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How Have Desks Changed Over Time?

30 September 2022

You might not think desks have had a particularly eventful history, nor might you think they’ve changed much over centuries.

However, desks have a long and colourful history through which we can see changes in our societies. This article will explore how desks have changed and developed over time.

For centuries desks have provided simple, small and (relatively) portable workspaces in order to store books, writings and offer a space to write. In fact, the word “desk” is rooted in the Latin “desca” which translates to “table to write on”.

12th Century

While writing surfaces have likely been around since the birth of writing 5,000 years ago, there wasn’t a specific piece of furniture for writing until around the 12th century. 12th Century China possessed a table specifically designed for painting, editing manuscripts, viewing scroll paintings and writing.


The 1400 and 1500s oversaw some of the most significant pieces of medieval manuscripts produced throughout history. Monks, who spent most of their lives writing, drawing and colouring, started to design and draw illustrations of furniture which appeared to focus on providing a comfortable environment to read and write.

These illustrations often depicted slanted surfaces which were placed on top of chests or tables. This allowed the user to more easily read, rather than needing to hold up large books or parchments.

Due to the use of candles, raised platforms for manuscripts allowed them to be brought closer to candlelight rather than having to dangerously hold a candle next to a parchment.

Often the pieces of furniture had sturdy iron handles on either side of them, allowing them to be transported easily and moved around for ease of use.

17th Century

With the invention of the printing press in 1440 and the eventual widespread adoption of books in the 1600s, reading was becoming increasingly popular. By the 1600s, literacy had increased significantly compared to 200 years ago and more furniture started to appear to assist this new hobby.

Many boxes, often called “Bible Boxes” as the primary purpose of reading would be to consume the bible, would contain important books, quill, paper and ink. They would also provide a natural surface to write on.

In the 1600s, England would see the production of many varieties of Bible Boxes with sloping lids.

These increasingly came to be known as writing boxes, rather than Bible Boxes, and in some ways served the purpose of a primitive, and more portable, desk. These pieces of furniture would grow in ornateness, using a variety of woods and styles.

Towards the end of the 1600s, writing boxes had become cemented as an essential piece of household furniture. The writing boxes gained legs, allowing for individuals to more comfortably sit at them as well as removing their portability – a demonstration of how fundamental they were to the home.

18th Century

The 18th didn’t see significant developments other than desks becoming workplaces for bureaucrats. Desks were designed to accommodate large quantities of paperwork which would eventually become the office desks that we know and use today.

19th Century

The industrial revolution had a huge impact on the production of desks, their popularity, and how they were made.

The revolution saw access to cheaper wood-pulp-based paper, which increased literary consumption astronomically and increased th demand for desks.

Furthermore, technological improvements in manufacturing meant cheaper desks were being made at a significantly faster rate. Hand-crafted desks continued to be used by the wealthy, but the poorer classes increasingly had access to desks as well.

Lastly, the invention of the typewriter saw a dramatic shift in how desks were used. It was no longer a location for writing with pen and paper, but had now become a location to type. Desks, therefore, became stronger to support the weight of heavy typewriters and thumping thumbs.

This is why massive metal tanker desks became popularised towards the end of the 19th century and into the mid-20th century.

20th and 21st Century

Desk development has continued throughout the last century - with newer, cheaper and more durable man-made materials coming to the forefront.

Perhaps the most significant development for desks is an increasing amount of customisation becoming available to these generally static items.

Standing desks, such as the E7 from Flexispot, are seemingly the next evolution in desk history. They provide greater mobility and comfort of use – the same reasons monks had in the 15th century when they began to design and build desks for the first time.

Final Thoughts

Who would have thought that desks had such an interesting and deep history? I hope you now have a much better idea of how these pieces of furniture have become staples in our modern households and offices.