Antique Roll Top Desk

The roll top desk is characteristic of the Victorian office.

The antique roll top desk is a favorite item amongst antique collectors of all ages. With its sturdy good looks, and multiple nooks and crannies for organizing things, the roll top is a classic piece of furniture.

The First Roll Top Desk

The very first patent for the roll top desk was given to Abner Cutler in 1850. Mr. Cutler was the owner of the Cutler Desk Company located in Buffalo, New York.

What set Cutler's design apart from the desks that had previously been produced was the flexible tambour that covered the desktop and important papers while the desk was not being used. Every roll top desk that has been created has been based on this design. Cutler antique roll top desks are somewhat rare and very valuable when they are found in good condition.

Developing the Roll Top Desk

Cutler was not the first to come up with the tambour idea or putting multiple compartments on a desk. The roll top is actually the evolution of a couple of popular desk styles of the day.

The Pedestal Desk

The pedestal desk is created from a rectangular top which rests on two cabinets containing stacked drawers. It is the desk that people most often picture when they hear the word desk. The pedestal desk often had a front panel, called a modesty panel which covered the front of the desk from pedestal to pedestal. This allowed the user's legs to be covered while seated at the desk.

Some pedestal desks had leather insets, fancy wood inlays, gold leafed designs, and other decoration to make the desk more beautiful.

The Carleton House Desk

The Carleton House Desk as designed in the 1700s by Hepplewhite for the Prince of Wales, later to be King George IV. The name comes from the Carleton House, the London residence of the Prince.The Carleton House desk contained all of the nooks, crannies, drawers, and mysterious places that Cutler later added to his own desk design. The rectangular writing area rested on legs, however, which gave the Carleton House Desk a more elegant, refined, and dainty look.

The Cylinder Desk

The cylinder desk had a wooden cylinder that slid down over the work surface of the desk. Because it was a solid piece it was difficult to create. It could warp, rendering the cylinder totally useless. This was created for the French nobles early in the 1700s.

The Tambour Desk

The tambour desk had slats like the roll top so it didn't warp. The slats were pulled across the desk top rather than downward from the top. They were straight slats of wood that ran vertically rather than horizontally. Because it pulled shut across, rather than down, it covered only the back. It did not allow for the whole top to be covered in the way a roll top does.

Evaluating an Antique Roll Top Desk

Because the roll top desk could be easily mass produced it became a fixture in most offices around the United States. In fact it was the most popular style of desk until the steel desk was introduced in the early 1900s.

Vintage roll top desks can be found in many price ranges. This is due, in part, to the fact that some are of higher quality materials or more well known manufacturers than others. It is possible to find a vintage roll top desk at a thrift store for fewer than one hundred dollars; while at the same time a very high quality desk may be found at auction for well over ten thousand. The value will depend on several things:

  • Age - Older desks in will be worth more, generally, than similar newer desks in the same condition.
  • Condition - Has it been painted or refinished? That brings the value down. Look for cracks, missing slats, cigarette burns and other things that affect condition.
  • Rarity - Some desks, like the Cutler Roll Top, are rarer than others.
  • Provenance - If the desk has belonged to someone important or well known it will be worth more as long as its ownership can be proven.
  • Decoration - Moldings and carvings, as well as other handwork, can increase the desk's value.

Check the interior of the drawers. If they are made of plywood then the desk should have a correspondingly low value. While it was normal for furniture makers to use pine and other less expensive woods in drawers, plywood did not come into popular use until the early 1900s. By 1920 plywood was in steady use in the furniture manufacturing business.

Another way to determine the age of the desk is by looking at the way the drawers are put together. Large hand cut dovetail joints will indicate the the piece is older than if the dovetails are small and uniformly cut by machine.

Create a Vintage Office

Whether you are looking for an antique roll top desk to give your own office a vintage look or you just love the look of the desk, roll tops are a classic design that most people instantly recognize as uniquely American. Add in sturdy, antique file cabinets, an antique safe, and other vintage items and you will have an office with a designer look and a vintage feel.

Antique Roll Top Desk