The Antique School Desk and Its Role in Education

Updated January 21, 2022
Interior of an old school house in Calico Ghost Town

Shows like Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables have contributed to cultural perception of the historic schoolhouse with its small one-room multipurpose building and the rows of wooden desks that were housed inside. Despite the idea that these bucolic educational centers were strict and devoid of any self-expression, the antique school desk was a beautiful invention that constantly evolved to better serve its purpose of helping kids expand their minds.

Antique School Desks of the19th Century

The single or double-seated wooden desk that you probably picture in your mind's eye when you think of antique school desks wasn't actually invented and widely used until the second-half of the 19th century. There're several conflicting accounts as to who invented the first one, but according to one patent filed in 1868, Herbert L. Andrews might have been the first with his small, adjustable desk. However, the school desks that would litter the American countryside for decades came a few decades later.

The Fashion Desk Gets Top Marks

Created by the Sidney School Furniture Company--a joint venture between John D. Loughlin and T. D. Scott-- in Sidney, Ohio, the 'fashion' desk first rolled off of the production line in 1881. This desk was a departure from the long school benches that had been used thus far, as it was a single-desk style with slanted writing space on the back of each chair. Affixed by wrought iron, and steadily becoming more decorative as Victorian tastes evolved, the 'fashion' desk became the gold standard of antique desks during the late-Victorian period.

Kids sitting in 1900's school desk

Breadin's School Desk Mimics Loughlin's

Just a few years after the fashion desk was released, Anna Breadin invented a similar single-seated school desk, patenting it on April 2, 1889. With a wooden seat supported by flowing and graceful metal legs, Breadin's design featured an additional pair of metal supports that held a writing surface as well as a storage shelf underneath. Created out of cast iron and wood, like most furniture of the period, the design reinforced this new concept in school furniture designs and indicated that the style was here to stay.

Breadin Desk Design

Kotelmann's Standing Desk Appears

In the past few years, standing desks have taken pop culture by storm with health and lifestyle influencers attesting to their ergonomics and health benefits. However, they're not such a modern idea after all. In fact, Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann outlines the basics for these upright pieces of furniture in his 1899 text, School Hygiene. While the standing desk idea was obviously percolating for several decades, it's unlikely that they were regularly used in schools around the world at the time that they were created.

School Desk Design's Evolve in the 20th Century

No matter which brand of desk your great-great grandparents might have sat behind to engage in their daily studies, the school desk revolutionized the classroom setting. No longer did students have to use rudimentary technology to take notes and practice texts. Rather, these new school desks individualized and personalized the classroom, making it a place that actually fostered learning at the personal level.

As the early aughts turned into the interwar period, these school desks began to reflect new designs and creatives sought to improve on old patterns. The 1930s and '40s saw Jean Prouvé introduce his uniquely slanted and geometric desks, while the mid-century found the flip-top desk to be the most useful. The wrap-around desks came not too long after and have stayed in the public school system ever since.

Antique School Desks for Sale

You don't have to be an intrepid school teacher to find some use for an antique school desk. Whether it's using it as an indoor garden or as a play desk for your kids to complete their art projects on, these desks won't go to waste in the modern home.

School Desk Sitting View

They're also not difficult to find, and you can usually hunt one or two down at your local restore furniture store, thrift store, or community consignment shop. You're much more likely to find one of these desks if you live in a rural location than you are in a big city's thrift stores since their industrial seating has long since been repurposed for its raw materials.

If you're not having any luck finding these desks at local venues, then you can check out a few different online retailers to see what they might have in stock for you to bid on:

  • eBay - Thanks to their individual-seller based platform, eBay makes for one of the best places online to find rustic items like antique school desks. Make sure you check each seller's shipping costs because these desks, with their wrought iron fixings, can be rather heavy.
  • 1st Dibs - For high-quality antique school desks, check out 1st Dibs. A more traditional e-commerce platform, 1st Dibs might have fewer listings than eBay, but the ones that it does have are significantly vetted.
  • Esty - Just like eBay, Etsy benefits from having all sorts of different sellers sourcing their inventory. Thus, you can find regional items like antique school desks in abundance there. Be sure to check their shipping costs as well because they can be pretty steep for large, heavy items like wrought iron and wood antiques.

The Cost of Collecting Antique School Desks

Generally, antique school desks are worth about $50-$200, depending on what condition they're in, how decorative their iron work is, and what style of desk they are. Desks that depart from the typical single-desk style can fetch a little more because they're rarer to find. Similarly, the more decorative the iron work on the desk's sides or foot rest can increase the value as well.

Students in Rural Schoolroom

These are some antique school desks that have recently been sold at auction which reflect these price fluctuations:

School House Rock 19th Century Style

These antique school desks might not be made for having impromptu rock performances on top of, but you can rock the antique school house look with one or a few of these quaint products of the past.

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The Antique School Desk and Its Role in Education