David Olusoga’s hidden histories: the homeworking revolution

“Desks went from a niche furniture item to the work station of millions,” writes David Olusoga

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It seems that the age of the office may be coming to an end. Few people now imagine that after the great experiment in homeworking brought about by the pandemic there will be a wholesale return to the office. For centuries going to the office meant sitting for hours at a desk, an item of furniture firmly associated in our minds with the workplace. Yet for the desk, the homeworking revolution of 2020 represents a return to an earlier chapter of its history, because the desk was formerly part of the domestic realm.

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The first desks used in the home took their cue from those that had been used by scribes in medieval monasteries. These were small, portable and box-like, usually made from oak. In the 15th century, after the invention of the printing press, they became not just surfaces to write upon, but also containers in which books could be stored. Over time the tops of these portable desks were built to incline downwards, each of their bottom edges fitted with a lip to keep books in place. Inside were compartments for inks and quills, as well as books. William Shakespeare almost certainly wrote his plays at such a desk.

The 17th century heralded the beginnings of what became a national postal system. There was a great boom in letter writing, and desks became increasingly common.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the destruction of over 13,000 homes in the capital, new types of desk became fashionable. As wealthy Londoners built new homes for themselves in the ashes of the old medieval city, they furnished them with larger, free-standing and more elaborate desks – true items of furniture rather than portable boxes. New desks like the escritoire or secretaire were brought over from France, with fronts that could be unfolded to create writing surfaces. These desks were known by their French name, ‘bureau’, and over time they became synonymous with the room the writing took place in – the office – which in turn gave rise to the word ‘bureaucracy’.

By the 18th century, writing desks were common items of furniture in the homes of the wealthy. Master cabinet makers such as Thomas Chippendale began to produce elaborate mahogany desks, decorated with showy marquetry, that the wealthy placed in their townhouses and the libraries of their country homes.

Yet it was the arrival of the Industrial Revolution that transformed the desk. No longer a niche item of furniture, it became the work station of literally millions of middle-class clerks. Complex industries such as manufacturing, railways and banking needed clerks to manage invoices, accounts and correspondence. Like the heavy manual work carried out in the country’s expansive mills and factories, the work of the clerks could be done more efficiently if they were brought together in large offices and each assigned to a desk.

Increasingly large, purpose-built offices with rows of identical desks appeared, such as Somerset House, which housed the Navy Board and the Stamp Office. The East India Company built its offices in London’s Leadenhall Street, and from there its managers and clerks, the so-called ‘writers’, oversaw the rule and exploitation of the subcontinent. This tedious work involved endless hours sat at desks copying documents by hand up to five times over. In a letter to his friend William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, who made his living as an East India Company writer, spoke of his yearning for “a few years between the grave and the desk!”

So firmly was the office associated with the desk in the 19th and 20th centuries that whole generations were taught to aspire to ‘desk jobs’, which conveyed middle-class status. In the 21st century, the laptop, the internet and now video conferencing software – along, of course, with this year’s pandemic – have broken the hold of the office and the desk job. A small, portable desk on which a laptop can easily be placed is the new fashion, as the desk morphs back into one of its earlier forms.

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This article was first published in the December 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine