The Curious History of the Writing Desk

The writing desk or bureaux originated in the early seventeenth century from old fashioned Bible boxes. They were flat boxes just large enough to hold the family Bible, which was the most treasured possession. These boxes were almost always kept upon a shelf in the living room. The boxes flat surface and conveniently high form, the owner became accustomed to stand and write their letters on the Bible boxes.

It can easily be imagined that this became wearisome. Indeed, some seventeenth-century writer evolved the idea of making a Bible box on a stand. The stand allowed it to be a movable piece of furniture. The frame was made low enough to let the owner sit during their writing time. The amount of correspondence written was a time-consuming occupation in its early days. Thus was brought to light the first real bureau writing desk, and such a story of evolution can be found in every piece of furniture.

A slanting lid

The next stage was to fit the top of the desk a slanting lid, for this was found to be more ergonomic and convenient for writing. It is not until very late in the seventeenth century that a bureau writing desk which was not also used as a Bible box. It was found that a place was needed in which might be kept all writing materials, knick-knacks. The Bible was most likely stored in a separate box. The top of the desk was fitted, inside the slanting cover, with pigeon holes, roughly fitted, and drawers.

The first bureau writing desk

The first bureau writing desk was used in the reign of William and Mary of Orange. Up to this time, the desk had been hinged at the higher edge of the slanting top. Now, however, for the first time, the lid was hinged at the lower edge, so that the lid fell down to form the writing table and rested on pull-out supports.

The era of the Willliam and Mary and Queen Anne styles added much to the beauty of writing desks. An example of the former period is those desks from the 1920s that are made of walnut, beautifully grained, while the marquetry decorations are on the legs as well. The lid and the drawer are now fitted underneath the cover as an additional storage place for valuables.

The Queen Anne period saw the production of a bureau in which the legs took the form of small drawers all the way down to the floor. There were five drawers on each side, and one at the centre and the top. The whole desk stood upon tiny Queen Anne feet. Towards the end of the Queen Anne period, an upper structure was added to the bureau. This had mirrors in place of ordinary doors, and inside were shelves for storing stationery.


This was the beginning of the bureau bookcase. Chippendale really first produced such an item, substituting window glass for the mirrors and using the shelves for books.  

During the eighteenth century also was evolved the real writing table as opposed to the writing bureau. Both Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton produced beautiful work this endeavour. These writing desks were in the familiar flat tables, the top was covered in leather. The legs were formed by drawers in the creation of Chippendale. Sheraton scorning the heaviness of Chippendale’s designs preferred to do without the drawers to make room for slender and dainty tapering legs. Realising, however, that some receptacle was necessary, he introduced drawers into the top of the table. All the desks of this period were highly finished at the back because they were placed not against the wall but in the centre of the room. The chief decoration was obtained by the use of marquetry in place of the earlier mode of carving.

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