The History of Office Desks, Past and Present.

Posted by: Mitchell H. Kirsch 1 comments

Office desks have undergone plenty of changes over time, their evolution reflecting the growing status of white-collar workers and their ever-evolving tasks and tools.

“Office Desks” in the Medieval Era

In the beginning, desks were the sole province of scribes, writers and record-keepers in the days before the printing press. Scribes were essential worker ants in government, who copied texts and updated records for authorities. A medieval image of St. Jerome paints a picture of the scribe’s “office desk” in the old days –

The chair and writing desk might be overly architectural, but the desk is on a slope. He holds his quill pen in the right hand and his special knife in the left. Arranged along the top of his writing desk are his ink horn and an assortment of other tools, which could be scrapers, buffers or spare pens. He appears to be writing on unbound sheets.

Scribes were the forerunners of our present-day accountants, typists, and civil service officials. Most of the desks in those days were plain and rough-hewn, but higher-status officials had more ornately-carved desks created by master woodworkers.

Class Distinctions Between Desks

These desks evolved into the “bureau”, which was the name that was attached to writing furniture from 1700 onward.  Bureaux were sloping desks with space for drawers below – their association with civil servants and scribes made a different design necessary for the nobility and upper class who were increasingly doing figures and writing letters on their own.

For the nobility, their need for a more refined desk was answered by the secretary desk – a tall item of furniture with a hutch whose cover could be lowered into a writing desk when needed. The hutch stored books, inkpots, stationery, and other essential items.

Evolving professions needed their own desks, too. Architects called for larger, angled surfaces for their work, a need which generated the modern drafting table. Office desks also became more ornate, with pigeonholes and drawers for essential items like inkpots and blotting sand.

Office Desks Enter the Modern Age

The design of office desks began to move into its modern era by the 1800s. The pedestal desk, which was introduced in the 18th century but gained currency in the 19th, became de rigueur in the burgeoning British empire, and passed onto the U.S. as well.

These were the preferred office desks of worker drones and Presidents alike. The most famous example is the Resolute desk, which was carved from the timbers of the HMS Resolute and gifted by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880.

These desks were initially hand-crafted and hand-tooled by master craftsmen, but new production techniques by the early 20th Century allowed desks to be mass-produced for the first time, as demand for office desks climbed after the Industrial Age.

New technology also forced designers of office desks to innovate: typewriters, telephones, and the late advent of computers and the Internet have guided the design of office desks. The introduction of the office cubicle has changed office desks like nothing before, as desks have become solidly integrated into the office cubicle design.

Whither office desks? Unless a new technology or new profession comes over the horizon, it’s difficult to say – but it’s safe to assume that office desks will be with us for a long, long time yet.

Dec 11, 2010
5:40 pm

I’ve seen quite a few posts on the history of the cubicle, but this is the first one I’ve read on the history of desks. Two thumbs up for originality. My father in law actually gave me an old fashioned editor’s desk that I use for sketching. I think drafting is really the only trade where the inclined desk design is still used regularly.

Daisy McCarty

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