Yes, these early "desks" could be employed to prop a book up for reading or the surface used for writing, but it was soon evident that there was room for improvement as the hinges were at the top. Getting something out of the desk, like a fresh bottle of ink, would require moving everything off the work surface and this could indeed be cumbersome. That’s how slant-front and drop-front desks happened to merge.
The Merging of Fall-Fronts with Slant-Front Styles
It’s believed that the first fall- or drop-front desks were developed in Spain during the 16th century, and they were produced widely in France thereafter. These had flat panels in the front that folded up vertically and most were held level by a pair of chains when open. American versions of this type of desk most often had slanted tops, as did those made in England.
What both types have in common is that the panels hinge at the bottom and a storage area behind them holds a series of shelves, cubbies and drawers used for storage and organization. These proved to be much easier to use than top-hinged desks.
One point of confusion comes in when reading old catalogs or materials referring to slant-front desks as fall-fronts. It's supposed that this was done at the time to distinguish them from the old style top-hinged desks.
Variations of the Slant-Front Desk
There are many desks in various styles that incorporate the slanted front to conceal a space for organizing writing materials and provide a work surface when the panel is down. William and Mary examples are some of the earliest made in America, and these usually have drawers beneath the slanted front cover.
Queen Anne desks are perhaps one of the most commonly found slant-front styles. Some small versions sit atop a frame with shallow drawers on long cabriole legs. These were made throughout the 1700s well into the 1800s, and have been "revived" many times over.
Other Queen Anne examples may have short "bandy" cabriole legs or bracket feet on a base more like a chest of drawers. These were made throughout the 1700s. Chippendale examples can look similar at first glance, but usually have more flourish to the woodwork with the addition of more elaborate shell carvings and embellished bracket or ball and claw feet. Similar desks with regional variations were made throughout New England including Newport, R.I., Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
As with most period furniture, styles carried over from decade to decade and slant-fronts can be found that combine not only Queen Anne and Chippendale characteristics, but Hepplewhite as well. As Obbard mentions in his book, “Hepplewhite slant-front desks with French feet were made everywhere, testimony to the enduring popularity of the slant-front, even when not in the latest fashion.”
Is a Secretary a Slant-Front Desk?
The secretary, or secretary-bookcase as it's sometimes referenced in the United States, was made with a slanted front panel in the 1700s. The bottom-hinged panels used in these all-in-one units conceal the cubby areas and provide writing surfaces in the same manner as desks, so they are usually lumped into the same family. A secretary also has a top bookcase section enclosed in wood paneled or glass paned doors. Several drawers are usually present under the fold-down desk area.
Some early secretaries made in the William and Mary style had a large fall-front, or vertical, panel. Later versions were made with slanted fronts, especially those with Chippendale flair. Plain versions were made everywhere, according to Obbard, and these are more plentiful today than the fancier secretaries made during the same period. High end examples like mahogany Boston block-fronts with bonnet tops or molded swan’s neck cresting were also available in the late 1700s, and these fine pieces are rare, costly finds today when recognized appropriately.
Around 1800, fall-front drawers (like those used in a butler’s desk) became more popular with those procuring secretaries for use in American homes. However, the Colonial style slant-front secretary has seen many revivals over time and is still being made today.