Interestingly, and perhaps a little surprisingly, when researching the history of desks we discovered that there is no record of tables that were specifically designed or intended for writing on in the Classical world.
In fact, as we delved deeper into the history of desks, we found that the earliest desks seem to have appeared in monasteries and universities in early medieval times and mainly comprised sloping tops on sturdy legs. In the age before the invention of the printing press, monks and other scholars produced large parchment volumes and it was important that these could be written (and read) comfortably. Being enormously valuable objects, the parchment books were also chained to these tables and so they often featured embedded iron rings.
The invention of printing and it’s place in the history of desks
When printing became the norm, books became much smaller and more plentiful and so a special table was no longer required and the desk evolved into a portable box with a sloping lid. For hundreds of years the term ‘desk’ meant this portable item, even as some got bigger and were fitted with drawers and became large enough to store writing equipment and books. These boxes also came with portable stands, so that the users could sit comfortably and write using the ‘desk-box’.
A new type of furniture developed called an ‘escritoire’ or ‘scriptor’ (derived from the Latin verb ‘to write) which were specifically designed for writing, the first time this had happened in the history of desks so far. The first known use of the word ‘escritoire’ was in 1664. It was originally fashioned like a cabinet with the front folding down to provide the writing surface. These cabinets were often lined with wool which explains the term ‘bureau’ which derives from the French word ‘bure‘ which means wool.
In the early 18th Century, the kneehole desk appeared. With a flat top, this had drawers surrounding a central recess which enabled the writer to sit closer to the writing surface and this became the model for later desks. During the 18th Century desks and bureaux became the same item and lost the notion of being portable with much larger shelving and other storage space above the writing area. With this the ‘secretaire’ desk was born.
Other combinations emerged such as secretaire-bookcases but they all had the primary function of providing a writing surface. However, the term ‘desk’ became reserved for flat-topped writing tables designed for commercial rather than domestic use. The desk continued to evolve throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with variations such as the partner desk (designed for two people to sit facing each other) the rolltop desk and the cylinder desk. More ‘dainty’ items appeared as ladies desks and many were highly ornamental with decorative marquetry and ormolu fittings.
The most modern ‘update’ to the desk form is the computer desk, which usually has an ergonomic design ensuring the comfortable and safe use of screens and keyboards.