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 Desks
One of the first U.S. patents for a roll top desk was given to Abner Cutler in 1881. Mr. Cutler was the owner of A. Cutler and Son 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. Roll top desks first came into use in England and France in the late 1700s. 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 decorations to make the desk more beautiful.
The Carlton House Desk
The Carlton House Desk was designed in the 1700s by Hepplewhite for the Prince of Wales, later to be King George IV. The name comes from the Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince. The Carlton 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 Carlton 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.
Popular Antique Roll Top Desk Manufacturers
If you can find a manufacturer name on your desk, it can help you identify when and where it was made. Antique roll tops desks don't always have manufacturer marks, so knowing a few popular companies can help narrow your search.
- Angus of London - From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Angus of London was known for their high quality furniture.
- Stephen Smith - Smith started as a cabinetmaker in Boston in 1829, but grew his business to include several partners under the name Stephen Smith & Company that stayed in business until 1877.
- The Cutler Desk Company - Started in 1824, The Cutler Desk Company was a small cabinet making shop in Buffalo, NY that grew into A. Cutler and Son Furniture Manufacturing Factory.
- The Globe Company - Founded in Cincinnati, OH, in 1882 as the Globe Files Company, this company manufactured office equipment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It later became Globe Wernicke Company, and eventually some of their designs were marketed in London, England under the name Globe-Wernicke Co Ltd.
- Waring & Gillow - Robert Gillow started his furniture making company, Gillows, in 1731. Gillows was taken over in 1903 to become Waring & Gillow.
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.
Antique Roll Top Desk Values
Vintage roll top desks can be found in many price ranges. It is possible to find a vintage roll top desk at a thrift store for fewer than a hundred dollars; while at the same time a very high quality desk may be found at auction for well over ten thousand. For example, an 1860s mahogany roll top desk was listed in one online auction for a little over $3,000 and an American roll top from the 1920s is listed in another for a little over $4,500. Similarly, this Edwardian oak roll top has an estimated worth between $6,000-$7,000. Keep in mind that even the average prices for these antique desks are a sizable amount and that you should be 100% sure of the desk's worth before putting down the full deposit. The best way to assure the value of one of these roll top desks is to get an appraisal from an antique furniture expert, as this vital step can mean the difference between a few thousand dollars staying or leaving your bank account.
Factors Affecting Roll Top Desk Value
Antique furniture values, like the value of a roll top desk, will depend on several factors.
- Age - Older desks in will be worth more, generally, than similar newer desks in the same condition. Look at the way the drawers are put together. Large hand cut dovetail joints will indicate the piece is older than if the dovetails are small and uniformly cut by machine.
- 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.
- Materials - 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.
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 and other vintage items and you will have an office with a designer look and a vintage feel.