sheraton's book, of a " Lady's Cabinet Dressing Table." This piece is not inappropriate here, as it has writing materials also in it:
" This table contains every requisite for a lady to dress at. The style of finishing them is somewhat neat and elegant. With respect to the manufacturing part, and what it contains, these may be learned from the piece itself when open. When the washing-drawer is in, a slider which is above it may be drawn out to write on. The ink and stand are in the right-hand drawer under the centre dressing-glass. Behind the drapery, which is tacked to a rabbet, and fringed or gimped to cover the nails, is a shelf on which may stand any vessel to receive the dirty water. Above the drapery are tambour cupboards, one at each end and one in the middle. Above the tambour at each end are real drawers, which are fitted up to hold every necessary article for dressing. The drawers in the cabinet part are intended to hold all the ornaments of dress, as rings, drops, etc. Behind the centre glass is drapery ; it may be real to suit the portion below, or it may be painted to match...."
Such a little table as that given in Figure 270 is recommended by Sheraton, as the lady writing may sit at it near the fire, from which the upper part screens her face. As may be seen the writing-shelf opens on hinges, and room for the knees is afforded by the portion which is cut out. " Kidney Tables " for writing (" named on account of its resemblance to the intestine parts of animals, so called," Sheraton says) were also made for writing at too, and so were some of the popular Pembroke tables, named from the lady who first de-sired one of this pattern made for her.
After the combination of table and desk, the next most desirable union of two articles in one, was that of desk and bookcase. All the pattern books show innumerable designs for these, from heavy and cumbrous pieces of furniture to such graceful and elegant pieces as that given in Figure 271A. This piece belonged to Washington Allston, the well-known American painter, who died in 1843. It is a more than commonly hand-some piece of furniture, decorated with both carving and inlay. The ball-and-claw feet are carved on the knees, and there is a beautiful shell in the opening of the broken-arch cornice. The glassed door is in Gothic pattern, and many are the directions given for fluting or draping the silk which it was customary to put in these doors. All the pattern books give such directions down to the most minute point, for the benefit no doubt of country cabinet-makers, and such amateurs as cared to attempt it themselves.
Sheraton used more veneer than Chippendale, since he used inlay while Chippendale used carving, and his instructions regarding the use of it are very definite. He says, " If the veneer be very cross and unpliable, as many curls of mahogany are, it is vain to attempt the hammer. It should be shrunk and tempered well with thin glue, not with water, and if necessary the caul, which is the surest and best method, should be used."
By 1780 there were cabinet-makers all about the country, turning out numbers of not only useful but ornamental articles. In 1774 the following advertisement appeared in the New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury ":
3 elegant desks and bookcases.
1 chest upon chest of drawers.
7 lady's dressing-chest and bookcase.
3 desks and 1 pr. card tables.
2 setts chairs.
3 Dining-tables and 5 breakfast tables.
1 clock case furnished with a good plain 8-day clock.
Sundry stands, etc.
The above articles are well made, and most of them are of wood of the first quality, and will be sold as low as any furniture of equal value in the city, by
WILLET AND BERASEY,
Cabinet and chair makers, at the sign of the clothes press, nearly opposite the Oswego Market, at the end of Maiden Lane.
There were made at this time, also, desks and bureaus with what were called block and serpentine fronts. Figure 271 B shows a fine example of a slant-top desk with a serpentine front. The block-front furniture was finished off square on the swelling part instead of rounded,. but both block and serpentine drawers were cut from the solid block of wood. This fine piece of mahogany has the original brasses, only one handle being gone. It has the moulding in its simplest form about the drawers, and handsomely carved feet of the ball-and-claw pattern. It has a more quaint aspect in reality than is given by the photograph. This style of desk seems to have been quite popular in New England, and in the Antiquarian Rooms, at Concord, Massachusetts, is a similar desk, made by Joseph Hosmer about 1765. It is of cherry and is in an excellent state of preservation, but is less handsome in colour than the one I show, which is in the Whipple House, at Ipswich.
I have seen also some desks of this pattern richly inlaid in satinwood, with spread eagles, and sometimes with initials or a monogram. Floral forms are used too, and the work appears to have been done here, or at any rate in England, and leaned rather to the Italian style than to the close-set Dutch patterns. In a few cases I have seen combined on the same piece both inlaid work and painting, but I considered the painting an after-thought, and that it was not put on when the piece was made. Sometimes it may have been added by the daughter of the house, fresh home from a finishing school, where " painting on tiles, in the sweetest of styles," was one of the most popular branches of female academies."
After a time some of these desks were fitted with bookcase tops. Such a one is given in Figure 272, its unusual feature being that the doors are fitted with wooden panels instead of glass.
Another one is shown in the next figure, 273, with the desk open to show the fine workmanship. This book-case which was made between 1730 and 1760, is eight feet six inches high, and must have been made for a house of consequence, owing to its great size. The bookcases were not dwarfed by the beds and clocks shown in previous chapters.
A very elegant secretary, with glass doors in Gothic style, is shown in Figure 274. It is made of solid mahogany, like its fellows already shown, and in one of the secret drawers is written the following inscription:
" This secretary originally belonged to a family named Wilcox, of Worcester, England, and was brought to this country by one of the family in 1810, and was then about seventy-five years old, having been made between the years 173e and 1738." Pasted on another drawer is still a second, record of ownership : " Presented to my wife as a token of respect on my birthday of seventy years, March 16, 1881.
" J. N. BATES, M.D."
By some strange vicissitude of fate, this old desk wound up in Worcester, Massachusetts, nearly 150 years after it was made in Worcester, England.
General Washington was always on the alert to buy comforts and luxuries to make Mount Vernon more attractive. In 1774 (he was only Colonel then) he bought many goods from the splendid home of the Fair-fax family on the Potomac. Owing to the decision of the family to remain in England, all their household goods at " Belvoir " were to be sold at auction. The list of what Colonel Washington bought is still preserved. There were many items, chiefly of mahogany, — beds, tables, sideboards, etc., — and among them was one mahogany desk for which he paid £16 16s., a very high price, indeed, for those days. It was at this desk, no doubt, that he wrote those long letters containing such minute directions to his factors in London, regarding the business they transacted for him, and the goods they purchased for him, including his and Mrs. Washington's clothes.
In Figure 275 is shown a Sheraton desk, the lid of which is folded back and supported by rests. The three little doors at the top open, disclosing pigeon-holes and drawers, with two or three compartments artfully concealed. The foot used on this desk is of the type known as " French foot," the outward curve giving it a more graceful appearance than when it came down straight with the edge of the desk, in which case it is known by the term " bracket foot," and is seen on many different styles of pieces, such as desks, bureaus, bookcases, etc.
The desk of Salmon P. Chase, a plain piece of furniture made from mahogany, is in one of the rooms of the Treasury Department at Washington. It was at this desk that some of the details of his financial system were worked out, and here he planned his first great loan to carry on the Civil War.
There are many of these old desks scattered about the country, their chief claim to interest being that once some well-known man leaned over them. Alexander Hamilton's travelling desk, made of mahogany and measuring twelve by sixteen inches, and ten inches high, is an interesting object to all who are familiar with the history of this great man. Upon this desk was written much of his literary work, and the worn green baize with which it is lined attests to the use to which it was put. There is a drawer in one side, and several compartments for pens and ink, while upon the top is inlaid a silver plate with the name " General Alexander Hamilton " engraved upon it. Within the top is a strip of parchment which says, " Given by Mrs. General Schuyler to her daughter, Mrs. General A. Hamilton." No doubt the convenient size was what recommended it to the General.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's desk is preserved at the Custom House, Salem, Massachusetts. A desk at which he wrote some of his inimitable romances was just a board standing out from the wall at an angle. This is still in the Tower Room at " Wayside," his home at Concord, Massachusetts.
Victor Hugo had in his Guernsey home a study built almost entirely of glass, and perched upon the roof. Like Hawthorne he, too, stood at his writing, and his desk was a mere shelf fastened by hinges to the wall. But these were mere appliances for the convenience of genius. Every-day people demanded and had some-thing better adapted to their needs, and there were many bookcases and desks combined which were large and handsome pieces of furniture.
Many tales could be told by these desks of use, then of abandonment, and of final resuscitation. Here is one said to be true, but the ending is not as it should be. For many years Mr. Samuel Tilden had, in his office in Nassau Street, a fine old walnut desk with innumerable pigeon-holes and some secret drawers of which he never would confide the whereabouts, nor would he tell if he hunted in spare moments for others. There was nothing remarkable about the desk, except that it was a good one, and that it was adding to its years of service by growing still older under the constant use of a famous man. After Mr. Tilden's death the desk, with some other pieces of his office furniture, was put in the loft of the office building and forgotten. As time went by the room in the loft was demanded, and the furniture was put in the cellar. Moving about and lack of care had not improved the looks of the desk, and though it was still staunch and strong it did not seem to be of much value, for now the roll-top desks had come to the front. One day even the room in the cellar was needed for vaults, and the furniture in the cellar, of which the desk was a part, had to be disposed of.
The janitor not knowing just what to do in the matter at last had the poor old desk broken up and fed to the furnace, watching its destruction as the old walnut flamed high in the furnace. Years passed by, and the time came when old-fashioned things and the relics of famous men were much in demand. Still another year went past, when one day a note arrived from the former private secretary of Mr. Tilden, who wrote in behalf of the family that they were anxious to secure the old walnut high-topped desk which had been used so many years by Mr. Tilden in his office. Would the janitor, so the letter ran, kindly get out the desk and ship it to them, after having it carefully crated? The family would of course pay all expenses.
For a few moments the janitor was nonplussed. Then he gathered his wits about him, and remembered that another tenant of the building had had a desk somewhat resembling that of Mr. Tilden, which in its turn had been abandoned also. This was promptly crated and sent to Mr. Tilden's relatives. It was returned within a week, for, you see, they knew the difference. With it came a letter, saying that they would give $250 for Mr. Tilden's desk. For a week that janitor dreamed of seeing $250 slowly burning up in the furnace ! Then he wrote and told his tale. There was some consolation, however, for they wrote again, asking if he had anything that was Mr. Tilden's. And he sent them an old pair of boots which had really belonged to Mr. Tilden, and had in some way escaped destruction. The return mail brought the janitor $50 in exchange.
Another and rather pretty style of Sheraton desk is shown in the next Figure, 276. This has but three drawers in the lower part, though they are small ones, and pigeon-holes behind the little doors. This desk has the ivory escutcheons which always were put on the best class of furniture, and a set of rosette and ring handles. The doors and drawers are veneered, but the writing-shelf is solid mahogany.
There was another combination that seemed to please our ancestors very much, if we may judge from the different forms we find it in, and that was the bureau and desk. I give one in Figure 277. This one is made of mahogany, and is a very handsome and solid piece of furniture. When it is closed it looks like a bureau with seven drawers ; but the middle drawer of the second set opens out, as you see. I have found similar desks of English, Dutch, and American make, the one shown being English. I know a Dutch one that is very handsome, as it is carved and inlaid in their beautiful fashion, and it has a third use as well, for the two tall drawers are partitioned off for bottles, each one being capable of holding six. Surely one object could not be expected to fill more purposes than this, where your clothes could be kept cosily, your literary work dispatched, and a cellaret at your very elbow. This Dutch bureau has a date, a most unusual thing to find on furniture. On the back of one of the bottle drawers, and only visible when the drawer is taken out, is a bit of paper pasted, giving the name of the maker, the town in Holland where he lived, and the year he made the bureau, 1789.
I should place the bureau in Figure 277 at least ten years later, but a fine and interesting piece. Within the year I have seen five bureau desks of similar style, all gathered in central New York State. They are not common in the antique shops, which make them even more desirable.
Speaking about these deep side-drawers in both side-boards and bureaus, Sheraton says :
" The drawer on the left is generally plain, but sometimes divided into two portions, the, back division being lined with baize to hold plates, having a cover hinged to enclose the whole. The front division is lined with lead, so that it may hold water to wash glasses, which may be made to take out, or have a plug-hole to let out the dirty water. The left-hand drawer is, however, sometimes made very short, to give place to a pot-cupboard behind, which opens by a door in the end of the side-board or desk. This door is made to hide itself in the end rail as much as possible, both for look and secrecy; for which reason a turn-buckle is not used, but a thumb-spring, which catches at the bottom of the door, and has a communication through the rail, so that by touch of the finger the door flies open, owing to the resistance of a common spring fixed to a rabbet which the door falls against. This cupboard can only be placed in these pieces of furniture which are square at the ends."
Another desk, somewhat on the order of the bureau-desk, is given in Figure 278. This I should call a sideboard-desk, for the deep drawer lets down with a brass arm, and discloses a desk within, with its proper complement of drawers and letter-holes. The date of this piece is doubtless about 1800, for it is a composite style, and I doubt not that it was made here. It has some very choice inlaid work, both about the mirror and the deep drawer, which the photograph does not reveal. There is good solid carving, too, but for all that the piece is not attractive. It is interesting simply as a rather unique specimen.
How much superior in elegance the next piece appears (Figure 279) . This is a writing cabinet on a Sheraton model, the upper part being designed for books, and the lower containing a desk and drawers. Observe the handsome curves in the glassed doors, and the purity of the ornamentation on the top. This bookcase-desk is of mahogany, and in every way an admirable example. In Figure 280 is given one of the choicest specimens of massive construction shown. I do not think it is as old as many of the serpentine-front pieces are, from the style of the interior fittings of the upper part. It is, no doubt, a product of the eighteenth century, however, and in splendid condition, the whole piece being of dark and solid mahogany, making the desk immensely heavy. The carved flames or torches on the top, the shells on the front of the desk and in the inside are finely done; and it is such a desk as you would expect to belong to one of those maritime princes whose ships roved every sea, bringing home to their owners in Salem the richest cargoes to be found. See the shelves for the great ledgers, wherein were entered the accounts of all the argosies which had come safely home ; and think how many times the owner, bending over the writing-shelf, must have entered the long columns of pounds, shillings, and pence on the side of profit.
About 1800, and a little later, what was known as the Empire style became fashionable, and was copied by both English and American cabinet-makers from French models. An American treatment of this style, which was originated under the fostering genius of Napoleon, is seen in Figure 281, which shows a large and handsome mahogany desk with bookcase combined. The combination of bookcase and desk, as I have said, had long been a favourite one; and though this book-case is quite generous in size, those many sizes smaller would often be quite large enough to contain the limited number of books which answered for a library in Colonial days.
Even the ministers had but a few volumes, and they were considered the scholars of the community. I had occasion lately to look over a collection of books which were considered fit and proper reading for both young and old, particularly on the Sabbath days, when time hung heavy on their hands, and a few of the titles will give a fair idea of the character of the library, quite typical of the period. Increase Mather's " Angelagraphia " (1696) ; " The Loving Invitation of Christ to the Aged, Middle-Aged, Youth and Children, from the mouth of Elizabeth Osborn, only Three Years and Nine Months Old "; Owen's " Indwelling Sin "; Baxter's " Call to the Unconverted "; Crawford's "Dying Shots "; Doddridge on " Regeneration," and Stoddard's " Safety of Appearing in ye Righteousness of Christ " are some of the solemn titles.
There was nothing that came under the head of " light literature."
I have spoken in the chapter on Chests and Cup-boards of furniture made in particular locations, or at least found there, and have shown both the Hadley and the Connecticut chest. In Figure 282 I give a picture of what is called the " Massachusetts desk," of which, recently, I have seen several examples. It does not seem a very convenient piece of furniture with that leg in the middle, but its great length must have made it possible for two persons to sit comfortably at it. This one is of mahogany, with carved legs and gilt mounts, and four shallow but wide drawers.
A desk somewhat resembling this is in the City Hall, New York, and there are quite a number in Boston and its vicinity.
To return to the bookcase-desk in Figure 281. It is about eight feet high, and the Gothic treatment of the doors makes them very ornamental. One of the marked peculiarities of this style of furniture was the use of metal mounts, made usually of handsome hand-worked or cast brass, and in finer pieces, of water gilt. Our cabinet-makers never let themselves be carried away by this florid style, and contented themselves in most cases with merely making the capitals at the tops of the pillars, ornaments, and sometimes the tips of the feet of brass. You will see them in this example. The lid of the desk folds back upon itself, and above it another lid swings out, revealing pigeon-holes.
The quiet simplicity of this desk is in marked contrast to the superb pieces shown in Figure 283. Every one of the splendid gilt ornaments on these desks is worth careful study.
There was only one man in England, and none here, who could have designed such desks as these, and that was Thomas Hope, whose studies in Greek and Roman antiquities enabled him almost to vie with the ancients in the beauty and grace of his figures. His book, called " Costumes of the Ancients," brought him great fame; it was published about 1807, and remains to this day a source of inspiration to those whose taste leads them to antique models. When he designed furniture it was always after classical forms, and decorated with his incomparable figures and ornaments. While many of his designs were not comfortable to sit or recline upon, they were certainly very beautiful to the eye.
There are few such desks as these in this country, or in fact to be found anywhere, and I give these merely as examples of what splendid furniture did find its way over here.
There are other desks also, dainty affairs if for ladies' use, standing on tall, slender legs, with sliding or " tambour " tops, as they were called, and a wealth of little drawers and cupboards, both revealed and secret. I know of one such which has recently been brought down from many years' seclusion in the attic, furbished up, and become the proud possession of a brand-new bride. But it lacks the elegance of olden days, for the modern cabinet-maker could not repair the tambour, an arrangement of slender bits of wood which were so fixed that they were flexible — something like the modern roller-top desk.
These pieces were and always are the rare exceptions ; and though they are occasionally found, they cannot be considered really representative of the furniture of our forefathers any more than the superb pieces shown in the last illustration.
It must forever remain a matter of regret that the best makers did not in some way mark their productions. Even had they done so, the study would not have proved of surprising ease, since there would always have been the fanciful maker who indulged his caprices, to cope with. With what delight we seize upon a piece which is dated, like one of the Bible boxes given early in this chapter; and with what regret we leave the unnamed and undated pieces as to whose exact time of construction hardly two people agree. In the study of French furniture, after the middle of the eighteenth century, the task became far simpler, for among sumptuary and other useless laws time was found to make an enactment which bade, in 1751, the maître ébéniste to stamp all his work. In the great museums of France, where many of the art treasures are gathered, there are also examples of furniture stamped with the maker's name ; and among the choicest are writing-tables, desks, and cabinets, all of the greatest beauty and elegance. Nothing was spared to enhance the beauty of these gems of art; lacquer, water-gilt, inlays of tortoise-shell and coloured stones, — every fancy which the ébéniste could summon was brought to his aid. It was the age of polite letter-writing and of diaries, and the memoirs from which we glean so much of history, and even more entertaining gossip, was set down with a quill pen at some of these very dainty and costly secretaires.
They are to be bought here now, but very few came here a hundred years ago ; so few that it was impossible to find one of which the history was authentic of its being here when the nineteenth century opened. So the work of Riesener and of Boulle, of Cressent and of Caffieri has been omitted as being too scarce to be of importance in a book which deals with those house-hold articles which were made or sold here, and which could be found in our homes in general.