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What is a Secretary Desk?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A secretary desk is a type of furniture more often found in homes than offices, despite the name. The basic design of the compact, but tall, secretary desk consists of a set of drawers topped by a fold-out desk, with a set of shelves or a hutch perched on top. The essential design is quite old; intact antique examples from at least the 1500s suggest that the desk was widely used at that time, and possibly before. Modern offices tend to use a differently styled desk design with more room to spread out and slightly less private storage, but many people keep a secretary desk at home to use as a small workplace or as a family organizing area.

The base of a secretary desk is a sturdy set of large, flat drawers. On top of the drawers, a hutch with shelving, usually enclosed, is installed, with an area underneath the hutch for small nooks and other storage areas located in the back of the desk. A folding section encloses the open area underneath the hutch when not in use, and flops out to create a desk space when it is needed, usually supported with wooden runners underneath it to keep it steady. A variation on the secretary desk uses a roll top mechanism to secure the desk space, and generally does not include a fold out section.

The footprint of a secretary desk is relatively small, because the base of the desk is not as wide as the potential available workspace. However, the desk is quite tall to accommodate all of its features. The folding nature of a secretary desk means that it cannot be used to spread out long-term projects, but does make it easy to secure information by locking the folding desk area, drawers, and or hutch. A secretary desk also provides ample organizing space in a variety of different formats, so the user can store flat files, books, miscellaneous documents, and small, oddly shaped items.

In a modern office, a secretary desk is not terribly practical, but when one considers the original function of a secretary, it starts to make sense. Traditionally, secretaries managed correspondence and sensitive documents; a secretary desk is ideally suited for filing and arranging correspondence, as well as securing works in progress. The folding desk area readily fits letter paper and writing utensils, which can be tidied away when the work is done. When the secretary's services were not needed, the desk would not take up excessive space in the office environment, and would look neat and orderly, as well.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Aug 04, 2014

I have a very elegant, blue, wood secretary desk in my home. I don't really use it to do work. It's very narrow and small and there isn't much space to write or place a computer. But that's fine because I use it to store various things in it like small notebooks, paper, letterheads, markers and pens. It's also like a decorative piece, it adds a different energy and look to the room. I keep a small vase with fresh flowers on top. I feel so happy and positive when I see it.

By burcinc — On Aug 04, 2014

@ddljohn-- You might not like secretary desks and might find it old fashioned. But many people like them and still use them.

And don't think that everyone uses a secretary desk that looks like i was made in the 1500s or 1600s. There are many modern variations now that look modern and yet maintain the same structure and usefulness of the original secretary desk.

I have a white one in my home office that I use daily and I love it. The best part is that it doesn't take up much space as the article said and I can easily store away my computer and documents when I have guests over. So when walks into that room, it doesn't really look like an office. I love the multi-functionality of this desk and plan on using it for years to come.

By ddljohn — On Aug 03, 2014

Does anyone use a secretary desk nowadays? It's such an old style! When I see one, I feel like I'm in antique store which is where most seem to be stored.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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