Although there is no actual scientific research to back this up, I submit that 1 in 5 houses in New England has a Governor Winthrop desk in some form. We have one that has been through 3 generations in our family: my grandmother used it first with it’s factory finish, my mother painted it white and I used it, I stripped off the white paint and restored the mahogany and my daughter uses it. And we’ve all loved it.
Why the Winthrop Desk is a Classic
What’s not to love, this desk packs a lot of function in a tiny footprint. Drawers underneath for storage, a fold down desk with a pigeonhole organizer. Some have the glass fronted shelves on the top for safely displaying pretties. A lot of usefulness, not a lot of space.
Winthrop Desk History
John Winthrop was one of the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the colonists responsible for Boston and other settlements in the area. Winthrop served as governor of the fledgling colony for a goodly number of years in the first half of the 1600s; influential then, remembered now in the North Shore town that bears his name. His name also lives on for much beloved slant top desk, but not because he designed one or was presented with one or used one. According to antiques experts Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson, the desk was named after him by the Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston in 1924, nearly about 275 years after his passing.
Kovel’s dates this desk style, which is also called a slant-top, drop front, fall front or secretary desk, back to the 18th century, usually with American Queen Anne or Chippendale design. In the Colonial Revival period of the early 1900s, reproductions were also made by the Maddox Table Co. of Jamestown, NY, according to Anne McCollom writing for creators.com. By the 1930s, the Winthrop desk was an official decor trend, made by furniture companies from coast to coast. Most of these pieces will have a makers stamp, label or tag on the side of the top drawer.
The desk comes in a variety of forms: with the straight block front or serpentine ox bow front on the drawers; with the cabinet or bookcase on top and without it; and with Queen Anne or Chippendale legs and escutcheons.
Although the antique old desks still command substantial sums, the reproductions from the 1920s, not so much. Although this disappoints must sellers, the retail value in New England is somewhere between $50 and a few hundred depending on style and condition.
The Winthrop Desk Today
These desks continue to add form and function to homes. True antiques by known makers are prized by collectors. The hidden gem antique old desks are out there, though. Antique secretary desks that have fallen into disrepair should be professionally restored–an amateur job can destroy the value of the piece.
As for the newer 1920s-1930s pieces made for the commercial furniture market, while they have style and grace, the sheer number of them that were produced mean you can choose to restore as a DIY project or paint without too much guilt. These pieces have lived long useful lives and often need TLC for their finishes. Veneered pieces might have loose or missing pieces (hey, if your glue was nearly 100 years old, you’d need repairs too). Pieces may be sun faded on one side from decades of standing next to a window. Or, if they were painted back in the 1960s or 1970s, the paint might be shabby and not in a good way, so it’s time to strip off the paint and refinish the wood.
Modern inspirations abound…