Roll-top desks came into existence in the United States during the latter part of the 19th century. Each desk featured a rolling door that slid up and down to reveal or conceal built-in pigeonholes, shelves and a flat writing surface. The exterior facade of a roll-top desk as well as its construction can provide visual clues as to its age. Trustworthy resources can help confirm your age calculations.
Inspect the Wood
Take a good look at the type of wood the roll-top desk is made of to help you determine its age. The early roll-top desks were typically constructed from cherry, mahogany or black walnut, while oak was often used after 1900. Mahogany is strong and dense because it lacks knots and holes in the grain of the wood, while cherry has a distinctive reddish appearance. Solid black walnut has a natural dark brown hue with attractive grains. Oak is easy to distinguish from mahogany, cherry or black walnut due to its golden-toned lighter hue.
Examine the Joints
Remove a drawer from the roll-top desk to see how it was put together. A dovetail joint resembles the triangle shape of a bird's tail and holds the boards together with cutouts in the wood that fit together snugly. Unlike the earliest dovetail joints, which were irregular because they were cut by hand, the machine-cut dovetail joints were precisely created by machines for a refined look. Look closely for irregular saw cuts or a rough appearance, indicating the desk was likely one of first roll-top desks and built prior to 1890. A precise and identical machine joint reveals a mass-produced desk, probably constructed a few years before to around the turn of the 19th century and later.
Study the Clues
Check the desk for original locks stamped with a turn-of-the-century manufacturer's name, such as Derby Desk Company, Schlicht Area Company, Shannon File Company or Cutler Desk Company. You might also find the name of the manufacturer underneath the desk, which could even include the date the piece was manufactured. Newer roll-top desks or pieces manufactured to mimic authentic antiques typically have no manufacturer or date markings. Roll-top desks that have been in use for over a century have obvious signs of wear-and-tear, such as bumps, scratches, nicks and patina discoloration. However, reproductions are often artificially distressed to appear older than they really are. Examine a distressed desk for repetitive or intentional distressing patterns, which are good indications the piece is not a genuine antique.
Look to Professional Resources
Use credible resources to help you reveal the actual age of a roll-top desk. For example, certified appraisers, antique dealers and furniture experts are viable resources to help you establish or validate an age for your piece. If you purchase an antique desk from an estate sale or an individual, inquire about its history from family members or the estate sale company. Antique furniture guides, books and magazines can also provide a wealth of valuable information and pictures to help you pinpoint the age of your roll-top desk.
- Burrell's Antique Desks: Advice on Choosing and Buying an Antique Desk
- Harp Gallery: Dovetails -- A Clue for Dating Antiques
- Antique Desks: Our Guide to Buying an Antique Desk
- Early Office Museum: Antique Office Desks
- Chicago Tribune News: Popularity of Roll-top Desk Dates to 1890s
- Carter's Price Guide to Antiques: Roll-Top Desks
- Desks of Distinction: The Roll-Top Desk
- Semler Appraisals and Estate Liquidations: Dating Furniture
- Museum Furniture: Wood Species in Furniture
- Ebay: Your Guide to Buying Antique Writing Desks and Secretaries
Mary Cockrill's education and certifications in interior design and home staging have allowed her to author numerous home-related articles. Cockrill has been a top design consultant for a renowned home store and is the owner of Starwood Home & Gifts, LLC, an interior design, decorating and home staging business. She holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education with a comprehensive major in office administration.