When you picture the iconic one-room schoolhouse that dotted the American landscape during the late-19th century, as westward expansion was tearing through the prairie fields, one of the first things that comes to mind is those precisely designed wooden and cast iron desks. Lined in rows and cobbled together using the most durable, and accessible, materials of the period, these antique iron school desks transcended their humble beginnings and, over time, transformed into the desks that modern students are acutely familiar with. Discover the old-world beauty of these timeless fixtures by bringing them back to life.
How the School Desk Came to Be
Prior to the 19th century and the rise of industrialism, childhood education in the United States wasn't standardized, and curriculum was largely determined by your family's economic status. Wealthy families could afford to have private tutors instruct their children, while agricultural workers or tradesmen often couldn't spare their children's labor and their kids went uninstructed for months on end. Yet, by the late-19th century, more and more children were attending formal educational settings, and the need for furniture beyond the typical church pews arose. The Sidney School Furniture Company answered this need with their wooden and wrought iron fashion desks in 1880.
These one-piece desks featured a back piece with a flat section for writing and a forward facing seat. In this way, the student's writing surface was attached to the chair in front of them. Some of the desk surfaces had a small cutout area to hold the inkwell, while others were completely flat. The first row of seats had no writing surface, but since this row was usually made up of the small children, many of which weren't writing yet, it wasn't a problem.
Some of the desks were long and allowed for seating for two children, while others were designed for one student to sit at, and they were frequently crafted out of indigenous materials to the area, such as walnut and oak woods. Often, the feet would be bolted into the floor to keep the desk firmly in place and the uniform rows in alignment.
How to Identify an Antique Iron School Desk
One of the easiest ways to identify these antique school desks is to look at the wrought iron legs' designs and observe what stylistic period they belong to. Those with a lot of swirling decoration probably come from the turn-of-the-century, while those with sparse decoration are usually from the interwar period and beyond.
That being said, maker's marks are a great way to identify the brand and product year for the desk in question. Unfortunately, not every desk is going to have one of these marks, though the ones that do will often have them printed into the iron legs either incorporated into the outside design, or somewhere on the inner-most facing parts.
Antique Iron School Desk Values
Most antique iron school desks were constructed between the late-19th century and the mid-20th century. While their age certainly has a part to play in their ultimate value, there're many other things to take into consideration, such as:
- Rarity - If the desk is made of an unusual wood or is unusual in some other way, it may be worth more than the average desk.
- Detail - Some of these old desks were highly detailed with scrolls and special designs in the iron. The more detailed and beautiful a desk is, the more it's usually worth.
- Provenance - If the desk was used by an important historical figure or was in a significant place, it may be worth more than other desks. Make sure you get a certificate of authenticity or some proof of its historical significance and provenance. Just because it has Abe Lincoln's name carved in it doesn't necessarily mean that President Abraham Lincoln used that desk in any capacity.
- Condition - A desk that is in excellent condition will fetch more than one that is very worn and in need of restoration.
- Availability - Some areas of the country will have more desks available than others. For example, you're more likely to come across many of these types of desks in Indiana than in Alaska. If the desks are hard to find, they may be worth more in your area.
The Cost of Collecting Antique Iron School Desks
Antique cast iron school desks are consistently priced between $100-$250 apiece, depending on their quality and decorations. Examples that have exquisite Victorian filigree and Art Nouveau patterning easily sell for $200, at least. Interestingly, there's even a market for selling the wrought iron legs that the wooden backs and seats were fabricated to, and these legs can sell for $50+ apiece.
These are a few examples of these antique school desks that've recently sold on eBay:
- Antique A.S. Co. Foldable School Desk - Sold for $85
- 1877 Wrought Iron & Oak Foldable School Desk - Sold for $153
- 1880 Pair of Antique Buffalo Hardwood Company School Desks - Sold for $414.17
School's Back in Session at Home
Unlike most other antique desks, the school desk will not lend itself well to office use. Think of it more like a stand or a table than a true desk when you are decorating, and if you love the look of these desks but aren't sure how you would use one, consider the following ideas:
- Telephone stand
- Plant stand
- Display area for other antiques
- Reading nook
- Side table
Finding Antique Desks
You may find one of these gems locally, especially if you live in the American Midwest, at antique stores, garage sales, or thrift shops. You can also look into your area to see if there's any furniture-specific antique stores or reclaim furniture stores around as these could have some hidden collections from school yards of the past.
If you can't find what you're looking for anywhere nearby, then online retailers are your next best option. Of course, you do run the risk of not being able to exactly assess the chair's condition, as well as potentially end up paying a pretty penny in shipping costs since these chairs aren't lightweight. That being said, there are a couple of great places to look at first:
- eBay - The original e-commerce platform has a myriad of antique and vintage school desks for sale, spanning regions and periods. Given the website's nature, there isn't a pricing standard, meaning the sellers might be asking for a little more or less than what the antique desk is worth, so always do some digging on a potential purchase.
- Etsy - You'll face the same sort of problems from eBay at Etsy as it's constructed in an identical, though modern, format. However, this platform is more user-friendly and has a vast catalog to look through.
Restoration Approaches for Antique Iron Desks
While full-fledged restorations should always be performed by a professional, especially with delicate antiques, there are some restorative techniques you can apply to your antique school desk to try to increase its longevity. These are some restoration tricks to keep school in session:
- Nourish the wood - Over time, wood can become cracked, stained, and damaged thanks to the natural elements. Applying a wood oil or wax--never an aerosol--to the wood can help restore its natural patina.
- Deep clean when able - Deep cleaning using soap, water, and a microfiber cloth, or similar cleaning process, can bring the piece back to life. However, if you choose to get into all of the nooks and crannies, make sure to label each of the nuts and bolts you remove so that you can put the piece back together again.
- Store away from direct sunlight - Always keep your wooden furniture away from direct sunlight, as this can improve longevity immensely. Not only can this create sun damage to the wood, but it can also cause negative impacts from heat and cooling as well, which contributes to the drying and cracking that happens on a lot of old wooden furniture.
Get Schooled on Your Taste in Historic Furniture
Antique desks are a beautiful accent piece for almost any room as they take up very little space and offer their own storage and display space in return. If you're lucky enough to find one you love, be sure to keep it away from humid areas and moisture as iron will rust, which can lead to serious problems concerning the structure and value of your piece.