The Most Significant Art Desk in the United States

One of the most coveted historical remnants of the roots of the United States of America resides alternately at The Museum of American History and The Smithsonian Institute. It is a lap art table, or writing box, on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence work

In 1776, Jefferson commissioned Philadelphia’s most well-crafted cabinet maker, one Benjamin Randolph, to craft such an item. Randolph was active during the period of 1760-1790. Jefferson had lodged with Randolph in 1775, when he first arrived in Philadelphia, and then again when he returned in May of 1776. Although later in the year, in September, there are records of payments made to Benjamin Randolph for three art desks, there was no record in Jefferson’s memorandum books, unusual because Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper. Jefferson’s notes and blueprints for the art desk have not survived.

The lap piece was made of mahogany, per Jefferson’s specifications. The dimensions were 24.8 x 36.5 x 8.2 (9 3/4 x 14 3/8 x 3 1/4 in.), a sizeable art table. It is a rectangular piece, containing a drawer with separate compartments for keeping papers and the writing implements of the day. It has a hinged writing table attached to the upper surface of the rectangular box.

Jefferson eventually gave the box to Joseph Coolidge, whom had married one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge. He left an affidavit attached the writing desk. It stated that the lap art table was intended for both Joseph and Ellen. Partly in consolation to Ellen, whose entire belongings were lost in a shipwreck, from Virginia to Boston. Among her unsalvageable treasured items was her own precious writing table, made especially for her by John Hemings. Joseph Coolidge’s note of thanks to Thomas Jefferson is notable enough to be included here, as it acts as a sort of history note itself.

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