The Mystery of Hidden Compartments in Desks


The romance and mystery of secret compartments in antique desks surged with the popular movie, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. In the movie, the hero, Benjamin Franklin Gates (played by Nicholas Cage) has to break into the White House to find clues hidden in a secret compartment in the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. A second clue is found in the twin desk at Buckingham Palace. The secret compartments open up with a combination involving how far the other known drawers are pulled out. It is quite elaborate, and appeals to the detective in all of us!

An actual finding of valuable documents in an old desk happened in the early 1900's. In 1794, the future 5th president of the United States, James Monroe, purchased a Louis XVI desk that had a secret compartment. James Monroe did not tell anyone about this secret compartment. It wasn't until 1906 when one of Monroe's descendants, a child, damaged the desk. The desk was taken to a cabinet maker to be repaired and the secret compartment was discovered. Inside were priceless and historical documents, including letters from Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Considering that Jefferson burned most of his personal correspondence, this truly was a treasure!

Today, many antique seekers dream of finding a desk with a secret compartment containing hidden treasures. So what should you be looking for to help you narrow the search?

Though they had been around for awhile, secret compartments in desks, inspired by the Italians, became popular in English and American cabinet making around 1720. The trend continued for about 100 years, and though later ones can be found, they were not as common. One reason that they became desirable was for strictly functional reasons: a secure place to keep valuable documents, money and jewelry. Today we use safety deposit boxes and safes, but they were not in existence back then, so hidden compartments helped people feel secure.

Some desks would have only one hidden compartment, others would have many. In one simple slant top desk, 21 hidden cubbies were discovered. Some compartments are a decent size, and may be found under false bottoms in a drawer. Document boxes were one type of larger hidden compartments that became quite common for awhile, often hidden behind the half column pilasters that flanked the central section. Other secret compartments are quite small with just enough room for a few folded bills or perhaps a small piece of jewelry.

Some secret compartments in desks could only be reached by removing a series of regular drawers, others were concealed behind ornamental trim. Some were opened by raising them up with a fingernail or letter opener, and others were held in place with a wooden spring that first had to be released. This complicated the process because of the additional trick of finding the trigger for the spring. The best way is simply by feeling around.

After seeing a few of these hidden compartments, one has to admire the ingenuity of the cabinetmakers of the time. I have heard of some desk owners taking years to locate secret compartments that there were sure that existed. So owning an antique desk and discovering its secrets, is more a work of love for the challenge, not a "get rich quick" deal.

So the question remains, does the real Resolute desk in the Oval office have a secret compartment? I did a little checking around and cannot say for sure. I found one person online who confidently said, "Yes!" but gave no documentation or proof, so my answer is, "I don't know, but would love to find out!"

 


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