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Standing Desks in History

18 May 2021

Standing or stand-up desks have grown in popularity in recent years, as studies have raised the alarm about the dangers of prolonged sitting. Many who have read much news on this trend could be forgiven for assuming that standing to work is a new trendy fad. The standing desk may seem to be a new invention, but it has been around for many years. Over the decades, consumers have discovered that keeping the body healthy while on the job encourages productivity and concentration and various physical health benefits such as lower cholesterol, a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and more.

How long has it been around?

While the stand-up desk is dismissed as a fad, the tool is a tried and tested tool with a long track record of demonstrated performance. The recent surge in popularity of standing desks is not so much about reinventing the wheel as it is about rediscovering it. From leaders to thinkers, the standing desk has been used by some of the greatest minds in human history to advance themselves and their societies.

But, as with many other things, all old is relevant again. They've been one of a great man's secrets for decades. We will never know when the first standing desk was used, but they can trackback to the 1400s. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have used a standing desk as he came up with his many other inventions, including flying machines and the armored car. In addition to being used by one of the world's finest artists, the standing desk made its debut at one of the oldest known universities, the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209). Standing desks were first documented in the library in 1626, and the concept of writing while standing was elevated to the forefront of intellectual thinking. 

Although some people used standing desks in the 18th and 19th centuries, they became more common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most were in the wealthy's homes and offices. Offices in the 19th century often had communal sitting/standing desks instead of individual desks for each employee. They occasionally used standing desks in school classrooms. Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann described:

"It has in late years been repeatedly suggested that even with the proper kind of desk, much sitting is liable to injure the abdominal organs and the circulation. Desks have accordingly been proposed, which can be arranged for standing as well as sitting. These are hardly necessary for the lower and intermediate classes since the pupils here rise when questioned and tumble about vigorously on the playground during recesses. They are rather to be thought of for the upper classes."

Workers who sit all day have become more popular as America has become more industrialized and devices have taken many employees' places. In reality, sedentary employment in the United States has risen by 83 percent since 1950, with physically active jobs accounting for just 20 percent of our workforce.

More research published suggests that sitting for long periods could be killing us by raising our risk of high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. As a result, several people are resurrecting the concept of standing while working, resulting in the birth of the modern "standing desk movement."

People in history who used a standing desk

Leonardo da Vinci

While no one can claim to be the inventor of the standing desk, Leonardo da Vinci is thought to be the first known user. It has long been assumed that he painted the Mona Lisa while standing at his standing desk.

Napoléon Bonaparte

The mental and artistic benefits of standing while working spread from England to France. Napoléon Bonaparte adopted the standing desk and discovered it to be conducive to swift thought and war strategizing.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was most likely the first influential American to use a standing desk. In the late 1700s, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president ordered his desk from a cabinetmaker in Williamsburg. He built his "tall desk" with six peg legs for added stability. It had a slanted top that was adjustable with a ratchet stand and was wide enough to hold a folio. Jefferson has used this desk to sketch popular architectural blueprints such as the Virginia State Capitol.

Charles Dickens

Many consider him to be one of the greatest authors of all time. Charles Dickens created the "gloriously vivid" set of characters for his book David Copperfield at his stand-up desk, as described by 19th-century writer Elizabeth Gaskell when she visited his study. She explained: "books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable, easy chairs."

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard, a renowned Danish philosopher, sat at not one but two standing desks, marinating his insights as he shifted from one position to the next. This physical activity gave him the rare ability to explore the profound domain of the mind with such vitality and strength, making him one of the finest thinkers in Western philosophy history.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher, political philosopher, and poet whose thoughts continue to resonate through contemporary philosophical thinking, not only stood to work but passionately believed that sitting work was worthless: "How quickly we guess how someone has come by his ideas; whether it was while sitting in front of his inkwell, with a pinched belly, his head bowed low over the paper — in which case we are quickly finished with his book, too! Cramped intestines betray themselves — you can bet on that — no less than closet air, closet ceilings, closet narrowness."

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was a fearless man who earned his respected reputation through his unwavering attempts to bring the Third Reich to an end. He was often observed working at his standing desk. One of Churchill's most famous photographs shows him at his stand-up desk, pondering over documents while smoking a cigar. He must have been doing something right because the former British Prime Minister lived to 90.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, one of the twentieth century's most prominent modernist authors and thinkers, is known best for her three books Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando. In her book-length essay A Room of One's Own, she wrote: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Until the end of her life, the troubled and inventive poet twisted and weaved her literary masterpieces while standing. Woolf spent a considerable portion of her life writing her novels at "a desk about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to her work," as her nephew Quentin Bell described. Her sister also stood up painting, and "This led Virginia to feel that her pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality."

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize recipient, is probably the most well-known historical figure who can be seen using his typewriter at a stand-up desk, often in his later years. He got the inspiration from his editor at Scribner's, and due to a leg injury from World War I, he almost always stood to work. An interviewer mentioned Hemingway's actions in an interview posted in the Paris Review: "A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a Lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him." As George Plimpton put it in the Paris Review of Hemingway's Cuban bedroom: 

"In Ernest’s room, there was a large desk covered with stacks of letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings, a small sack of carnivores’ teeth, two unwound clocks, shoehorns, an unfilled pen in an onyx holder, a wood-carved zebra, warthog, rhino and lion in single file, and a wide assortment of souvenirs, mementos, and good luck charms. He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand-up workplace he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there, and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing."

Stan Lee

Stan Lee of Marvel Comics is the creator of The Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spiderman. "Always wrote standing up — good for the figure — and always faced the sun — good for the suntan!" said one caption from a picture.

Final Word

With such historical titans standing before us in history, one would think that society would have widely embraced the standing desk much earlier. Sad to say, widespread acceptance did not occur until science demonstrated that it was a life and death situation. Although standing desks used to be reserved for the wealthy or the unconventional, flexible standing desks are now open to anyone who wants one. There are several solutions on the market to meet the needs and budgets of work and home offices, and they are likely to be much easier to use. The thing that has not changed is the health advantage that standing desks offer, which will most certainly bring this ergonomic furniture trend into the future.

Surprisingly, more people haven't switched to stand-up desks earlier, but as another simple adage goes, it's better late than never. Join the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill. Today, battle the risks of sitting and appreciate the physical and psychological benefits of a standing desk.