Secrets of a Museum Secretary

On May 9th, Bob Lang and I headed south to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for a quick visit to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and Old Salem. The purpose for our trip was to collect information and images for a Popular Woodworking Magazine project coming later in the year.

What a great visit. Everyone connected with the museum and village is as gracious as can be. MESDA’s doors are standing wide open and inviting, and the museum has a killer research area. Old Salem is chocked full of original-to-the-site period buildings with costumed interpreters to guide tours, field questions and provide an historical account of life in a Moravian village. If you’re a furniture junkie like Bob and I, go to these places. I know you’ll thank me when you get home.

Part of our information gathering was a personal guided tour of the museum and village. In the museum, we encountered a fantastic secretary that knocked me off my feet for a couple reasons. First, take a look at the wood. It’s listed as walnut – that’s some of the best looking figured walnut ever found south of the Mason-Dixon line. While the piece is certainly pleasing to your eyes, the cool part is the abundance of secret drawers and compartments found in the desk’s gallery.

You’re probably already thinking that there are compartments behind the fluted columns, so I’ll give you that one. (Take a look at how wide the compartments are then think about the amount of secret papers that could be stored there.) While the column compartments might be commonplace to us today, finding secret drawers – not a single drawer, but multiple drawers – behind a cornice moulding is special. Pull the cornice just above the door and you find three compartments, each attached to the moulding at the front then slid into divided drawer spaces. That’s a new one on me.

If you’ve studied secret compartments in desks, you know the prospect door area is usually in play. Right again, but in this case there is so much more than normal. A small three-drawer unit pulls from behind the door to reveal a second set of three drawers. With those drawers pulled, you slip out the dividers to find a compartment housed both to the right and to the left of the prospect area – one side of each compartment is dadoed to hold the dividers.

All totaled there are 10 secret compartments in the desk – at least that’s all the museum staff let us know about. When you get to MESDA, make sure your guide shows you the secret drawers. If you see one we didn’t please don’t just leave a comment, post a photo, too.

— Glen D. Huey

3 thoughts on “Secrets of a Museum Secretary

  1. norton7910

    As a period style furniture maker and restorer,I have always been fascinated by secret drawers and compartments. I have encorporated many in my work. Some or most I have designed myself. The owner and I are the only people who know how they work. Some were so clever I doubt if they will ever be found. Wanna` see som pics of some? I will Email to you, but you will only see the pieces of furniture.I wish I had kept better records.

    I bet other subscribers would enjoy telling their stories.

      1. norton7910

        Writing slopes or lap desks as they are sometimes called,was my first chance to see a secret compartment with three small drawers. Some of my first work was making stands to hold these boxes and were used usually beside a chair. Some were very beautiful, made of rosewood with inlay of brass, ivory, ebony, holly. Not all, but the best ones had the three secret drawers. This started my journey of looking for secret compartments or seeing a good place to put one. I`m still looking and hoping to find one that really surprises me.

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