History of the Roll Top Desk

Beth Rice 24/10/2016

“A place for everything and everything in its place” was the slogan that propelled the roll top desk to popularity during the 19th century. A desk full of small drawers, hideaways, and perfectly sized compartments with a top that could be closed to conceal any clutter was a delight for many and became a popular choice for small to medium-sized offices.

But first, it began with a king.

At the King’s Request

King Louis XV of France, also known as Louis the Beloved, was interested in a stylish and secure writing station that could be shuttered and locked. He asked his cabinetmaker, Jean Francois Oeben, to create such a desk for him. Oeben worked on the design for the last three years of his life. His successor, Jean Henri Reisner, spent six more years (1763-1769) perfecting it.  More than a century would pass before the roll top desk would make its mark in the furniture design community.

Coming to America

European furniture makers brought the idea of the roll top desk to the United States during the 19th century.  At the time, letter writing was the primary form of long distance communication, which made the design of the roll top desk perfect for every office.

The Design of the Roll Top Desk

The design elements common to roll top desks easily supported the daily correspondence of the time. The small drawers, pigeonholes, and shelves provided storage for writing utensils, fresh paper, ink, envelopes, and stamps. The most attractive element of the roll top desk was the slatted wood cover called a tambour, which rolled down and locked. This attractive feature concealed any clutter or work in progress.

The Amish Berkley Rolltop Desk displays the beauty of the secure roll-down top.

Amish Berkley Rolltop Desk

Finally, a Patent

In 1850 Abner Cutler, owner of Cutler Desk Company, patented the roll top desk. Cutler’s design perfected the flexibility of the tambour that slid down to cover the desk top when it was not in use.

A Blending of Desk Styles

The roll top desk combined characteristics of pedestal, Carleton House, and tambour desks, making it easy to produce quickly.

The Pedestal Desk

Pedestal desks feature a rectangular top which rests on two cabinets that contain stacked drawers. Each stack of drawers is called a pedestal. This pedestal base is featured in the Amish Mission Roll Top Desk.

Amish Mission Rolltop Desk

The Carleton House Desk

Named after the London residence of the Prince of Wales, Carleton House desks have various nooks, crannies, and drawers, much like roll top desks. The writing area rests on legs instead of a pedestal for a more elegant, refined look.

The delicate legs of the Amish Queen Anne Secretary Roll Top Desk resemble the design of the Carleton House desk.

Amish Queen Anne Secretary Roll Top Desk

The Tambour Desk

Like roll top desks, tambour desks feature slatted doors. However, the slats on a tambour desk are perfectly straight and close from left to right rather than top to bottom. When closed, the slatted doors on a tambour desk do not conceal the desk top.

The Deluxe Amish Roll Top Desk with Optional Top Drawers features a tambour top made of wooden slats placed on a flexible material that allows it to close easily and completely.

Deluxe Amish Roll Top Desk with Optional Top Drawers

 

Favorite Features of the Roll Top

  • Covers workspace when not in use
  • Roll down cover makes room look tidier
  • Roll down cover could be locked
  • Small cubbyholes, drawers, and shelves keep items organized

The Amish 65” Castlebury Roll Top Desk offers all the desirable features of a roll top desk.

Amish 65" Castlebury Rolltop Desk

From Mainstay to Sought-After Antique

The roll top desk fell out of favor in the early 1900s with the introduction of sleek glass and steel desks. Larger quantities of documents also made the small stacked drawers and mini-shelves impractical. The need for more storage saw roll top desks replaced with filing cabinets.

Roll top desks were also known as curtain desks during their rise to fame. Today, the design of these desks reconnects us with the past, which has caused the roll top desk to become a sought after antique.

The Amish Mission Deluxe Roll Top Desk exhibits all the beauty and elements of the original roll top design.

Amish Mission Deluxe Roll Top Desk

Often used in home offices, bedrooms, and hallways, we are sure the curtain will never close on the demand for roll top desks.

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2 comments

  • Mark J Chelius
    September 29, 2017 at 9:15 am

    Hello Beth, I have inherited a roll top desk from my father. I would like to know the history or the desk. I reside in Allentown, PA. My father resided in Reading, PA. These locations are close to Amish country. There is a stamped 1821 on the desk. I do not know if this is the date the desk was made or the number for each desk that was made. The roll top desk has open pigeonholes drawers, and other unique features. I even have the key to lock the roll top desk. If I could attach a picture, it might help you. Thank you, Mark


  • Milca Rivera
    Milca Rivera
    October 3, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your inquiry. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide you with information about the desk you inherited. However, an antiques appraiser in your area may be able to provide you with details. Just make sure to do some research on having furniture appraised, and make sure you work with someone reputable if you decide to go that route.


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