Object of the Week: Highlighting the LCHA Collections

Slant-Top Desk

Countless thousands of slant-top desks were made in British colonial North America and during the early years of the new republic of the United States. They were ubiquitous because such desks functioned as advanced office organizers. Today one can utilize their iphone, ipad, or home computer but before the wonders of modern technology such desks were the appropriate answer.

The typical slant-top desk served three basic functions two of which become evident when the desk lid is open. The lid and the shelf in front of the cubby holes and the small drawers served as a writing surface. The small drawers and cubby holes allowed for compartmentalized filing of material by category or by importance. Correspondence requiring immediate attention could be placed advantageously. Small objects of substantial value could be placed in the small drawers.

When the lid is closed the large drawers below were the ideal place to store ledger books and other sizable documents.

Needless to say, the contents of such desks were confidential and of great value to the owner. Therefore, the large drawers and the lid were equipped with locks to protect the contents from theft and prying eyes. In the 18th century the slant-top desk would have served the needs of a business man. For those of great fortune such as merchants, the desk alone may not have sufficed. They would have required the addition of a bookcase built on top of the desk to store the greater number of ledger books that such a wealthy patron would have on hand.

Interestingly, these slant-top desks were not at the owner’s shop or merchant’s counting house but at their home. The more substantial houses of this period would contain small rooms on the ground floor especially designed as small offices where the owner could receive clients or business guests without disrupting the household to any significant degree. As a result, much of their business activity took place at home. Sound familiar under our current besieged circumstances?

George Keyes, LCHA Collections Committee