Form follows function. We often encounter this statement in the world of decorative arts or design. Hearing this phrase recently, made me think about the Victorians. The Victorians are known for having a veritable plethora of forms to serve vast and varied functions. Silver, both plate and sterling, tableware settings are a perfect example. Dining became an event with multiple course meals. The function thus dictated that wealthy post-Industrial revolution(1840s) and post Civil-War Victorians set their tables with a specialized form for almost everything they ate. Cutlery became another way to show wealth and modern consumption of mass produced goods. Items like ice cream forks, sardine forks, marrow scoops, butter picks, grape scissors, and fish services graced the table. This made the women at home happy. But what new toy did a Victorian businessman have to procure and show-off ? He had a desk. Not just any desk, but the “King of Desks”. A Wooton Desk.
The Wooton Desk Mfg. Co was established in 1870 in Indianapolis, Indiana by William S. Wooton an inventor and pattern maker by trade. He designed a self-contained office, which was comprised of a fall front desk, file and ledger book storage areas, along with a cubicle storage area. The cubicle holes each had a pullout green cardboard box. This complete office even had a brass mail slot, so when locked up for the day a secretary could deposit the mail in the surface slot. First patented in 1874, the Wooton Patented desk was dubbed the King of Desks and The Cabinet Office Secretary. This symbol of prestige was available in four grades: ordinary, standard, extra, and superior. There were 3 sizes in each grade. The higher the grade the more embellishments and the greater the cost. Costs ranged from $100 – $750. This was probably about 1/10 of a businessman’s or officer’s take home pay.
The desk were usually constructed of black walnut, which was native to Indiana, with burl walnut veneers. Contrasting lighter wood was used, like maple, satinwood, and pine for interior drawer fronts and embellishments. While the desk may appear to be unique, it actually is not. In order to met demand and take advantage of a fully industrialized factory Wooton designed specific features in each grade and size. A customer could choose the corner molding from a list. Carving and drawer fronts where executed by hand while the remaining portions were massed produced by machine. Only very special clients like Queens and Presidents could order a custom desk.
In 1876, the desk was exhibited in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia which served to heighten popularity abroad. Queen Victoria even had one herself. But alas, form follows function. In the 1890s typewriters, fountain pens, and duplicating machines began to be widely used in offices; thus, the demand for a smaller desk with a permanently flat work surface increased. Function made the previously useful form of a huge folding cabinet desk obsolete.
During the almost twenty years of popularity, the desks evolved from a Renaissance Revival style with raised curved panels and Gothic influenced elements to a simpler, plainer Eastlake style having flat surfaces and geometric embellishments with incised lines. Early examples are more highly sought after and thus more valuable. At auction, expect to pay, for a nearly complete example, in the $8,000 – $25,000 range depending on grade and size.
If you have a piece of antique furniture that has not been expertly appraised consider having it evaluated by us. We provide a complete client-tailored solution to all your personal property questions.
Valerie Hale, ISA AM
Accredited Appraiser – International Society of Appraisers