Secretary desks are a type of antique furniture that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. They often have multiple cubbies and hidden compartments where people can store their papers or valuables.
Secretary desks are typically two-piece or single-piece styles and feature ornate hinges and doors. The front panels on secretary desks are often intricately carved, and many pieces have a dark mahogany or cherry stain. The secretary desk usually has an open writing area that folds or drops down. Inside, a gallery of inner compartments — pigeonholes, drawers, and shelves of varying sizes and shapes — are discovered.
The first secretary desk, called a secrétaire à abattant, is thought to date back as early as 1750 and the court of Louis XV of France. The secretary gained popularity in subsequent decades due to its portability and storage capacity. Even the sea explorer Captain Cook is known to have carried a secretary on board during his voyages.
What Are Secretary Desks Used For?
Also known as a “drop-front desk” or “library desk,” secretaries are used for paperwork. The fold-down surface makes them perfect for writing letters and working on ledgers. Multiple drawers and compartments help keep the workspace organized, and the secret compartments hide money and other valuables. A secretary desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, was used by a Rhode Island family to store documents and important papers related to colonial trade.
The secretary desk endures in replications of Victorian home interiors, but secretaries aren’t exclusively European. In fact, some of the most valuable and collectible antique desks you’ll find were designed and manufactured in America.
The Secretary Desk in America
In colonial America, several companies manufactured secretary desks. Among these were the Michigan Desk Company and The Gunn Company, both in Michigan, and the Wooten Desk Company of Indiana. The Wooten desk was the largest and most ornate secretary style made, offering hundreds of compartments inside. Many models were exported to Europe, and owning a Wooten was a mark of status. Today, Wooten desks are found at museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution.
Like much antique furniture, secretaries are usually crafted from deciduous wood. Oak, ash, walnut, maple, and cherry are common, with stains ranging from black to light brown. Mahogany wood is also seen. Although many secretaries are carved and adorned with glass front doors, carved front drawers, and other decorative elements, you might also see Shaker-style secretaries with clean lines and light wood grain.
Common Types of Secretary Desks
Not all secretaries are fall-front desks. The popularity of the secretary around the world resulted in a variety of different types and designs.
A roll-top desk is a type of secretary that features a cylindrical or barrel-shaped cover that slides out to reveal the working surface. The cover is typically locked in place with one or more rollers to keep it from falling open unintentionally.
A bail pull is a type of secretary that features a handle or lever on the front or side of the desk that opens one or more panels to reveal the working surface and storage space inside.
A cylinder secretary desk is a type of roll-top desk that features a cylindrical or barrel-shaped cover that slides out to reveal the writing surface. The cover is typically locked in place with one or more rollers to keep it from falling down unintentionally.
Shop Antique Secretary Desks
Hinges on Secretary Desks
The hinges on a secretary desk play an important role in the overall design of the desk. They are often some of the most decorative elements and can be made from a variety of materials, including brass, bronze, or steel.
A tambour is a type of hinge that consists of a series of horizontal slats or strips that rotate to open and close the desk. Tambour hinges are often used on roll-top and cylinder secretary desks.
A piano hinge is a type of hinge that consists of two metal plates that are hinged together and open like a book. Piano hinges are often used on lift-top and bail-pull secretary desks.
A double barrel hinge is a type of hinge that consists of two metal plates that are hinged together and open like a book. Double barrel hinges are often used on drop-front secretary desks.
Doors and shelves on secretary desks
There are three main types of secretary desks: the single-piece style, the two-piece style, and the side-by-side. With the single-piece secretary, all the components of the desk, including the shelves and storage space, are located in a single unit. With the two-piece secretary, the desk is split into two units, usually a desk with a bookshelf on top. With the side-by-side style, the desk is flanked on one or both sides with a bookshelf, mirror, or gallery of drawers.
Secretaries might have one or multiple doors. Glass-front doors sometimes protect a bookshelf or curio cabinet. A glass door might be etched or made of many panes. In antique secretaries, a glass door might be missing, cracked, or clouded.
Most secretary writing desks have several small drawers hidden behind the fall-front or a door. Larger drawers might be located on the bottom of the desk. Drawer fronts might be simple and stained to accent the wood grain as with the Shaker style, or they may be decorated with motifs or carvings. Smaller drawers might be found in unexpected places.
The potential of secretary desks to operate as storage cabinets is exhibited with hidden compartments found behind drawers or shelves. The drawer interiors might lift up to a secret alcove, or adjustable shelves might hide a space behind.
Where Can I Find an Antique Secretary Desk?
If you’re interested in purchasing a vintage secretary desk, you’ll find many different styles and wood finishes. Secretary desks are an exciting piece of antique furniture for dealers and buyers alike, so you need to be prepared to spend a little bit more. Keep an eye open for antique secretary desks in your local auctions through MaxSold. Use our search feature to narrow results to your area! Local pickup can be arranged.