A brief history of the desk

The word desk comes from the 14th century Latin word, desca, which means a “table to write on”.

Although people already used writing tables of some kind, the first desk wasn’t invented until the late 1600s.

They resembled a chest of drawers, but the top was a sloped area that could roll down and expose the writing surface underneath.

These types of desks suddenly became very popular and kind of fashionable to have in your home.

What we think of as the desk continued to develop and evolve from there.

The early desks

The first desks were more adaptations of existing furniture than a brand new creation.

So, the first actual desks didn’t appear for almost another century.

In the early 1700s, the kneehole desk was invented in the United Kingdom. It featured two pedestals of drawers and a space for your knees to slide underneath the writing surface.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

So, as you can see most modern desks have followed this format – to a greatest or lesser extent – ever since.

Women often used this smaller desk to write letters on.

Another popular writing desk in France was called the escritoire, which simply translates to “writing desk”.

It was made of mahogany, and it had a few drawers and a small cabinet at the back of the writing surface for storing pens, paper, etc.

As larger desks became available, people looked for additional storage near their writing area.

This led to the invention of something called a writing cabinet or a bureau cabinet, which is also referred to a “secretaire” – another term for “writing desk”.

Desks of this type had a cabinet above the writing surface that featured doors.

It provided a lot of space for storage, and the writing area could be covered when not in use so the desk could blend in with surrounding furniture.

Desks become more specialized

Desks became more popular from this point onward, and in the 1750s, pedestal and partner desks arrive on the scene.

They were the creation of  famous furniture designer, Thomas Chippendale, and were a luxury item. Desks of this type were usually designed for the library of a country house, and are large with beautiful woodworking, typical of the Chippendale style.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution created a new working class of white collar workers who needed desks both at home and in the office.

People who made furniture began to make many different kinds of desks to accommodate this growing need.

One example of this progress in design was the partner desk.

A partner desk was a large wooden desk, often made of mahogany, and it had a leather writing surface on each side. One person could sit on each side, so it saved a lot of space in what would have been cramped buildings.

Throughout the 1800s, desks were produced for offices and for homes, with home desks being smaller and more decorative and office desks being larger and more practical.

1880 – The first school desk

In 1880, John Loughlin of Ohio invented the school desk.

These desks would attach to each other, and two to three children could sit at each one. The bench in front was attached to the desk behind it, and there was a small inkwell in the corner of the desk.

As schools changed and students needed more space to put their books and school supplies away, desks were made with hinged surfaces that could be opened to reveal a storage area underneath.  

A typical school desk was made with wood through the 1960s, usually with a cast-iron steel frame. Many schools in smaller countries continued using these desks well into the late 1990s.

Desks in the 1970s

Desks changed in the 1970s when plastic became readily available and was a cheaper alternative to hand-crafted wood and steel desks.

More modern desks were made with plastic, fiberboard, around an aluminum frame, typically with a basket hanging below the desk where students could store their belongings.

These desks typically featured a plastic chair and a wooden writing board, but left-handed students couldn’t use them very easily.

In offices, desks came in many different materials. There were brightly colored plastic desks with drawers on each side, and they started making larger desks with cutaways, and angled for either right or left-hand use.

Desks today

There are so many different choices today that you can get any kind of desk you can imagine.

You can find the old wooden bureaus or secretaires, or you can get a modern desk made with lightweight and sturdy materials.  So it’s really down to a combination of personal preference and if your office uses a particular style of decorating that you’ll need the desks to blend in with.

Specialized desks exist for different industries, and there are even desks designed to promote individual or collaborative learning. They also made space saving desks designed for small office spaces, and multi-functional desks to suit many purposes.

Standing desks is another of the recent innovations in desk design, as is the idea of having a desk designed purely for computer gaming.  

Summing it up

Desks have come a long way from the first bureau desks of the late 1600s.

However, many antique styles can still be found in homes and offices around the world.

As the way people work has changed, so have the desks they use.