The Dinosaur in My Living Room

Dad carries the little desk and sets it down in the kitchen.

As if it’s just an ordinary desk.

It was built in 1720, predating the Industrial Revolution. Mom and Dad show me how to find the clues to unlock its secrets. See here, the nicks in the wood along the edges? Made by knife, not by saw. See the unevenness of the drawers? Hands built this, fitting each panel together. Speaking of fitting, lift this drawer out of its socket, turn it over— see the dovetailing? That style predates the Civil War, and everything afterward used a less labor-intensive process. Note the old-fashioned nails drilled to keep the fake-lock looking as real as possible; you don’t see those nails anymore— the heads are bizarre, like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s as if they’ve been playing a three-hundred-year-old game of hide-and-seek with every face that’s opened these drawers.

I take the desk into my hands like an old relative at a reunion, careful not to touch too much or with too much pressure. Handmade. 1720. I keep repeating that year over and over. Years before the Zenger trial. Before the Revolution. Closer to the landing of the first slaves in America than to the invention of the cotton gin.

Who built this? Is my first question. England-made, the tag said, but who?

I take my dad’s proffered flashlight and get down on my knees, looking for an insignia. But there isn’t one. I find instead two big nails, different from the old ones, drilled at a diagonal to secure the tabletop to the base. I touch the wood where the nails went in, noticing it’s either been carved away to drive in the nail better or it’s rotted away as a result of the nail’s presence for so many years. The nails are slightly discolored but that doesn’t let us make any assumptions about their precise age— the discoloring could come from anything, from sheer age, contact with untreated wood, exposure. For sure they’re not the same nails; must have been an attempt to repair the tabletop. It’s not until after removing both drawers and poking the flashlight into the crevice like we’re Nicholas Cage that my dad suggests the tabletop is different from the base.

Even so, neither the tabletop nor its nails could be less than fifty years old— and fifty years to this is nothing at all. I spend a minute or two looking at these nails. Somebody cared enough to mar the surface to keep it together and yet cared so little that they would let the wood rot away around the nailhead.

My mom reminds me I have a desk that predates the Civil War, and I murmur my agreement. This desk is three hundred years old and it’s sitting in our living room. How many lives had it lived to get to where we placed it? How did it get to America in the first place?

That’s when I realize. It’s entirely possible that this desk was not built in England at all. It absolutely could’ve been built in America, before it had its name.

Quakers landed in America in 1681, Shakers didn’t follow until well after their founding in England in 1747. The desk matches the description of Shaker carpentry but the Quaker desks match the desk’s age and place. They aren’t far off in design either, and since one begat the other, it’s not unreasonable to assume the Quaker and Shaker furniture styles would’ve been similar; the evidence speaks for itself. One thing is certain: this desk is far different from the Queen Anne style popular in England during the early 18th century. No rounded feet at the base of the legs, no elaborate carvings, no complex ironwork or bright woods. This is a dark, plain, smooth, functional piece, much closer in aesthetics to the Quaker style.

More evidence piles up just based on logic; who would have been able to pay to move this desk from England to the colonies in 1720? Even if they’d have been able to, who would have bothered to take up the cargo space? Only someone very rich or very sentimental. Or both.

If they did decide to take this desk on a journey across the Atlantic in 1720, they were taking a huge risk. It would be very unlikely that the desk would have survived the trek in good condition, much less have survived the ensuing 300 years between then and this moment, with me on my knees, staring at its underbelly. No, this piece was more likely made here, and its origins lost as it changed hands down the generations, particularly during and after the Revolution. Anyone who had owned this during the Revolution would not have been bragging about its English make; but after, it’s not unlikely that whoever owned it would have sold it to a homesick Loyalist at a profit, and the true origins sank to the depths of the drawers, fake-locked away for centuries.

Or I’m absolutely wrong and somebody really did just lug this thing across the ocean and kept it clean and neat for us to find 300 years later.

Which begs the question: what will they find of us, in 2320? What will they keep?

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