Penn is home to one of Benjamin Franklin’s most treasured belongings—his mahogany writing desk, which undoubtedly played an important role in his work as a printer. The desk, housed in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, conjures images of Penn’s favorite founding father examining political documents, checking account books or writing correspondence on the inset leather writing surface.
Franklin purchased the desk from prominent London cabinetmaker John Mayhew in 1772, while living in London. When he moved back to Philadelphia, Franklin brought the desk with him. Its large, flat surface suited his needs perfectly, allowing him to review large folios and providing space to store his copy press, says art historian Page Talbott, who wrote about the desk for the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary in 2006.
The desk, also known as a “partner’s desk,” is identical on both sides, with drawer fronts boasting beaded edges, brass bail handles with button escutcheons and brass-edged keyholes. After Franklin’s death in 1790, the desk was owned by several Philadelphia families and was displayed at Independence Hall from about 1856 to 1866. The family of The Reverend Edwin Town subsequently gave the desk to Roland Curtin, a Penn alum and Medical School professor, and Curtin’s family donated the desk to Penn in 1916.
The desk has undergone at least two significant renovations, the first in the 1850s, and the second in 2004 as part of the preparations for the Tercentenary. As part of the Tercentenary exhibit, the desk traveled widely, from St. Louis to Houston, Denver and Atlanta.
Its current home is in the Reading Room of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, located on the 6th floor of Van Pelt Library. But in September, it’s headed for temporary storage as the Library begins a three-phase renovation project. Once the renovations are complete, the desk will go back on display.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on June 10, 2010