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The evolution of the standing desk

20 Oct. 2022

With increased concern about the negative effects of sitting for hours on end, standing desks have become all the rage these days. Yet while it’s easy to assume that this revolutionary form of working is purely a modern invention, that’s not quite the case.

The history of the standing desk goes back much further than you would imagine and some of history's most famous characters saw the benefit of standing at a desk many centuries before they appeared in their current fashion.

Where it all began

When we talk about historical standing desks, it’s important to be clear on the differences from what we have today. Modern standing desks, such as the models on offer from FlexiSpot, bear little resemblance to what was used in the past. Today, desks are height adjustable and come with other modern features, such as electric motors and charging ports, but the earliest standing desks would simply have been static desks at a higher than normal height.

If we go back 600 years or so we find one of history’s true greats, Leonardo de Vinci, using a standing desk for much of his work. There is practically no record of why he chose to work in this way, and since real ergonomic thought was still some way off, we can only assume that for whatever reason, the man who created the most famous painting in the world, felt much better standing and working than sitting.

It’s a little unclear just how popular the practice was back then, but over the coming centuries, the use of standing desks gradually expanded.

Emperors and Presidents   

Today we understand just why standing desks are good for us, but in the past, many simply went with their gut assumption that they felt better writing or working while standing.

Standing desks were first recorded in use in the library at Cambridge University as early as 1626, where it was said to promote more concise intellectual thought. Napoleon seemed to think exactly the same and took to standing while strategizing for his battles ahead because he believed it encouraged quicker and more direct thinking.

Thomas Jefferson was not only one of America’s greatest presidents and co-author of the Declaration of Independence but he is also credited as being one of the first known people to use an adjustable standing desk.

It was also around this time that the first signs of intellectual thought regarding the benefits of standing over sitting began to emerge. In 1797, Presbyterian minister Jon Orton said that "A sedentary life may be injurious….To prevent this, you should get a standing desk," while in 1836, the American minister and professor of rhetoric Ebenezer Porter said standing desks were excellent for “those who have the animal vigour to sustain the exhaustion it occasions.”

The Writing Greats

It was clear by the mid-19th Century that standing desks were becoming more and more popular and this period sparked a rapid increase in their use, particularly for writers who before would spend hours hunched in unnatural and unhealthy positions.

Charles Dickens was a huge fan of standing desks, as were George N. Comer and Ernest Hemingway, the latter famously used to pile books onto a table and work on top of them. Winston Churchill was yet another standing desk convert and was often pictured working away while standing.

Yet as we reached the mid-20th Century, something strange began to happen. For a long time, the use of standing desks had been increasing, but over the next fifty years, their use would almost completely disappear.

It’s not exactly clear what killed the standing desk craze in the 20th Century, but most experts agree that an increased desire for comfort and companies' practice of developing cubicle-style working environments, as well as the general increase in sedentary working, were to the causes.

The Re-birth     

The re-birth of the standing desk didn’t really occur until the start of the 21st Century, at least on a large scale. While there were always those who chose to stand over sitting, they were often considered eccentric, and it wasn’t until a much greater awareness of the damage sitting all day can cause us began to emerge, that things really began to change.

Suddenly companies began looking at standing desks and active seating as ways of improving their employee's health, which no doubt also led to a decrease in the number of sick days taken each year.

In short, the standing desk came back into fashion because companies began to see the benefits they could bring, both for the employee and the company itself. Today, the standing desk industry is booming and the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have only added to growth, with millions around the world forced to work from home where they realised that working at that kitchen table just wouldn’t do.

The Bottom Line  

Standing desks have come an awful long way since Leonardo de Vinci used to stand up and sketch some of his most famous designs. While their use increased dramatically, the industrial revolution is generally considered the start of our increasingly sedentary working style that saw standing desks begin to slide in popularity, for the majority of the public at least.

It wasn’t until the ergonomically minded 21st Century began did we saw the true re-birth of the standing desk, and today, it looks set to dominate the market for some time to come.

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