The History of Desks: The Writing Desk

The history of desks holds a number of surprises—not the least of which is that, after centuries of development and innovation, many of us are turning back to some of the earliest desk styles.

The writing desk was developed in the 17th century by combining several earlier innovations. Despite falling out of favor thanks to the typewriter and the computer, it’s begun making a resurgence in recent years.

Here’s how the writing desk came about:
Cherry Writing Desk

The First Desks

While people have written for more than 5,000 years, nobody thought to create furniture specifically for writing until about the 1400s. At this point in history, the printing press had not yet been invented, and monks spent month after month transcribing books by hand. They needed something to make their grueling job easier.

history-writing-desk

“Escribano” by Jean Le Tavernier – [1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. To take some of the strain out of their backs and necks, medieval writers began using slanted work surfaces. These allowed them to hold their work up at a more natural angle.

In addition to working well for writing, these work surfaces made it easier to read, holding up books and parchment at head height. The end result was similar to reading on a modern computer screen.

The Bargueño

Around the same time, the Spanish invented the bargueño. This was an early version of the fall-front desk, with numerous drawers and a front that could be opened and lowered to serve as a writing surface.

When closed, it looked much like a chest. This compact design made it easy to carry around.

The bargueño did not come with legs attached. Instead, it was often built as part of a two-piece set, with a small table or chest of drawers designed to support it.

The Bible Box

As time went on, the printing press came about and reading became more popular. More and more people could afford their own Bible, and writing started to become more a part of everyday life. The everyman soon needed a way to write and to protect his books and papers.

A popular solution was the “Bible box.” As the name suggests, a large part of its purpose was serving as a storage box. However, it had a slanted writing surface like that used by the monks. This writing surface was hinged at the top, so you could simply pull it back and store your things inside.

Much like the bargueño, the Bible box did not stand on legs. The user would have to place it on a table or another surface to write.

bible-box
Bradshawhall at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Desk Box

The Bible box allowed ample storage, but its size made it clumsy. Many turned to a smaller, lighter solution: the desk box. This followed the same principles of design on a more portable scale.

The desk box allowed its owners to hold their work surface on their laps. It could also be placed on a table.


A desk box could have had all of the features shown here, just without the legs.

Despite its emphasis on portability, the desk box often had plenty of internal storage. In addition to having the hinged lid of a Bible box, it sometimes had drawers and additional compartments.

The Writing Desk

In the late 1600s, people began looking for a way to make a dedicated piece of writing furniture that still had the advantages of the desk box. The first solution was to add legs to bring it to proper writing height. This got rid of the need to find a table that was just tall enough or to hold a heavy desk box in one’s lap. However, that came at the cost of the desk box’s prized portability.

Some clever furniture makers, perhaps inspired by the Spanish bargueño, decided to make two-piece writing desks. The top—the desk box—could then be removed from the stand. Owners could now pull the desk into two parts, making it easier to transport and allowing them to adjust the height by moving the desk box to a different surface.

This writing desk design proved itself as one of the most versatile in the history of desks. Even today, it’s a popular choice.

I love this style of writing desk. It’s attractive, it’s useful, and I even find it fun to build. I’d go so far as to say it’s my specialty piece. If you’re interested in having me build one for you, take a look at the handmade desks I’ve built to find out what appeals to you, or go ahead and call or contact me online. I look forward to hearing from you!

I plan to write more on the history of desks soon. If you share my fascination with this subject, then don’t forget to come back later to learn more.

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