Secretary Story
Serving Austin & the Dallas Metroplex
Doris Younger, ASID, RID | TX Certified Interior Designer #2977

The Secretary Story

The tale behind the development of the secretary begins as all good stories with “Once upon a time”….

Once upon a time in old Europe and England, a chest was a major status symbol of the day. Only the wealthy could afford to travel, and because travel was so slow and sometimes dangerous, when one nobleman traveled to the distant home of another, he and his entourage of guards, servants and family would expect to be housed and fed for 6 months to a year or more before they began their arduous journey home.

There were no suitcases in those days so they packed their belongings into chests. The higher the rank of the nobleman, the fancier his or her chest would be. Some were encrusted with jewels, had wood inlays, mother of pearl, secret compartments and so on. The average guard, however, traveled with a very modest simple chest that could easily be fitted onto a wagon and transported. When they arrived at the home of their host, it was expected that the visiting family members would be provided a stand on which to set their chest so that it was at a useful height to use.

Only the rarest of men knew how to read and write. Therefore, a writing box with a sloping lid was devised to house parchment, quills and ink for correspondence. Talk about a status symbol! The appearance of a writing box told everyone immediately that this was a highly educated person. Again the host was expected to provide a stand for the portable writing box.

Rooms in the middle ages and on into the renaissance were multi purpose. A room could be used for dining at one point in the day, and as a conference room, courtroom, or bedroom at another time of day. But by the end of the 16th century, that was slowly beginning to change. Noblemen decided they wanted a bedroom that stayed a bedroom. They thought that it would be a good idea to permanently attach chests and writing boxes to their stands to make them more stable and over time that became the norm. Writing boxes also eventually became attached permanently to their stands. And, with needs for storage, some were attached to lower chests to house more writing supplies and records. With the advent of the printing press, books were owned more frequently and still highly prized possessions. So, shelves to store and show off books were eventually added above the writing box. From portable chests, to chests on permanent stands, to writing boxes stacked on chests and bookshelves stacked on top of writing boxes, the traditional secretary of today developed.

Just for Fun with Doris Younger Designs

The evolution of furniture from utilitarian to artful is often a key to the manners, mores and means of other times and places.  In that spirit and just for fun, here are “romance” stories about some of those pieces picked up over thirty five years of studying and practicing interior design.  Are they true? I don’t know for sure but if not, I’m sure at the very least they contain seeds of truth in the development of traditional furniture styles and, as I said, just for fun……. Read More fun stories here.