Tolman Catalogue: 654. Desk. Walden. (Tolman, p. 43)
Inventory Description: Desk. Eastern white pine, painted green. The sides are formed of four boards butted at the corners nailed to 1 1/2 in. square untapered legs; the nails protrude through the legs and are cut off on the inside. The top is a 4 in. board nailed to the sides and back; the lid is hinged to this board with two three-part hinges mortised in. A 1 1/2 x 1/4 in. gallery is nailed to the edge of the top board. A lock is mortised into the front board and the hasp is mortised into the underside of the lid. The bottom board is notched at the four corners and secured with nails through the front, back, and sides; the notches are scribed in pencil. The desk is painted green, including the back. All the nail heads were countersunk and filled before the paint was applied. The proper side and back of the gallery are lost, and there is a split in the bottom board. There are profuse ink splatters on the underside toward the front. See also key to desk (Th10a).
The desk is at once one of the humblest and most historically significant objects in the Concord Museum collection. A straightforward example of early nineteenth-century office furniture, this desk was a participant in Henry D. Thoreau’s epic utopian experiment at Walden Pond during the years 1845-47. This desk probably sold for about $2 when new. The ten feet or so of pine boards needed to make it would have been the most expensive component of this desk, costing perhaps two or three cents a foot. The hinges and lock may have added another five or ten cents, plus a few cents for the paint. The construction of the desk is very simple, consisting basically of boards nailed to the legs. The hinge and lock mortises, the shaping of the gallery, the infilling of the nail holes, and painting would have taken a little extra time. Carpenter Rufus Hosmer valued his time at about $1.50 a day in 1836 and probably could have made a desk like this in less than two hours, especially if he were making a batch of them.
Thoreau described his furnishings in the first chapter of “Walden,” noting that it consisted of a “bed, a table, a desk; three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned tray.” The bed and one chair, a Windsor rocker probably made in Worcester County, Massachusetts, about 1820, also survive in the Concord Museum collection. All three pieces ended up in the Thoreau family house on Main Street in Concord and were given to either Cummings Davis or George Tolman by Thoreau’s sister, Sophia, about 1873 when she left Concord.
The pencil inscription probably indicates when and why he acquired the desk. The inscription reads, “Summer of 1838”; that year, Thoreau formed a school with his brother John (1815-1842). The possibility that this desk was used in the school is also supported by a comment from Frank Sanborn, who, in describing John and Henry Thoreau’s Concord Academy, wrote: “There every green desk was soon filled with pupils…” The teaching venture did not outlast John’s death in 1842, and event that grieved his brother deeply. One of Thoreau’s reasons for going to Walden Pond was to write, presumably on this desk, his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” describing a boating trip he and John had taken in 1839. The two other works Thoreau drafted at Walden, “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” are counted among the most of all American essays and give this desk, by association, a singular distinction. Thoreau kept the desk with him when he left Walden in 1847 to live for a while with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family while Emerson himself was in England; Thoreau wrote to his host that fall from his “green desk, in the chamber at the head of the stairs.”