How to Date and Identify an Antique Desk - Part 1

Throughout history, there has been a vast variety of antique writing desks, all different in their appearance, use and placement in a room. Many of these elements have lasted the test of time, including their features and use which has remained constant throughout the years and even to this day. The practicality of this particular piece of furniture has ensured it has never become out-dated or redundant within the home and work environments.

Desks started being produced in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the influx of more people gaining an education and working in office jobs, rather than manual labour. This development led to more people requiring and acquiring writing desks, stationery, bookcases and sideboards, amongst other office furniture and accessories.

Not all antique desks are the same, and there are categories within the broad term ‘desk’ that will assist an antique enthusiast with identifying the form and dating a piece. Antique bureaux, desks and writing tables encompass a wide range of uses, from a ladies dressing table to a library reading table. As with all antiques, without provenance, it takes an in-depth knowledge of antiques, periods and styles to identify and date a piece of furniture successfully.

We will discuss the typical features of some of these well-known types of antique desks and when they were most popular throughout history, which will provide an indication of the age and the style of the piece.


The form of the Wooton Desk was patented, designed and crafted by the Wooten Desk Company. The office furniture designers and makers were prosperous from 1870 until the 1900’s, and this desk was hugely popular at this time. Typically, Wooton desks were considerably larger than other pieces of furniture, and this was due to the vast number of compartments on the piece. These compartments consisted of several shelves, pigeonholes, drawers, letter boxes and stationery holders.

The Wooton desk was not just a desk; it was also a filing cabinet, small library and a purposeful organisation tool for the modern age man in the quickly developing world. Although the Wooton desk appears to be unique and skillfully made, many of them are mass-produced, machine-built items of furniture; although, this didn’t discourage many households from purchasing them, as their popularity was consistent throughout the period. There were exceptions to the mass-made Wooton desk, as wealthy families, royalty and influential individuals of the society at that time did have a custom-made desk produced by the Wooton Company.


The Carlton House desk is equally as easy to identify as the impressive and curious Wooton desk. The shape and construction of the drawers make the Carlton House desk easily recognisable because of the ‘U’ shape that encompasses the user. Around the desk, the drawers are lined along the back and side edge, leaving the front open and accessible for writing or reading. Hepplewhite designed The Carlton House desk for the Prince of Wales whilst he was residing at the Carlton House in London in 1790. 


The butler’s desk was popular from the 18th-century to the beginning of the 19th-century. The features of this particular desk developed and changed as the fashion and tastes of the period evolved, but the main functions remained the same. When closed, the butler’s desk appears to be a chest of drawers, although when it is open, the top half consists of a drop-down writing desk, with enclosed compartments; whilst the lower half of the piece consisted of either drawers or shelving behind closed doors. 


Compared to the butler’s desk and the Wooton desk, the kneehole had a flat top which allowed easy access to the writing element of the desk; there was no need to open doors or flip-down tables. The tabletop is held up by two stacks of drawers, either side of the user’s legs, which would also be under the tabletop when in use. The kneehole desk was popular in the early 1700’s; although, there were many variations to accommodate the demands and taste of the public.

In the second instalment of ‘identifying and dating an antique writing desk,’ we will discuss the features of the partner’s desk, fall-front desk, escritoire and the Davenport desk.

Which is your favourite design of an antique desk? We would love to hear your preferences via our social media channels!

Published at: 09-07-2018