Writing desks — which we might aptly call Victorian laptops — came within economic reach of the increasingly literate Victorian middle class by the 1830s. Originally owned by wealthy men as early as the Tudor period, these small portable, lockable desks likely grew out of the medieval lectern and appear in literature as early as Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (Act IV, scene 1) where the merchant Antipholos of Ephesus directs a servant to fetch “ducats” from his desk for his release (Harris 10-11). In Georgian, Regency, and Victorian times, women and men used writing desks — also called writing boxes, lap desks, writing slopes, dispatch boxes or cases, portable or traveling writing desks, or simply boxes or desks. The writing desk appears as an important plot element in many nineteenth-century novels; in fact, W. M. Thackeray and Anthony Trollope recognized the writing desk’s usefulness for storage, privacy, secrecy, and deception in developing their dangerous heroines, Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair (1848) and Lizzy Eustace of The Eustace Diamonds (1871).

Example of Portable Writing Desks in Thackeray’s own illustrations to Vanity Fair. The middle image, which is a detail of the illustration at the right, shows a portable desk in action; note the writer’s fingeress gloves, which the lack of central heating often made quite necessary. [Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]

The Victorian age produced more writing desks than any other. Desk production increased for a combination of reasons including developments in the fancy goods trade, a rise in literacy, and the coming of the universal Penny Post in 1840, which, in turn, increased the number of post offices and decreased the cost of postage; a letter weighing up to ½ ounce could travel anywhere in the UK for only a penny. Moreover, the Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased writing desks and increased middle-class demand for them. The Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 includes in Class 26, “Furniture, Upholstery, Paper Hangings, Papier Maché, and Japanned Goods” (volume 2, section 3), detailed manufacturers’ narratives describing high-end and affordable writing desks, classified as furniture and frequently marketed for women (Golden 138-39).

Left: The Victorian and modern laptops. Right: A Lady's and a gentleman's lapdesk. [Click on thumbnails for larger images and additional information.]

Portable writing desks were popular at a time when heating was inefficient, houses were not routinely electrified, and people made long visits to friends and family lasting weeks and months; desks typically fit into one’s luggage, making them useful for travel. The portability and size of the writing desk facilitated comfortable writing and confidentiality since a writer could move it to a good light source, a warm fire, or a private study to write undisturbed. As the desk transformed from a hand-crafted decorative arts furnishing for the wealthy to a mass-produced commodity affordable for the middle class, the writing desk lost what Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” terms its “aura.” The incorporation of heating and electrification into the Victorian home also led to the desk’s discontinuation. Nonetheless, the writing desk paved the way for subsequent innovations in writing that have replaced it: the brief case, the laptop, the Palm Pilot, the BlackBerry, and the iPhone.

Just as we find laptops essential for writing, researching, and storing valuable information, the Victorians found their writing desks indispensable for storing writing materials; valuables, including money and jewelry; vital documents, such as passports and wills; and private correspondence, such as billets-doux. There were four basic types of portable writing desks. The simplest consists of a box with a sloping lid, hinged at either top or bottom; if the hinge is at the top, the lid serves as the writing surface, but if the hinge is at the bottom, the lid folds down and acts as a writing slope or surface. A second type has two lids: the outside lid folds down to form a writing slope that extends the writing surface of the inside lid; in turn, the inside lid folds down to reveal a space for writing materials. The third and most common type of writing desk is a rectangle box divided on a slant and hinged at the center; when the writer opens the box, the two halves form a solid writing surface; both halves of the desk have storage space for writing materials. The fourth type, also typically shaped like a rectangle, is composed of three sections: the top section raises into an upright position and can, for example, hold stationery or, in the case of a combination desk, serve as a a dressing case or sewing case; in this type of desk, the second section, which folds down, forms a continuous writing surface with the third section. In addition to a writing surface, called a slope, the desk has a place for stationery, blotting paper, envelopes, sealing wax, and small writing manuals; a pen rest for quill pens or steel nib pens (as the century progressed); a wafer or stamp compartment (in desks designed post 1840); one or two ink bottles (one likely for pounce, a chalky substance used to blot ink before the invention of blotting paper); and a key lock. Some desks have secret drawers, hidden compartments typically under the inkwell compartment or on the side of the desk that can be released by lifting a catch or pushing a button. Combination writing desk/dressing cases or writing desk/sewing boxes contain multiple storage compartments. While the outside of a desk teaches us about aesthetics, gender, and social class, the inside, including the key lock and hidden drawers, reveals the clandestine life of its owner. In Portable Writing Desks, David Harris provides descriptions of all four styles of writing desks and colored pictures of Georgian and Victorian writing desks including those with secret drawers and with varying degrees of ornamentation.

Today we can determine the gender and social class of a desk’s owner by looking at its size, raw materials, and degree of decoration. A gentleman’s writing desk is larger than a woman’s desk (typical dimensions are 14” by 10” by 6”). Manufacturers designed gentlemen’s desks to be relatively simple, but elegant. They are of quality woods including mahogany, walnut, ash, or rosewood; gentlemen’s desks use superior veneers of good grain, color, and patina; leather-lined slopes; and brass bindings on the corners and edges. In contrast, ladies’ desks appear smaller and daintier than gentlemen’s desks (e.g. 10 by 8 by 4 inches) and carry knowledge of the growing Victorian fancy goods. Slopes have silk or velvet linings; lids contain mosaic inlay, engraving, embossing, painting, and piercing. Expensive desks feature elaborate designs of fruits, flowers, birds, and topographical views, and some are exquisitely ornamented with pearls, gold, silver, precious gems, seashells, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, and china. Commercial desks for middle-class men and women are more commonly made of oak or pine; an affordable ladies’ desks might include imitation gems or use an inferior grade of papier maché, a material made in two grades that was in vogue in the mid nineteenth century for desks and inkwells.

Although ornamental, ladies’ desks still had to be useful for teaching, household accounts, correspondence, and novel writing. Letter writing became a fashionable occupation for women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jane Austen, a prolific letter writer, received a writing desk filled with stationery from her father to encourage her literary talent (Harris 15); the desk Austen used to revise Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) and to write Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1818) is on display at the British Library. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë sat in their small parlor in the family parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire and composed their memorable novels published in 1847 — Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey. The desks are on display in the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Charlotte’s desk with its simple brass nameplate engraved C. Brontë includes extant writing materials including two glass inkpots, wire-rimmed glasses, steel-nibbed pens, and a tiny devotional with a page for each day of the year (Golden 138).

Related Material

References

Golden, Catherine J. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.

Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, 1851. Official Descriptiveand Illustrated Catalogue. By Authority of the Royal Commission. In Three Volumes. London: Spicer Brothers, 1851.

Harris, David. Portable Writing Desks. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications Ltd., 2001.


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Last modified 7 June 2010