This article by Ray spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 17, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
While most boys in Dime Box back in the 1940’s dreamed of having a bicycle someday (and a few wanted their own horse), I wanted a desk. I finally got half a desk when I went into the ninth grade. During our freshman year in high school my parents ordered my twin brother and me “a” desk from Sears and Roebuck and gave it to us for Christmas. I suppose in my mother’s scatterbrain reasoning, she decided that twins could share a desk, and, of course, money was scarce in those days.
The problem was I loved books, school work and studying (yes, people thought I was weird), and I thought having my own desk would be the ultimate joy of life. My twin, on the other hand, would have much preferred a bicycle, a horse, a basketball goal, a baseball diamond, and a hundred other things; but, like me, he got half a desk for Christmas. It’s almost like getting half a bicycle.
A joint-ownership desk soon became a very problematic issue. When I wanted to work at “our” desk, which was most of the time, my brother would decide he wanted to. When my twin wanted to work at the desk, I needed it (and I needed it all of the time). The only thing that saved me from complete despair was the call he often received from the outdoors and the lure of back-lot baseball games. But it was never completely my desk. Unless you’re the scholarly type, you probably wouldn’t understand.
When I went off to college, I couldn’t afford to stay in a dorm, and the rooming house where I stayed didn’t offer me anything but a bed. Eventually two friends and I moved into a ramshackle apartment which did not have such amenities as desks, and I attempted to make my dream for a personal desk come true by building myself a desk out of apple boxes. At least it was a desk and it was mine alone, -- no joint ownership like the one at home. My apple-box desk served me OK, if not well, until I graduated from college.
My dream came to be, not for just any kind of desk, but for a roll-top desk. Don’t ask me why, -- it was just a scholar’s dream; however, I never saw any kind of nice desk I didn’t like.
The first use of desks is probably traced back to the early days of the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, when monks used slanted tables on which to meticulously copy pages of the Bible by hand. Very few people could read and write at that time, and so outside the monastery or the classroom, there was little use for a desk.
When the printing press was invented during the time of the Reformation, the world probably needed fewer desks rather than more, since no one had to copy manuscripts anymore. By the 17th Century, personal desks at home became very popular as literacy became more widespread, so naturally the desk became an item of fashionable furniture.
My love of and yearning for a roll-top desk had nothing to do with fashionable furniture. As a young adult, when I worked for the State Health Department in Austin, it seems that most of the offices in the Health Department had roll tops; and I associated the roll top with being studious (though the lucubration in the TSHD was recording test tubes, vials, syringes, etc., and their cost), -- not really intellectual pursuit.
Jacob Alles from Jasper, Indiana, is considered the father of the roll top desk, which he invented in the 1870’s. When he was about 20 years old, he traveled to Austin, Texas, at the time they were building the State Capitol, and he advertised his wares, including the roll top, to the politicians there. I don’t know this as a fact, but I would guess that the first desks in our new Capitol building were Jacob’s roll tops. I’m sure I’m letting my imagination get away from me by believing those old roll tops in the State Health Department were made by Jacob Alles.
It wasn’t until I was married and bought a house in East Bernard that I bought my first desk, -- yes, a roll top! I went to B & K Furniture and had them order me the cheapest roll top desk they could find, and I’ve had it ever since, the noise it made opening and closing it annoying my family.
That was only the beginning of the dream come true. When my father-in-law sold his house and had an estate sale, he owned two desks; we got both of them. The roll top was in our bedroom; one desk was in the office off the kitchen; one went into storage until we built a sun porch onto the back of the house and it found a home.
Then my wife’s aunt died, and we inherited three more desks. Her aunt had one desk (which she never used) in her kitchen (who knows why), another desk, which she never used, in her bedroom, and a third desk, which she never used, in her guest bedroom. I was overjoyed, because not only did I have a roll top, but we were rolling in desks! We owned six desks! By then we had a studio, so we switched the desks around, put one in the studio, one in the little office off the kitchen, left one on the sun porch, left the roll top in the bedroom, and put the other two in storage. No, no, I would never sell a desk, even if I had to keep a dozen in storage. Like books, scholarly people don’t sell desks! Ever!
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.