Mary and Helen reporting. Today, our personal laptops are never far out of reach. A lady in the 18th and 19th centuries owned something very similar—but far more elegant—a lap desk.
A fancy lap desk is an authentic accouterment of a fashionable Regency or Victorian lady. Made of mahogany, Brazilian rosewood—or of pine veneered with these fine woods—the boxes were often inlaid with decorative motifs of mother of pearl. They measured roughly 16 by 10 inches (close to the dimensions of my Dell laptop). They were deeper than our slim devices, generally 4 to 5 inches because they contained compartments for stationery, ink and pens. The top unfolded to create a sloped writing surface lined with velvet, felt or leather.
Like our laptops, they were portable and personal. They were not pieces of household furniture, but were the possession of a particular lady. She could carry her lap desk easily from her bedroom to the library to her sitting room. Many desks had locks, making them ideal hiding places for love notes and other items.
In When a Lady Loves, Maureen Collins makes great use of her lap desk. Typical of a young lady in the 1880s, she uses it to dash off a note to invite her girlfriends on a shopping trip, and to compose the perfect response to Ben Merritt’s first letter:
“Holding her skirt high in a very unladylike fashion, she ran up the steps and settled on the sofa in the upstairs sitting room, her ladies lap desk beside her. She pulled out several sheets of engraved stationery, a pen and ink bottle. What on earth to write? She tried twice, tore the pages up and threw them in the fire. She smudged a third attempt beyond readability. It, too, flamed on the coals. On the fourth sheet, she hit the right tone: At eight o’clock Sunday evening, expect an interrogation. I must know: Are you a scoundrel from the street or a scholarly solicitor?”
Ben himself finds the contents of Maureen’s lap desk fascinating. He suspects Maureen and her father are part of an opium smuggling ring. He breaks into the Collins home one afternoon and discovers Maureen’s lap desk:
“A mahogany ladies’ lap desk sat on the floor beside the chair nearest the fireplace. He reached for it, sat, and placed it on his lap. A miniature desk, it had a flat surface on one edge and a hinged top that opened downward rather than upward as real desks did.
Damn it, locked.
He used precious minutes to get it open….His love letters to her took up most of the space along with stationery and envelopes. He reached a hand in and picked up a letter. Beneath it, the corner of a black leather ledger protruded.”
Was this the evidence he sought—that his beloved was indeed a smuggler? Did he want to know the truth?
Helen took this photo of a lap desk passed down in our family. For a video showing a fine example of a ladies’ lap desk, visit: