When the panel is up, it conceals a network of small doors, cubbies, shelves and/or drawers used for organizing documents, and storing writing implements and paper. The difference is that a fall- front is completely vertical and usually requires some type of locking mechanism to keep it shut and secure. A secretary incorporates a slant-front desktop that uses its own weight to keep it closed, and may or may not have a lock for extra security.
At least that’s how they were defined back in the day. Since the 1800s slant-front desks have been referenced off and on as fall- or drop-fronts as well, because they both open with the same type of hinged mechanism at the bottom. Early American Furniture by John Obbard (now out of print but still available through online booksellers) asserts that this change probably occurred to distinguish between these and older styles that actually hinged at the top.
Origin and Development of the Fall-Front Desk
Older top-hinged desks (think of an old school desk as an example of this style) were found to be cumbersome for home and business use. If everything wasn’t removed from the top of the desk prior to lifting the lid, the user risked their precious letters and paperwork spilling to the floor. So, the fall-front, borne out of necessity, has remained a staple in global cabinetry for centuries now.
The first fall-front desks were made in Spain during the 16th century. This ancestor of more recent versions was called a vargueño, which included a fitted desk mounted atop a carved stand of sorts or another piece of furniture similar to a chest. These could be very ornate in their embellishment using gilding, bone and even wrought iron, although some were fairly primitive and simple in their construction and closure mechanism.
Fancy French versions of the fall-front desk were made during the late 1700s, referenced as the Secrétaire à Abattant (French for "writing desk with flap"). These have the same type of vertical fold-down writing platforms with storage areas hidden behind them. The façade of these pieces can be very fancy and may include elements such as caryatids, gilt mounts and lacquered finishes. A number of examples of this desk style can be viewed in the online archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In the late 1700s, English cabinetmakers introduced a type of desk that developed into what was known in America as a butler’s desk, according to Obbard. The butler's desk looks much like a chest of drawers with the top drawer face usually being deeper than those below it. But when opened in the vertical fall-front manner, that "drawer" actually conceals the makings of a desk. Some versions made in New England employed tambour doors as concealing mechanisms.
A similar type of desk made during the same time frame is often referred to as an escritoire, which is the French term for "writing desk". These small case desks have a drop fronts in the form of a slanted top over drawers as opposed to the vertical drop front used on the butler's desk.
Periods Associated with the Fall-Front Desk
Fall-front desks were made through many furniture periods and can include Federal, Empire and Classical Revival influences. There are Shaker versions of these pieces known as cupboard desks. Gustav Stickley also offered variations of the fall-front desk in his early 20th century furniture catalogs.
Desks with fall- or drop-fronts remain an excellent choice for small rooms where a writing surface comes in handy but making space for a table or full-sized desk isn’t an option. This style has been crafted almost continually since its inception, although waxing and waning in popularity here and there, and it is still being manufactured by modern furniture companies.