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.