In Focus

Fall-front Secretary, 19th century [Charles Venable catalogue essay]

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

In the early 19th century this type of fall-front secretary was often called a secrétaire à abattant or French secretary. This sort of desk achieved its mature form in the work of Jean Francois Oeben (ca. 1721-1763), a German immigrant cabinetmaker working in Paris. Spreading outward from Paris, the fall-front desk soon became a major furniture form on the Continent, although it never was popular in England. During the first half of the 19th century, such desks were especially favored in those areas dominated by Biedermeier design, namely Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia. When it came time for journeymen in these areas to design and build a piece of furniture for their guild examinations, they almost invariably chose a fall-front secretary.

This type of desk was of central importance among middle-class furnishings in 19th-century Germany. It not only served to bring order to the writing affairs of an individual, but acted as an intersection between the outside world and the characteristically introverted Germanic family of the period. It is this intimate relationship between the German middle class and this particular furniture form that Theodore Fontane describes in My Youth (1893). Remembering how as a child he watched his father at his fall-front secretary, Fontane says:

He liked to sit at this his secretary, and to a greater or lesser degree was fond of every compartment and drawer thereof. He enjoyed an especially intimate relationship with a secret compartment hidden behind a small columned temple, into

which he deposited his money when circumstances allowed him to do so. If conditions were adverse, however, and the box was empty, it did not cease being an object of his almost caressing contemplation. He would remove the temple, and,

peeping inside with a certain humorous seriousness, would begin one of his speeches. I was often present at such a time. "You see, my son, I cannot gaze into this dark emptiness without emotion. Only a few days ago I calculated how much

money used to be there. It came to a large amount, and there was something comforting about that." Everything he said,

although he laughed about it, was meant to be taken quite seriously; he really comforted himself with the idea of what all

had been there at some time or another. This Gascon trait in him always broke through.

Since the fall-front desk was not popular in England, its appearance in Philadelphia must have been the result of continental influence. Some examples of continental secretaries, such as a German one owned by the wealthy merchant, Stephen Girard, were imported into Philadelphia in the 1810s. Furthermore, the furniture designs which German craftsmen (and perhaps French ones as well) brought with them to America were generally dominated by this particular furniture form.

Once in Philadelphia, the concept of the fall-front secretary found wide acceptance among the upper class, even though it never displaced the secretary-bookcase in popularity. Besides Girard, the Gratz, Kihn, and Gilpin families are known to have owned examples before 1830. The form was produced often enough to warrant inclusion in The Philadelphia Cabinet and Chair Makers' Union Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet Ware (1828). According to this price book, a basic example cost $22 to build, exclusive of materials.

The survival of more than a dozen early examples further attests to the form's acceptance in Philadelphia. Although other American cities, such as Boston, also produced this type of desk, the form does not seem to have been as popular there in comparison to Philadelphia, nor does its production in other cities exhibit the wide stylistic variations seen in Philadelphia. Most Boston desks, for example, are very French in orientation.

Although the surviving Philadelphia examples are inherently similar in some respects, the degree of diversity within this group is striking. Several of the desks, for example, are extremely French in character. In these the classical elements of columns, capitals, bases, and arches function in an architectural manner. The emphasis is on unity of design, classical proportions, and restraint. Extending from the feet to the cornice, the columns on these French-inspired desks frame the front facade and visually support their marble top. The placement of ormolu mounts further unifies their composition, those at top being echoed below.

Unlike such French-inspired examples, this fall-front secretary is based on Germanic prototypes. At present, six other desks from the same unidentified Philadelphia shop which produced this example are known. All of these pieces reflect a Germanic predilection for imaginative design in which the facade is an amalgamation of parts, not a unified whole.

Here, for example, the columns do not extend the length of the piece as in a typical French example, but rather stop half-way, changing into pilasters in the lower section. The upper and lower halves are further differentiated by the orientation of the doors—the central fall being horizontal, those below vertical. Both the use of contrasting burl-veneers inset at various places on the facade and the emphatic horizontal banding at top, middle, and bottom further fragment the facade.

Beyond this lack of unity, the desk's relationship to German aesthetics is further suggested by at least three other features. First, the Germanic predilection for imaginatively placing an architectural structure atop a secretary is present. As is evident from both surviving German examples and pattern books, the placement of such structures on a sloping base was common in central Europe. Another major German trait is the frequent use of light burl-veneers contrasted on both interior and exterior surfaces as here. A preference for light-wood furniture was especially prevalent in northern Germany and Scandinavia.

Finally, the construction of this desk and the four others relates to German examples. Exactly alike in basic drawer, carcass, back, and interior construction, and in proportions, these desks must have come from the same unidentified shop. The way in which the backs are paneled, using a single spine down the middle without top or bottom framing members, is characteristic of central European work. This particular technique, while not the only one used in Germany, was the dominant mode there.

Excerpted from:

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 100-103.