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Antique desks

Secret Compartments in Desks

Dear Diva Readers,

As a continuation of our Back to School with The Antiques Diva series this month, I want to talk about something that sparks the imagination; something that brings out the inner child in all of us! I’m talking about secret compartments! What child, at some point or another, hasn’t dreamed of finding a hidden compartment in an armoire? Even as adults we enjoy reading mysteries where a secret letter is found in a hidden drawer.  Well these secret compartments are not just found in fictitious tales. For centuries, antique furniture pieces have possessed drawers with false bottoms and secret panels that were used to hold money, ancestral jewelry or legal documents.

Antique desks, hidden compartments, back to school series, Antiques Diva,

These compartments were often so well hidden that anyone who didn’t have knowledge of them would never know they existed. This was to keep thieves or snoops at bay. Today, antique collectors may find a hidden compartment in a desk or secretary that they didn’t even know was there!

And some pieces of furniture have not one, but several secret hiding places. Some spots may only be large enough to hold a letter, while other compartments are larger. The most typical place for a hidden compartment on a desk is in the central interior section. There is typically a small door flanked by two pilasters, and this entire section may be removed to reveal a hiding place behind. One also must inspect each pilaster, as there may be tiny hiding places behind them, only big enough to store a few folded pieces of paper currency.

Antique desks, hidden compartments, back to school series, Antiques Diva,

Antique desks, hidden compartments, back to school series, Antiques Diva,

False bottoms and moveable boards are another trick cabinet makers would use. Some sliding boards can only be moved by using the fingernail or a thin knife to nudge or lift them gently, revealing shallow hiding places. Some cabinet makers also utilized wooden springs which, if pressed at the right place, would release a hinge and open to a secret compartment.

Antique desks, hidden compartments, back to school series, Antiques Diva,

Antique desks, hidden compartments, back to school series, Antiques Diva,

The lesson here is that whether you’re shopping for an antique desk or already own one, make sure that you give it a good look-over and run your fingers over various surfaces to feel for seems or indents. You never know where a secret compartment might be hiding, and what might be hidden in it!

The Antiques Diva®

Back To School With The Antiques Diva: The History of Desks

Dear Diva Readers,

As part of our “Back to School with The Antiques Diva” series this month, I wanted to give you a little background on a piece of furniture that all students use— the desk! This once strictly utilitarian object has transformed over the centuries to become not only functional, but also a beautiful addition to any home.

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Long before the printing press was invented, anyone who wanted to have a written record of anything—be it a story, a legal document, or a personal letter—had to sit down and hand write it. Imagine if you wanted 50 copies of something! They all had to be hand copied! This required plenty of surface space as well as various slots to hold writing tools. Because many manuscripts were large and heavy, most desks or writing tables of this early period were large and hefty.

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As time progressed and carpenters honed their skills, desks began to take on a bit more of a decorative feel. Drawers with dividers in them were added to writing tables with room for inkwells, blotters and feather pens. Desks of the Renaissance period began to have more delicate features as opposed to the massive desks of previous generations.

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From about 1700 onward, desks could also be referred to as bureaus. These were sloped desks with drawers below and were often used by civil servants and scribes to copy legal documents. As societal class structures were an important part of life at that time, nobility and the upper class desired a different desk style to write their own personal letters on. This is where the secretary desk came in. Secretaries have a tall hutch atop the desk portion with a lid that can be lowered into a writing surface. The upper cabinet often holds books and other writing accouterment.

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Of course as professions became more precise, the desk evolved. Architects needed larger, angled surfaces to create plans, and these desks became what we refer to today as the drafting table. Professional office workers required dividers and pigeon holes to stay organized.

By the 1800’s, the pedestal desk became the standard type of desk in England and America. It still holds a very popular status today! You can find pedestal desks being used by anyone from an office assistant to the President of the United States. I suppose the idea of class-distinction from the 1700’s no longer applies. Talk about full-circle!

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Like any piece of furniture, desks have evolved with the lifestyle and needs of humans. The great thing about antique desks is that many of them that were made before the Industrial Age were hand crafted and are of excellent quality, making them good investments. Now, I think it’s time for some more homework!

Happy learning,

The Antiques Diva®

Back to School with The Antiques Diva®

Dear Diva Readers,

It’s August 1st and that means it’s time to start thinking about “Back to School.” Rather than dreading this inevitable time of year, why not celebrate it with me here on the blog?!  Every student, child or adult, needs a good desk to study from, and so today we’re going to learn about a very important antique desk: The Resolute Desk which resides in the Oval Office of The White House in America.

Resolute desk, Oval Office furniture, White House antiques, HMS Resolute, FDRs desk, JFK and John Jr, Antique desks

While this desk has been used by several United States Presidents, its history actually began across the pond in England. This stately desk was commissioned by Queen Victoria as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. The wood used to make the desk were originally from timbers of an abandoned British ship called the HMS Resolute. The ship was discovered by an American vessel and returned to the British Queen as a token of goodwill.

Resolute desk, Oval Office furniture, White House antiques, HMS Resolute, FDRs desk, JFK and John Jr, Antique desks

Queen Victoria had William Evenden craft several desks from these timbers, including a writing table for herself. The name of the desk which she had made for the United States President is derived from the name of the ship from whence the wood came. The desk has been used by many presidents, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had the desk fitted for a modesty panel carved with the presidential seal to cover the kneehole to prevent people from seeing his leg braces. However he never lived to see the modification completed.

Resolute Desk, Oval Office furniture, White House antiques, HMS Resolute, FDRs Desk, Jackie Kennedy, JFK and John Jr, Antique Desks

Resolute desk, Oval Office furniture, White House antiques, HMS Resolute, FDRs desk, JFK and John Jr, Antique desks

Nevertheless, President Truman had the modesty panel installed when he took office in 1945. Prior to 1961, the Resolute Desk roamed about The White House until First Lady Jackie Kennedy decided to move the desk into the Oval Office and it still resides in this room today. In fact, the desk was made famous by a photograph of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, sitting at the desk while his son, John Jr., peeking through the kneehole panel.

Resolute desk, Oval Office furniture, White House antiques, HMS Resolute, FDRs desk, JFK and John Jr, Antique desks

The history of The Resolute Desk just goes to show why antiques are such an interesting part of our lives. Whether it’s the desk in the Oval Office or a desk in your home office, the fascinating story of each antique piece links us to the past while serving us in the present!

The Antiques Diva®

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