New to the Collection: A Desk with Secrets
April 25, 2023
The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently received this handsome nineteenth-century desk decorated with inlaid Masonic symbols as a generous gift to the collection. Masons are oath bound to keep specific information about Freemasonry, such as ritual, passwords, and recognition signs, to themselves, causing many observers to describe the organization as a secret society or as a society with secrets. This desk fits right in—it has secrets of its own.
Constructed, in part, of southern beech, this desk came to the museum with a history of having been used in Arkansas and, later, in Utica, New York. Who owned and used it is not known. With several drawers, multiple shelves, and a writing surface, this form of desk falls into the category of secretary or desk-secretary—a piece of furniture that meant business. Only people with a serious amount of papers, objects, and books to organize would need a desk like this one.
Six and a half feet tall at its highest point, the largest portion of this desk is a glass-fronted cabinet with shelves, enough to contain—and display—a small library of books. A cornice with an elaborate pediment tops the section with a glass door. The design of the cornice offers a nod to the Renaissance Revival style popular in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s. At the very center of the pediment is an inlaid square, compasses, and letter G—a combination of Masonic symbols found on lodge buildings, in lodge rooms, and on many objects related to the fraternity. The smaller connected cabinet has a solid door. When opened, it reveals pigeonholes, vertical shelves with curved dividers designed to house and organize tall ledgers, and small horizontal shelves with shaped dividers likely used to store correspondence, along with two small drawers, and several cubbies. The drawers could accommodate pocket-sized articles, such as pens, coins, currency, or valuable trinkets best kept under lock and key.
At the lower inside corner of the cabinet is a cubbyhole with an arch-shaped opening decorated with Masonic symbols—a checkered pavement, a keystone, stars, and a panoply formed of a square, plumb, and level. In Freemasonry, the square, plumb, and level together are the working tools of the second degree. They served to remind Masons of the value of equality and to act morally and fairly. Though it looks like integrated part of the desk, this decorated cubbyhole is actually a box that can be removed from the cabinet. Behind it, hidden to anyone who does not know the secret of how to access them, are two small drawers with ring pulls (the drawers are visible just behind the removed section). These tiny drawers are not protected by a lock, but their secret location in the desk would have helped keep their contents secure.
The upper portions of the desk rest on a slightly sloped writing surface. Now stained black, this surface may have, at one time, covered with felt or leather. Supporting the surface on one side is a column of four drawers, on the other side are two turned legs. The long single knee-hole drawer is fit with two levels of compartments divided to accommodate writing implements and small objects. At first glance, the lockable drawers with white knobs appear to be run-of-the-mill. They, in fact, offer several secret hiding places to stow documents and objects. Each of the four drawers at the side are shorter than the overall length of the desk. Behind each of them is a second drawer with a leather pull that lays flat. The bottom of the lower-most drawer in the column conceals a drawer accessible by pulling the back of the drawer up to reveal a wooden knob and a shallow hidden compartment perfect for concealing documents. Altogether, six different keys are needed to access the drawers and cabinets in this desk.
With so many secret compartments incorporated into its design, this beguiling desk offers more questions than answers. The most compelling of these questions may be, what important objects and papers did the original owner of the this desk want to keep secure or hidden? Though we may never know the answer to this question, the decoration, form, and function of this desk are clues that it was a tool used by someone who valued his association with Freemasonry who engaged in work that required he retain and organize different kinds of records and objects. This desk suggests that he had intriguing secrets to keep.
Details, Desk, 1860-1880. United States. Gift of Peter J. Samiec, 2022.037. Photograph by Michael Cardinali.