Ladies, take your pick. Writing desks, worktables, dressing tables, and even a writing fire screen. All made just for you. Some pieces can even multitask.
Starting in the 18th century, task-specific furniture—some made especially for women—appeared increasingly on the market. Why? First, the Industrial Revolution led to more profitable production methods, such as machine manufacturing, in England, France, and the United States. Economic growth followed, which meant that more and more people—including a burgeoning bourgeoisie—had the means to purchase a wider selection of fine home furnishings and other items. Enterprising makers, designers, and manufacturers seized the moment to produce a varied array of goods and novelties to tempt eager consumers, many of whom were women. While the “domestic sphere” encouraged them to become purchasers of task-specific furniture forms related to their duties in the home, advances in female education helped drive a demand for objects such as ladies’ writing desks.
A ladies’ writing fire-screen desk—which combines the functions of fire screen and fall-front desk—was given to Bartow-Pell in 2012 by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld. The piece dates to about 1837–42 and is attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Sons (or Duncan Phyfe & Son). In 1837, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) made two of his sons his business partners—James D. and William. After William left the firm for other opportunities in 1841, James remained as his father’s sole partner.
BPMM’s mahogany writing fire screen is similar to a documented piece that was made by D. Phyfe & Son and listed on a bill of lading dated June 2, 1841, for goods delivered to John L. Manning (1816–1889) in what is now Sumter County, South Carolina. At this time, he and his wife, Susan Hampton Manning (1816–1845), were in the midst of buying furnishings for their newly built home, Millford Plantation, a Greek Revival house that now belongs to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. (Although the Manning writing fire screen is now in a private collection, the Trust has purchased an identical example for Millford.) In 2012, Susan Manning’s writing fire screen was on view in Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which was co-curated by Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown. Mrs. Manning’s writing fire screen was part of a large shipment of furniture sent from D. Phyfe & Son in New York to her husband’s agent in Charleston. Many of these pieces were made in the so-called Grecian Plain style popularized by Phyfe, which featured architectonic forms, restrained classical elements, and figured veneers. The Manning writing fire screen and the one that was given to Bartow-Pell are both made in this plain style. The use of decorative fabric panels—seen on both of these pieces—was a common feature of fire screens.
An early reference to a writing fire screen is found in The Cabinet-Makers London Book of Prices (1788), which lists two versions, one for a gentleman and one for a lady. The description of the latter reads: “A lady’s writing fire screen, all solid, the corners beaded, the inside fitted up for ink, sand, and wafers [for sealing letters], and a hollow for pens [quills], with 2 sliders [stacked dividers] for paper, no doors below.” Veneer and inlays (crossbanding and stringing) cost extra.
A few years later, in 1793, Thomas Sheraton included a design for a screen-table in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book. “This table is intended for a lady to write or work at near the fire; the screen part behind securing her face from its injuries.” Carswell Rush Berlin, decorative arts expert and BPMM Curatorial Committee chair, has identified the inspiration for Bartow-Pell’s writing fire screen as an écran-pupitre (screen-desk) in Pierre de La Mésangère’s Meubles et Objets de Goût, published in 1831.
These desks are not very deep because they also function as fire screens, but the hinged fall-front provides a generous writing surface, and tiered compartments in the interior space behind it offer storage for desk supplies and papers. “Let us, therefore, open the writing-desk, and examine its contents,” writes Thomas Griffiths in The Writing-Desk and Its Contents (London, 1844). “First there are two glasses, the one full of ink, the other full of pounce; here is a bundle of quill pens; here are some steel pens, several quires of writing paper, a few sheets of blotting paper; here, again, are sticks of red and black sealing wax, and plenty of wafers; here a penknife, a hone, a strop, a paper knife, a wafer stamp, a pen wiper, a round ruler, a black lead pencil, a piece of India-rubber, a box of lucifers [matches], and a white wax taper.” In 1836, Godey’s reported: “It appears to us that much benefit has been produced by the inventors and professors of the new modes of forming the hand-writing, for the letters of almost every lady of these days are neat, elegant and legible.”
A writing desk—from a small lap desk to a full-sized piece of furniture—was often highly personal. This is where private letters, valuables, and other items could be kept under lock and key. “The day before yesterday, accidentally hunting about in her bed-chamber for a letter I had mislaid, I found that the key of my bureau equally fitted her writing-desk; I mechanically opened it, and in a private drawer found several of Le Pelletier’s letters,” confided a husband to his doctor in “The Consultation,” an 1840 short story in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance. “The devil you did,” his interlocutor replied, “but permit me to ask how you came to pry about your wife’s writing-desk? eh!” Although the desk in this story from a women’s magazine is likely a portable writing slope with a secret drawer—unlike Bartow-Pell’s writing fire-screen desk—the idea of the personal nature of a lady’s writing desk applies to both.
Bartow-Pell’s ladies’ writing fire screen—one of several objects in our collection made for women’s activities—is a useful and elegant example of furniture designed for more than one function. In addition, it was made at a date when Maria Lorillard Bartow would have been selecting furnishings for the family’s new mansion, which was completed in 1842. Perhaps, like the Mannings, she even shopped at D. Phyfe & Son.
Margaret Highland, Historian