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Antique Rolltop Desks: The Ultimate Guide for Collectors and History Buffs

As an antique furniture expert and collector for over 30 years, I‘ve had the pleasure of coming across many exquisite examples of rolltop desks from the 18th-20th centuries. These marvels of craftsmanship and engineering never cease to captivate me with their blend of beauty, functionality and history.

Whether you‘re a seasoned collector looking for your next prize acquisition or just appreciate fine furniture with a story to tell, join me on a journey into the fascinating world of antique rolltop desks. We‘ll trace their origins from European royalty to the American office, reveal the most valuable and sought-after examples, and share some tips for evaluating, buying and caring for these treasures.

The Rise of the Rolltop: A Timeline

To fully appreciate the rolltop desk‘s place in furniture history, let‘s roll back the clock a few centuries to chart its evolution:

  • 1760s: French King Louis XV commissions a cylinder desk from cabinetmakers Jean-Francois Oeben and Jean Henri Riesener, planting the seed for the rolltop‘s signature tambour cover.

  • 1780s-1820s: Tambour desks gain popularity among European nobility and wealthy Americans like Thomas Jefferson. Cabinetmakers experiment with different configurations of drawers, pigeonholes and writing surfaces.

  • 1850s-1870s: The Industrial Revolution makes mass-production of furniture more economical. Companies like Wooton and Cutler begin offering standardized models of rolltop desks aimed at a growing middle class of office workers. Key patents are filed for space-saving designs like drop-front writing beds and swinging pigeonhole racks.

  • 1880s-1900s: The Golden Age of Rolltop Desks. Dozens of American manufacturers churn out rolltops in every size, style and wood type imaginable to feed demand from coast to coast. Technological advances like the typewriter and adding machine influence desk layouts.

  • 1910s-1930s: The rolltop gradually falls out of favor as office fashions shift towards simpler, more modern steel desks. The Great Depression dampens demand for new furniture. Many fine specimens are relegated to attics and basements.

  • 1970s-Present: Collectors begin to rediscover and appreciate antique rolltop desks for their craftsmanship. Prices climb for top models in pristine condition. The desks find new fans among writers, artists and home office workers seeking an alternative to generic computer desks.

Anatomy of an Antique Rolltop Desk

Before we dive into the most coveted models and makers, let‘s cover some key terminology to help identify and describe an antique rolltop desk:

  • Tambour: The sliding, slatted wood cover that conceals the desk‘s interior. It‘s the rolltop‘s most distinguishing feature. Better quality tambours have tight-fitting, smoothly finished slats that glide with minimal friction.

  • Gallery: A raised shelf or rack mounted above the writing surface to hold papers, books and knick-knacks. Found on many high-end Victorian rolltops.

  • Pigeonholes: A grid of small, open compartments for sorting mail and documents. The more, the better was the thinking in the 1800s! Some desks have over 100 cubbies.

  • Curtain: A fabric panel that attaches to the tambour to conceal the pigeonholes when closed. Green wool baize was commonly used.

  • Writing bed/surface: The main work area, which can be a folding drop-front, pull-out slide, or fixed surface on higher-end models. Leather or felt inlays are signs of quality.

  • Pedestal: The desk‘s base, which typically has an arrangement of drawers flanking either side of the kneehole (leg space). Some very large desks from the late 19th century have double pedestals.

  • Locks: Most antique rolltops feature locks not only on the tambour but also on some interior drawers for added privacy and security. Desks with their original ornate cast brass key escutcheons and working locks are more valuable.

Most Valuable Antique Rolltop Desk Models

Now for the information every collector is eager to roll open: which antique rolltop desks command the highest prices and prestige? I surveyed some of my colleagues in the business, scoured recent auction records, and drew upon my own experience to compile this list of the most sought-after specimens:

Model/Maker Era Woods Features Rarity Price Range
Wooton Patent Secretary 1870s-1880s Walnut, Oak, Cherry, Mahogany Double-hinged writing bed, swing-out document boxes, 100+ pigeonholes, interior customizable Less than 200 made $50,000-$250,000
Cutler Patent Desk 1880s-1890s Oak, Walnut, Mahogany Roll-top lock mechanism, letter boxes, erasable memo tablet, double-arch gallery Rare $10,000-$50,000
S-Curve/Swell Front 1890s-1910s Oak, Walnut Graceful curved writing bed and drawer fronts, raised panels, turned posts Uncommon $5,000-$20,000
Eastlake Style 1870s-1890s Walnut, Ash, Oak Geometric carvings, incised lines, burled panels, turned spindles Varies $2,000-$10,000
McKinney Automatic Desk 1890s Oak Interior automatically opens/closes with tambour, fold-out typewriter shelf Very rare $20,000-$40,000

*Price ranges are for desks in excellent original condition and proportional to size/complexity. Restoration and provenance can significantly impact values.

As you can see, the crème de la crème of antique rolltops were made in the late 19th century during the desk‘s peak of popularity and mechanical innovation. The Wooton Desk Company‘s models in particular have achieved near-mythical status among collectors for their ingenious designs and quality craftsmanship.

According to Jim Kemp, owner of Kemp‘s Antiques in Chicago and a specialist in Victorian furniture, "A true Wooton Patent Secretary is like the holy grail for rolltop desk collectors. They were the Rolls Royce of desks in their day, with every bell and whistle you could imagine. Less than 200 were ever made, so they rarely come up for sale. When they do, it‘s a feeding frenzy."

Kemp notes that even a fairly pedestrian (pun intended) oak rolltop from the late 19th/early 20th century is still a good investment if it‘s in solid shape and has its original hardware. "The market for antique furniture in general has softened a bit with changing tastes, but exceptional pieces still command strong prices. Rolltops hit the sweet spot of being both functional and sculptural. They have a timeless appeal."

The Socioeconomics of Rolltops

It‘s fascinating to consider the rolltop desk within the larger socioeconomic context of the 18th-20th centuries. Its evolution and popularity closely parallel the rise of the middle class and expansion of white collar professions.

In the late 1700s, a rolltop desk was the ultimate power move – a status symbol reserved for aristocrats who could afford the finest custom craftsmanship. But by the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was democratizing access to consumer goods, including furniture.

The rapidly growing ranks of clerks, accountants, lawyers, managers and small business owners all needed a practical yet impressive place to handle their paperwork. In rolled the rolltop desk, which played to Victorian sensibilities with its multitude of cubbies and drawers to bring order to the chaos of modern life and conceal clutter at a moment‘s notice.

Kemp muses, "You have to remember, this was a time before filing cabinets or offices with closable doors. The rolltop provided a quick way to secure your work and also served as a grand professional ‘facade‘ to impress clients. It was almost like a mini office unto itself."

Indeed, advertisements from the 1880s-1900s touted the rolltop desk as an essential tool for any upwardly mobile businessman. Wooton even marketed their desks as "800 Offices in One," promising to boost efficiency and profits. The more drawers and fancier the exterior, the higher the price tag – and the social capital conferred upon the owner.

Of course, the irony is that the very features that made rolltops so appealing to the Victorian mindset – all those nooks and crannies – are what made them fall out of favor in the 20th century as stripped-down efficiency became the new ideal. Steel tanker desks and modular furniture systems promised a sleek, modern alternative to the fussy rolltop.

But as the saying goes, everything old is new again. In recent decades, there‘s been a renewed appreciation for the craftsmanship and character of antique furniture amidst a sea of generic, disposable pieces. For collectors, a rolltop desk represents a tangible connection to history and a testament to the enduring value of quality workmanship.

Tips for Buying, Restoring and Caring for an Antique Rolltop Desk

Whether you‘re in the market to buy your first antique rolltop or already have one in need of some TLC, here‘s some advice to get the most enjoyment and value out of your piece:


  • Study up on the different styles, makers and construction techniques of antique rolltops so you can better distinguish an authentic gem from a mediocre reproduction. Reference books like "The Rolltop Desk" by Ann Borden Harding and "Fine American Furniture" by Schiffer Publishing are great resources.

  • Set a budget and watch the market to get a sense of what certain models sell for in varying conditions. Factor in any shipping/moving costs for larger desks.

  • Buy the best example you can afford in terms of quality materials, construction and condition. It‘s better to have one spectacular piece than a bunch of dilapidated projects.

  • When evaluating a desk in person, give it a thorough inspection: open every drawer, test locks, look for splits and repairs. Don‘t be afraid to ask questions about its history and request additional photos for online listings.


  • Assess what level of restoration is needed and if it‘s something you‘re prepared to take on yourself or hire a professional for. Stripping and refinishing can be laborious and unforgiving. Sometimes it‘s worth it to pay for an expert touch.

  • Prioritize function over perfection. The goal should be to make the desk structurally sound and usable while preserving as much original material as possible. Resist the urge to over-restore and eliminate all signs of age and patina.

  • Track down authentic replacement hardware and wood veneers if needed. Specialists like Kennedy Hardware reproduce vintage keyhole escutcheons and pulls.


  • Keep your rolltop out of direct sunlight and away from heat/air vents to prevent fading and cracking. Maintain a consistent humidity level to minimize wood movement.

  • Dust regularly with a soft, dry cloth. Periodically clean and wax the exterior with products specifically formulated for antique furniture like Daddy Van‘s beeswax.

  • Avoid placing heavy objects on the writing surface that could strain the tambour‘s side tracks. Keep liquids and inks away from leather and baize writing pads.

  • Oil squeaky drawers and tambour slats with a light lubricant like Renaissance Wax. Slick up sticky locks with graphite powder.

The Pandemic Effect on Rolltop Desks

It would be remiss not to address how the events of 2020-2021 have impacted the antique furniture market, rolltop desks included. The mass shift to remote work has led many people to re-evaluate their home office setups and seek out statement pieces with a bit more personality than a generic Ikea desk.

Kemp has noticed an uptick in interest for antique desks since the pandemic began, particularly from younger buyers. "We‘ve had a number of millennials come in looking for a unique desk to anchor their apartment or home office. A rolltop offers great functionality with the wow factor they crave. With the competitive housing market, I think investing in a few high-quality furniture pieces feels like a more attainable goal for that age group."

However, this renewed demand coupled with pandemic-related supply chain issues has led to some upward price pressure. Kemp says, "We‘ve had to get creative sourcing inventory as many of the live auctions and estate sales we typically rely on have been scaled back or moved online. That scarcity is driving up costs, which we unfortunately have to pass on to the consumer to some extent."

Rolltop Desks as Functional Art

At the end of the day, an antique rolltop desk is more than just a piece of furniture – it‘s a functioning work of art with its own story to tell. Whether it once belonged to a captain of industry or an anonymous clerk, it has borne witness to history and has the scars and flourishes to prove it.

As both a collector and a scholar of furniture history, I‘m continually amazed by the level of skill and ingenuity that went into crafting these desks. From the precisely fitted tambour slats to the clever wiring channels for newfangled electricity, their makers were always innovating ways to marry form and function.

In an age of cheap, mass-produced furniture, an antique rolltop desk stands out as a testament to enduring quality and craftsmanship. It‘s a piece that can be used and enjoyed for generations to come, accruing even more character and value along the way.

So if you‘re fortunate enough to own one of these treasures, take a moment to savor its history and all the hands that shaped it. And if you‘re still on the hunt for the rolltop of your dreams, keep picturing it – the satisfying feel of the tambour gliding open to reveal your own personal workspace steeped in centuries of stories. It‘s out there waiting to inspire your next chapter.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Harding, Ann Borden. "The Rolltop Desk." American Life Foundation & Study Institute, 2006.
  • "Fine American Furniture." Schiffer Publishing, 1991.
  • Heckscher, Morrison H. "American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Late Colonial Period, Vol. 2." Random House, 1985.
  • Rodriguez, Robert S., et al. "Treasures from the National Museum of American History." Smithsonian Books, 2018.
  • Wallis, Michael A. "Antique Office Furniture and Equipment, 1850-1950: From Typewriters to Ticker Tape Machines." Indy Tech Publishing, 2009.
  • Interview with Jim Kemp, owner of Kemp‘s Antiques in Chicago, IL, conducted Feb 2023.