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Desk

1790-1815
Origin: America, Delaware, Sussex County (possibly) or Pennsylvania
OH: 43 1/2"; OW: 39 1/2"; D (closed): 18 3/4"; OD (open): 30 3/4"
Mahogany, yellow pine, white pine, and white cedar
Gift of Martha Rittenhouse
Acc. No. 2011-126
Appearance: Slant-lid desk with four graduated drawers below; top drawer flanked by full height lopers; inlaid banding above a serpentine skirt and "French" feet; drawers and lopers beaded on edges; drawers with two round brass drawer pulls (replaced), inlaid with rectangular light wood stringing around perimeter of drawer with incurved corners with out-curving loops, and inlaid with diamond shaped lightwood escutcheons; slant lid has brass escutcheon and is inlaid with same lightwood stringing design as drawer fronts; interior of desk composed of a central prospect door with inlaid tombstone shaped lightwood stringing flanked by false document drawers with brass pulls; prospect door opens to reveal one top drawer creating an arched valance, a twill tape pull attached to the back of the interior of the cabinet, and a sliding bottom; prospect cabinet, including false document drawers is removable by depressing a wooden spring under the sliding bottom of the cabinet; prospect cabinet has two document drawers accessed from rear of cabinet and a tier of three secret drawers behind it all with twill tape pulls; flanking prospect section on either side are one long drawer over two side by side smaller drawers over four pigeonhole compartments with arched valances.

Construction: Top is joined to the sides with half-blind dovetails. The writing surface and the slightly elevated interior platform immediately behind it are dadoed into the sides. Additional supports for the elevated platform are nailed to the sides immediately behind the writing surface. The fall board, with tongue and groove joined mitered ends, is butt-hinged to the writing surface.

Drawer blades of pine with mahogany veneer are joined to the sides with probable sliding dovetails. Vertical drawer/loper dividers are tenoned into the top drawer blade and underside of the writing surface. Top drawer/loper supports are tongue and groove joined to the drawer blade and at the back, mitered and screwed (modern screws) to the sides. Drawer guides are nailed to the drawer supports directly behind the drawer/loper dividers. Modern drawer supports are screwed to the sides immediately behind the remaining drawer blades. Desk bottom and drawer blades are relieved in the center of the underside to receive lock tongues.
The bottom is joined with probable sliding dovetails (possibly dodoed) into the sides (note: the sides have an exterior scribe line at the level of the underside of the bottom. The two board (horizontal) tongue and groove joined pine back is nailed into rabbets in the sides and top and to the edge of the bottom.
The side facing portions of the French feet are integral with the sides. A vertical block faced with mahogany has been glued to the inside to form the front of the front feet. Additional mahogany pieces have been added to the side section of the feet to accommodate the lateral flair. The shaped side skirts and rear feet are also integral with the sides. The pine front skirt with vertically grained veneer (to match the feet) is butt joined and glued to the underside of the bottom and butt joined to the front feet. A series of rectangular glue blocks reinforce the joining of the front feet and skirts to the bottom. The side facing rear feet are supported by rear facing pine brackets that are nailed into rabbets in the rear feet and butt joined and nailed to the back edge of the bottom directly under the back board. These joints are also reinforced with a series of rectangular glue blocks.

Inside the desk, the prospect assembly is flanked by two rows of drawers over pigeon holes on each side. The interior pigeon-hole and drawer dividers are of one construction, with the dividers dadoed into the top, sides, prospect sides and bottom, and with miter dados to each other. The dividers are of mahogany, backed after 1” by pine. Interior drawers, including the interior prospect drawer, are of pine with veneered mahogany fronts. The interior drawers are of standard dovetail construction, with chamfered bottoms set in dados in the front and sides and nailed to the edge of the back. The interior prospect drawer is the same except that it is simply butt joined to the front.

The mahogany veneered prospect door is flanked by false fronts of document drawers that are “secretly” accessible from the back after the prospect assembly has been removed. The fronts of the white pine document drawers are nailed into rabbets in the sides that are in turn flush nailed to the edge of the back and of the bottom. The back is also nailed to the edge of the bottom, which is in turn nailed into a rabbet in lower edge of the front. A tape pull is nailed to the front of the drawers.

Boards separating the document drawer compartments from the prospect compartment are set in dados in the top and bottom and nailed into the bottom dados. Drawer supports are nailed to these boards for an upper drawer with construction similar to the other interior drawers except that it has no front dado to accommodate the bottom. The prospect compartment has a false bottom that slides in dados formed by the bottom and rabbets in the sides. Under the false bottom, a wooden spring lock allows removal of the prospect assembly by pulling on a tape pull nailed to the back of the assembly. Removal of the prospect assembly reveals three shallow drawers with tape pulls at the back of the case, the top two of which rest on shelves that are dadoed into boards that are in turn glued to the sides of the sides of the prospect assembly. These drawers are of the same construction as the interior exposed drawers except that the fronts of two are of white pine and front of the bottom-most is of white cedar. (The white cedar was confirmed by Chris Swan through microanalysis.)

Below the desk top, the full width graduated drawers are of typical dovetail construction with single board yellow pine bottoms chamfered to fit into dados in the sides and front, and nailed from the bottom to the back. Pegs protruding from the back of the top drawer function as drawer stops, while rectangular blocks glued to the sides are drawer stops for the remaining drawers. Yellow pine drawer fronts are veneered with string inlay decorated mahogany and elongated diamond shaped inlayed key escutcheons, and glued and nailed cock-beading. The mahogany loper fronts are joined to the yellow pine lopers with a single large dovetail. Cock beading on the loper fronts is integral to the sides and glued to the top and bottom. A peg in the loper acts as a stop.


Woods: mahogany primary wood; yellow pine secondary with the following exceptions: large drawer fronts are white pine veneered with mahogany, tier of three hidden drawers have drawer fronts of white pine (2) and white cedar (1).
Label:The origin of this desk is a bit of a mystery. It was owned in the 20th century by a family that had lived in Delaware since the 18th century. That could suggest a Delaware origin if the desk had descended in the family. But that isn’t known. The desk has a number of unusual construction features that do not correspond to any known Delaware maker’s work. These features include yellow pine drawer fronts veneered in mahogany and a large dovetail holding the decorative mahogany end to the functional yellow pine loper that extends to support the writing surface. The looped string inlay on the desk drawers and fall front has been seen on neoclassical pieces made in Kentucky. But the desk’s secondary woods of yellow and white pine and white cedar are not typically found in Kentucky furniture, and the desk’s construction features have not been seen there either. The woods are more typical of a Pennsylvania or Delaware context. Further research will hopefully reveal the origin of this desk.
Provenance:Mary ("Molly") Thomas Layton Calloway (1855-1934) and George Frederick ("Fred") Calloway (1847-1934); bought at auction c. 1986 by Mary Calloway's grand-neice, Evelyn Layton Neal Rittenhouse and her husband David Rittenhouse; Martha Rittenhouse.