Thursday, February 27, 2014

Furnishing Education: A Desk on Frame from the Collections

By Lydia Blackmore
Curatorial Volunteer

The desk in it's former location in the schoolhouse.
The large desk on frame recently seen in use in the school house as a podium for educators and a storage space for slates and battledores, is, in fact, among the oldest pieces of furniture in the collection at Gunston Hall. The desk is made of walnut with mortise and tenon construction and solid turned legs, indicating that it was produced by a rural craftsman in the Mid-Atlantic (from Pennsylvania to Virginia) in the first half of the eighteenth century. The late Queen Anne style narrows the date to around 1730.

One of the most beautiful elements of the desk is the original engraved brass escutcheon. The decorative element surrounds a key hole at the front of the piece, just below the hinged lid. Behind the escutcheon is an old lock. Although the lock is not original to the piece, it was likely installed in the eighteenth century. It is not unusual for desks to have locks, as they are safe storage places for valuable books, correspondence, and money. It was also not unusual for those locks to be replaced when they were broken for malicious purposes or just because someone lost the key. In 1766, John Saunders, the carpenter at the College of William and Mary was paid for several repairs in the grammar school room, including “putting a lock to desk in school.”

This form was common in Virginia throughout the 18th century. By 1710, desks were regularly listed in Southern inventories of both private and public spaces. A “large desk on a frame” was included in
Hinges on the interior of the desk.
the 1726 estate inventory of Thomas Sorrel of Westmoreland County, Virginia. Although the earliest examples were probably imported from England, locally-made walnut and pine desks were widely available by the middle of the century.

Desks, as a furniture form, came in all shapes and sizes in the 18th century. The smallest were portable boxes with a slanted top, while the largest had writing surfaces that folded out over a chest of drawers with a book case above. Desks on frames, such as this one, are a particular variety of the form, meant to be used by a standing writer. Sometimes, they were used in businesses to keep accounts. The slanted surface supports large books for keeping records, while the locked area underneath provides safe storage for financial records. Thomas Lee had a “writg desk” in the Counting House at Stratford Hall in 1758. His son, Philip Ludwell Lee, also had a “writg desk” listed in the “Under Room Office” when his probate was taken in 1776.

This form is most often associated with its role in education. Standing desks are perfect for learning sums, practicing penmanship, and reading aloud to students. Philip Fithian, tutor for the Carter family at Nominie Hall, wrote in his diary on February 2, 1774, that “Prissy this day began Multiplication. We had also a large elegant Writing Table brought to us so high that the Writers must stand.” Two years later, the school room at Stratford Hall contained “1 round leaf table,” a “writ[in]g desk,” one “old desk,” and “2 stools & 5 chairs” to furnish the education of the Lee children. The education of some of Virginia’s most prominent families took place at these distinctive desks.

Lacey Villiva recently wrote a blog article on education at Gunston Hall. George Mason IV hired several tutors to educate his many children while at home, and sent several of his sons away to schools in the Chesapeake region. The school house at Gunston Hall probably held a desk on frame from which the tutors educated the Mason children.

This 1730s desk, however, is more of the time of George Mason’s own education. Mason spent his early years on his family’s plantation in Fairfax County. In 1735, when young George was only 10 years old, his father died in a boating accident, leaving his mother in charge of three children and their education. Although the bulk of George Mason’s legal and philosophical training took place in his Uncle John Mercer’s library, he also received some lessons from hired tutors. Mrs. Mason engaged a Mr. “Williams” and a “Mr. Wylie” to educate her son in the 1730s. It is possible that at some point in his education, George Mason practiced his penmanship or his figures at a large standing desk on frame, such as this shining example from the collection at Gunston Hall.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. The Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990.

Goodwin, Mary R.M. The College of William and Mary: A Brief Sketch of the Main Building of the College, and of the Rooms to be Restored to their Eighteenth Century Appearance. Research Department, Colonial Williamsburg, 1967.
Hill, Helen. George Mason: Constitutionalist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Hurst, Ronald and Jonathan Prown. Southern Furtniture, 1680-1830: In the Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997.

“Lee, Thomas.” Westmoreland County Records 1756-1767. From Probing the Past.

“Lee, Philip Ludwell.” Westmoreland County Records 1756-1767. From Probing the Past.

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