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Popularity of roll top desks remains strong

Jan. 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Today desks have taken a backseat to the computer where so much of what was used on a desk is now internalized in a small machine that can be held on your lap. Even so many like to have a desk and one that seems to have stood the test of time is the roll top version. It was particularly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries because of the many stacked compartments, cubby holes, drawers and writing space that could be quickly hidden away by pulling a wooden curtain from a hidden cylinder.

Like many pieces of furniture, the roll top has waxed and waned in popularity. Early on the amount of paper used in conducting personal and public business was limited but along came the typewriter and changed all that. Now we find we are using less paper due to the computer age and the desk is gaining in popularity. Modern versions tend to have all the connections necessary for your computer plus a place to lock it up.

There are several reports as to who actually invented the roll top. The Bullfinch Illustrated Encyclopedia of Antiques gives credit to a 1760s French cabinetmaker, Francois Oeben. The New York Times in 2000 credited London cabinetmakers Mayhem and Ince with the accomplishment. Not to be outdone, the United States has contenders in the competition. Kentucky furniture maker Herman C. Alles is said to have designed it and produced it in 1869. Still it was Abner Cutler who patented it in 1850. Much of this dissention probably deals with patents and minor differences in design. Where it started and with who probably didn't make a lot of difference to our ancestors because it became one of the most popular desks produced.

Whether it is an antique or a vintage you will find most of these desks were mass-produced in previous centuries. Like most popular items, there were the quality ones made from fine woods and the inexpensive versions made from lesser materials. Most of the important furniture makers had a version of it and several countries have their presentations. One should check out the style and appearance to link it to its nationality and perhaps its maker. Many times the maker would add a stamp on the inside of a drawer. The finer the desk the better the craftsmanship and the hidden compartments could be works of art.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.