George III Figured Mahogany Architect's Table
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), author of the Declaration of Independence, Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, and third President of the United States (1801 to 1809), was one of the most remarkable Americans of his age. Not surprisingly, he was a prolific writer and extraordinary correspondent. Leading a public life that required extensive travel in both America and Europe, he owned several traveling or writing boxes, the most famous being the one on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence.1See Stein, 1156–59, for a thorough documentation of Jefferson’s traveling box. See Acc. No. 69.70 for another desk in the Collection with a history of ownership by Thomas Jefferson.
Small rectangular desks like this one were used not only when traveling but also at home as convenient writing surfaces. They usually had a locking mechanism and opened to reveal a slanted writing surface covered with green baize or leather. Small compartments stored inkwells, sanders, pens, quills, and other writing paraphernalia. Papers and stationery were kept in the small exterior drawer or beneath the hinged writing surfaces. Thomas Sheraton used the term “traveling box” for a very elaborate example that he illustrated in 1793; they were also known as writing boxes at the time.2Sheraton 1793, no. 21, pl. 1. “Traveling desk” and “lap desk” are 20th-century terms.
There is some ambiguity involving all the traveling boxes that Jefferson owned, but this example is possibly one of two that Jefferson bought from David Middleton of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1777.3Stein, 1159, n. 9. In May 1784, Jefferson noted in his memorandum book, “Pd. silversmith work on travellg. box 30/–.”4Ibid. This may refer to the engraved brass plaque with Jefferson’s initials that was added to the Collection’s desk. By the same year, Jefferson was experimenting with larger and more complicated traveling boxes that contained copying presses. He bought several examples, even designing one that held toilet articles and a few pieces of clothing.
Gilbert T. Vincent
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.