When closed, this portable desk looks like a plain compact box or trunk. Open, this desk transforms into a mini office. Important papers, small books and writing materials could be stowed within it. This desk was designed for easy transport. Its edges were bound with brass to protect the desk from damage when it was moved and the maker installed small brass handles so it could be easily lifted.
When fully unfolded, this desk features a velvet-covered writing surface, silk-covered folders for organizing papers and special compartments for pens, ink bottles and sand containers. As well, the craftsman who made the desk secreted three small drawers (see the image below, at left) within the largest compartment under the writing surface. A removable piece of trim (see the image below, at right) held in place by a hidden brass catch, covers the drawer-fronts. Opening the larger compartment required a key, so the small drawers could only be accessed by someone who knew where they were and had the key.
Who would have needed this tiny, transportable office? Probably someone whose work required travel, making records and keeping track of information, such as a ship’s officer. This desk’s original owner left a clue to his identity, a penciled inscription under the writing surface reading: “Geo. E. Lane, Canton China, Mar 1854.” Research suggests that George Edward Lane (1822-1891) may have purchased this portable desk in China. Born in Boston and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Lane worked as a merchant, captain and agent and, at his death, was described as a “successful and enterprising navigator.” For a portion of his career he was employed by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. He commanded vessels that sailed from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan, and Hong Kong. Working and traveling in Asia, Lane would have had the opportunity to purchase a desk made in Canton. He also may have found this handsome traveling desk useful in his work.
Jacob Chapman and James Hill Fitts, Lane Genealogies, Vol. III, Exeter, N.H. : News-Letter Press, 1902, 362-363.