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The Flat Cap on ... Desks

Today The Flat Cap has been thinking about turning his spare bedroom into an office and so decided to price up some suitable furniture. Top of his list was a desk and this in turn got him thinking about desks and how they came into being. Look at any cave paintings and there’s a distinct lack of a desk in any of them. Ask for a floor plan of a Stone Age dwelling and you’re unlikely to see a utility room, en suite bathroom or study. There’s no depiction of a desk anywhere. So when did estate agents start marketing homes and commercial premises with desk space? To find the answer to this age old question The Flat Cap was forced to consider what early desks looked like, and were used for.

The Flat Cap on Desks

It seems that the advent of the desk is inextricably linked to the introduction of books and manuscripts. Before then if you wanted to know anything you just asked around and got your knowledge from your parents, village elders, or the people you went hunting and fishing with. Before books nothing much was written down, except on tablets of stone, bus shelters, and the insides of tombs, like in ancient Egypt. This meant people had plenty of time to gossip, and because there were no books there were no libel laws. It was therefore very hard to prove if someone had been writing untruths about you and thus there were a lot fewer solicitors and lawyers than exist today. If you needed someone to thatch your mud hut, fix a leaky tap, or flag your drive you either had to do it yourself or ask one of your neighbours because there were no free newspapers or yellow pages to consult. Go on holiday and you had to spend time with your wife and children because there wasn’t a book you could immerse yourself in, or a newspaper that you could hide behind.

The first desks were dedicated to either reading or writing manuscripts. As such most of them were to be found in monasteries and universities. This remained the case until the invention of the printing press and books. Because manuscripts were written on parchment they were generally very heavy; some even took two men to carry them about. This meant that early desks had very sturdy legs. Also a lot of desks had chains to attach the manuscripts to them, just in case opportunist burglars tried to steal them and sell them on to another monastery at a local car boot sale or village fair. To help the monks and scholars write neatly the early desks tended to have sloping tops. This was better for their backs and kept down the number of sickness absences.

As woodworking tools began to develop so desk manufacture became more precise. If a table had drawers to hold paper and other writing impedimenta then the chances were it was really a desk. Even today this is how antiques dealers differentiate between the two types of furniture. The most proficient antiques dealers can spot a desk from a table at fifty yards. Such expertise is highly valued in modern society and the best antiques experts now make millions of pounds from appearing on television and sharing their knowledge with viewers. Watch an episode of Antiques Roadshow and the first thing Joe Public wants to know about his escritoire is how much it is likely to fetch at auction.

The next big desk development came with the Industrial Revolution and the capacity to produce paper more cheaply, and in greater volumes. Because there was more writing paper and more books to record stuff in the number of office workers grew. And they all needed desks to sit at. Desk manufacture suddenly was no longer the preserve of skilled carpenters, and anyone who could follow a few simple diagrams was assembling his or her own desk from scratch. Mass production also meant that schoolchildren had something to rest their elbows on when they were bored, or just tired from their second jobs; like climbing up chimneys or selling matches on street corners. Before the manufacture of individual student desks schoolchildren tended to sit on long benches and there was much pushing and shoving because nobody wanted to sit next to the smelly kid, or the one who had nits. School teachers had a heck of a job keeping order and it wasn’t an easy task.

After a bus ride to his local branch of Homebase The Flat Cap met a man who was putting some large flat pack furniture into the boot of his car. The fellow shopper, named Paul, kindly agreed to share some desk related facts:

  • It is not uncommon to find cubicle desks in some modern offices. These are an efficient way of squeezing more workers into a finite amount of space. Like any type of cubicle they afford a degree privacy where staff can put up postcards of seaside towns, and pictures of their cat to make the daily grind more bearable

  • The average number of desks in an Indian call centre is 137

  • Some early desks had tops which folded down to provide a writing surface. Frequently lined with wool they took the name “bureau” from the word “bure”, which is French for wool

  • In the Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol office worker Bob Cratchit asks his employer for a new desk and is told to do one, and not be so cheeky

  • Actor Martin Freeman who appeared in the television comedy The Office used to sneak packets of hob nob biscuits into his desk drawers and greedily munch on them during gaps between filming

  • Timbers recovered from the British Arctic exploration ship Resolute were used to make the Resolute Desk which sits in the Oval office of the White House in Washington DC. Some people thought one US president might have had sexual relations over the desk but that suggestion was resolutely denied

  • The internet is full of useful desk related advice along the lines of, “no matter how ergonomic your desk is, getting up for a good walk is the best way to avoid prolonged sitting.” Who would have thought that standing up could be the best way to avoid sitting down? Pure genius

  • Since the advent of computers, printers, scanners and other office machines modern desks are now 40% larger than the one Bob Cratchit was forced to sit at. And the office chairs are comfier

  • Campaign desks were fashionable during the rise and expansion of the British Empire. As their name suggests they were lugged around from military campaign to military campaign by lowly soldiers who then assembled them somewhere safe, and well away from the fighting. If the war got too close to the officers the desk could easily be taken apart and then reassembled further away from hostilities

  • Designers of flat pack desk furniture have fun by insisting that each box includes an extra piece of plywood that doesn’t appear on the accompanying assembly instructions

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