Welcome to our Revolving Desk

<a href="https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/author/jim-mcclure/" target="_self">Jim McClure</a> | August 28, 2023

Welcome to our Revolving Desk.

A hand drawn manuscript image of a desk plan, with handwritten text describing the size.

Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia.

We’ve borrowed that name from a manuscript in Jefferson’s papers at the University of Virginia. On a single page about the size of a large index card — four and a half inches by six inches — Jefferson drew and described a small piece of furniture. He put no date or title on the document, which sometime in its long life became damaged. Although he wrote the description in English, he gave the dimensions for the piece in pouces and lignes, traditional French units of measure, which may suggest that the design has some association with his residence in France in the 1780s.

In its basic design the item was a box on a pivot. The inside of the cabinet would be divided by a shelf and could be accessed by drop-down doors at each end. This arrangement provided multiple compartments, any one of which could be accessed by a quick swivel of the little cabinet. Jefferson may have intended the piece as a storage container to organize and give ready availability to his correspondence files. It has generally been referred to as a revolving desk, perhaps because he described the drop-down flaps as similar to the lid on a “common Secretaire.” It did not sit high enough above the floor to serve as a desk, however, and on its top was an adjustable stand to prop up a book or document, not a writing surface. Judging by its features, this was a specialized filing cabinet. (For Monticello’s modern construction of the furniture piece from Jefferson’s design, see https://www.monticello.org/exhibits-events/livestreams-videos-and-podcasts/lost-revolving-desk-sv/)

“Revolving Desk” is nevertheless a suitable title for this page of our website. Here in our version of a swiveling cupboard, we will offer an occasional series of brief essays by a rotating slate of authors from our project. Our goal is to provide vignettes to illuminate subjects we encounter in our work. This is our opportunity to say a little more about bits that have caught our interest and, we hope, will catch yours.

A Place to Lay Their Heads: Housing in Early Washington City

When the seat of government officially moved to the banks of the Potomac in late 1800, those who traveled with it found little trade, few roads to regulate, and empty lots. When members of the second session of the Sixth Congress began filtering into Washington, it immediately became clear that finding a place to lay their heads would not be easy in this village capital.

|March 2024

Postal Dreams Deferred

In 1806, Jefferson received an atypical request for pardon. The case draws interest for a recently passed law that the defendants had unknowingly violated: they had employed Black mail carriers on the postal route they managed, which connected New York and Philadelphia.

|January 2024

Screen capture of the Jefferson weather records home page, featuring Thomas Doughty landscape, the Delaware Water Gap, 1827

The Jefferson Weather and Climate Records

The history of Earth’s weather (conditions at a particular place and time) and climate (long term weather patterns and regional environments) is the basis of understanding modern climate trends and weather patterns. Evidence of past weather is found in fossils, ice...

|October 2023