In Focus

Desk and bookcase [1985.B.27.A-B], 18th century, Salem (1997 DMA Guide to the Collection essay)

The design and construction of this desk and bookcase are firmly rooted in English cabinetmaking practices. By the second quarter of the 18th century, craftsmen from London had introduced the important characteristics of the design: a slant-lid desk topped by a bookcase with paneled doors, an arched, broken pediment, ball-and-claw feet, and Greco-Roman architectural details such as Corinthian pilasters. Such desks and bookcases were unusual in the colonies and were extremely expensive. They served mercantile elites as organizational centers and symbols of power.

Col. Joseph Sprague (1739 - 1808), one of Salem's most prominent merchants, probably owned this desk. Important papers and account books from his distillery, import-export business, and two farms could be kept under lock and key in a variety of compartments behind the paneled bookcase doors and the slant lid. Sprague left an estate valued at $86,925.69 at his death in 1808, a tremendous sum at the time. This piece is probably the "Book Case" noted in the inventory of his "mansion house." Valued at $31.00, it was the most costly piece of furniture in his home.

Excerpt from

Douglas Hawes, "Desk and bookcase," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 214.