World Class Antiques Magazine - Vol. 1, No. 3, December 2015
Wooton Desk

Wooton Desk

"Order Reigns Supreme, Confusion Avoided. Vexation Spared".

What more could one possibly want from a desk? The above advertising text from the British newspaper The Graphic from May 17,1884, imbues the Wooton Patent Cabinet Office Secretary (or "Wooton Desk", as it came to be known) with all the virtues of the Victorian age. "With this Desk" continues the advert, "one absolutely has no excuse for slovenly habits in the disposal of numerous papers, and a person of method may here realise that pleasure and comfort which is only to be attained in the verification of the maxim: "A place for everything, and everything in its place." (The King of Desks: Wooton's Patent Secretary by Betty Lawson Walters Smithsonian Institution Press Washington D.C. 1969)...

Manufactured for a mere ten years from 1874 through 1884 by the Wooton Desk Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, the Wooton Desk quickly became established in the homes and offices of industrialists, bankers, educators, and publishers on four continents. Wooton Desks were sold in the U.S. Canada, Europe, South America, and Asia and anchored the personal offices of such luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant, John D. Rockefeller, and Joseph Pulitzer.

Unfortunately, the Wooton Desk was born into a rapidly changing business environment; one might say that it was doomed from inception. Prior to the advent of the Wooton, business was transacted in ink via hand-written letters, contracts, and ledgers. The concept behind the Wooton Secretary was that one well-organized businessman would be able to keep track of all his correspondence and filing in the Desk, which combined a writing table, filing cabinet, letter-box, and safe into one portable unit.

Incorporated into a single rolling cabinet, the Secretary contained doors that would open from the front to reveal two wings containing pigeon-holes on one side and file boxes on the other. A solidly-supported writing table would fold down from the top front. Drawers and cubby-holes were provided above and below the writing desk. Without moving one's chair, a user had access to all one-hundred-ten compartments. When not in use, the unit could be folded up, locked (only one key needed!) and rolled to a convenient storage spot. A bronze letter slot was provided on the outside so that late-arriving correspondence could be dropped into the interior mail box without having to re-open the entire unit.

For a Victorian-era businessman, the desk was ideal. But, change was in the wind. As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam in the late 19th Century, businesses became awash in paper. Contracts and correspondence began to be written using typewriters, and large companies created typing pools with entire floors of women dedicated to keeping up with correspondence. The quantity of paper generated made it impractical to fold a copy of each letter and place it into a pigeon-hole, as was formerly the custom. Rather, the process became placing unfolded letters into cardboard folders and placing those folders alphabetically into a cabinet built specifically to contain them (i.e., filing cabinets).

As clever as Wooton was, he might have been able to adapt to the changes in the business environment but a series of financial setbacks hastened the end of the company.

Rapid growth can strain the resources of any company, and Wooton Desk was no exception. The success of the Secretary Desk spawned competition from cheaper knock-offs, and Wooton began losing business to its imitators. Keeping commitments to suppliers and dealers in the midst of fast growth and lower sales led to cash flow problems. In response to new competition, Wooton developed a more traditional, less expensive desk product built with some of the features of the Secretary Desk, called the Rotary Desk. But, competitors were quick to copy this desk as well, and pursuing patent infringement lawsuits with multiple companies in multiple countries would only further strain Wooton's weakened finances.

In the early 1880’s, Wooton suffered a devastating factory fire in which only twenty percent of their losses were covered by insurance. The final blows to Wooton were the economic recession of 1882 and the resulting financial panic of 1884. Nationwide, more than ten thousand banks and businesses failed. Indianapolis suffered along with the rest of the country. Wooton Desk Company folded, and the rights to its patents were sold. Thereafter, Wooton-style desks were manufactured and sold by several other companies.

Since knockoffs and reproductions of original Wooton desks are ubiquitous, collectors should exercise caution when buying one. The 1876 Wooton catalog lists four models of the Secretary Desk: Ordinary, Standard, Extra, and Superior. Each model was manufactured in three sizes, varying in height from about 4'7" to 5'; width from 3'3" to 3'9", and depth from 2'5" to 2'8". The exterior cases were constructed primarily of black walnut (the dominant hardwood in the Indianapolis area) with decorative veneers and carvings on the high-end models. Secondary (interior) woods were of pine, poplar, or maple depending on the function of the wooden part. Hardware was usually plated or enameled bronze. Filing boxes were made of green cardboard and had brass pull-rings. Secretary desks designed for office use would usually have the external letter slot and the Wooton patent name plate.

Desk joinery should be closely inspected by a potential buyer. During the production years of authentic Wooton Desks, drawers were commonly joined by either scallop and dowel joints (Knapp, 1867) or finger joints (1880). Evenly-spaced dovetail joints didn't come into common use until the end of the 19th Century and are generally considered to be a 20th Century technology. Since Wooton was out of business by 1885, no authentic desks would have drawers with machine-made dovetail joints.

Wooton Desks were originally priced from about $90 for a stripped-down, small Ordinary model to about $750 for a large fancy Superior model; in today's dollars, that range translates to $1,530 up to $12,750. Of course, you'll rarely find them priced such; antique dealers sell authentic Wooton Patent Secretary Desks between $25,000 to $250,000 depending on the provenance of the desk.

Most authentic Wooton Desks are in the hands of collectors and museums. However, there is anecdotal evidence that they occasionally show up at estate auctions, selling in the low four-figure range.

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