The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia,which engendered an explosion of new furniture ideas, led to dramatic changes in typical office equipment. Rolltop desks and filing systems were suddenly the rage. Derby desk ad, 1884

Businessmen were in the mood for a change. Improved housekeeping, they believed, must mean increased profits. A rolltop desk offered movable partitions, several sizes of pigeonhole cases, drawers, ledger cases, and a lock.

Typewriter desks went into the office with the typewriter. Some had cabinets built in that swung the typewriter out of sight as a writing surface swung up. Other typists' desks came in adjustable heights, allowing the typist to type standing as well as sitting.

wood desk with typewriterBy the 1890s, rolltops were becoming impractical. The office manager couldn't easily see what work his clerks were doing, and often too many papers were filed in their desks rather than in the filing cabinets. Soon rolltops were only managerial and executive furniture.

Office workers' desks became more and more streamlined as pigeonholes and filing slats were removed. By 1900, even the pedestals that supported the desk tops and provided storage space were replaced with legs, which made cleaning offices easier. Offices strove to be entirely standardized in appearance, for "efficiency." One desk, butted to another, was exactly like every other desk in the office.

time-motion desk photo c. 1954Eventually, management considered wood inefficient and bad for employees' health, and metal desks became the standard by the 1920s. Wood now enjoys status as the material of choice for office desks, however, suggesting as it does, quality, success, and old-fashioned values.


Birth and Growth of the American Office

Office Equipment

Office Organization

Global Office


Historical Timeline

Lesson Plans


Site Contents

Carbons to Computers Home Page

Smithsonian Institution
Copyright 1998

Smithsonian Education

contact with any questions or comments