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American demand for exotic Chinese imports increased with the onset of direct trading between China and the United States in 1784. The Washingtons’ purchases of Chinese lacquer ware may have included this portable writing desk, a luxurious but functional item that made it possible to write a letter or jot notes wherever needed. A lidded compartment at top provided space for an ink bottle, sander, and pens, while a locking drawer and interior ensured that documents would be secure. According to family history, Martha Washington gave this desk to her granddaughter, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis.

See also W-1429 for a similar desk with Washington history.


Black or dark brown lacquered portable writing desk with a slant-top lid, a lidded compartment at the upper back of the case, a long-narrow drawer in the lower back side of the case, and a short, wide drawer in the front of the case. The lidded compartment and side drawer each have brass knobs while the slant-top and front drawer have brass lined keyholes and brass locks. The lidded compartment is divided into three sections, a wide center one flanked by two smaller square ones. The slant-top lid opens to reveal an open compartment below. The sides, front, and outside edges of the slant-top lid are all outlined in a single gilt line. Gilt chains of husks or bellflowers outline the edges of the top of the case and the front above the drawer. Gilt floral and leafy vines adorn the top of the lidded compartment, the front drawer front, and the sides. The slant-top lid is decorated in gilt with an oval reserve at center outlined in a wide border of flowers on a gilt background, floral and leafy sprays in each corner, and a wide border of flowers on a gilt background near the edges of the lid. The inside of the lid is decorated in gilt with a basket of flowers at center, floral sprays in the upper corners, and sprigs of bamboo in the lower corners. The surface of the interior compartment is similarly decorated with a loosely-tied bouquet of flowers at center and sprigs of bamboo in each corner.

There are several splashes of red paint on the inside of the side drawer. In 2003, conservator Meg Loew Craft did an extensive treatment on this desk which included cleaning it, consolidating areas of lifting lacquer, filling losses, and minimal restoration to the gilt decoration. See the Treatment Report in the Curatorial File. She noted that the hinges are not original.





Wood, lacquer, gilt, brass


Overall (Open H x W x D): 4 13/16 in. x 16 5/8 in. x 31 in. (12.22 cm x 42.23 cm x 78.74 cm)
Overall (Closed H x W x D): 4 13/16 in. x 16 5/8 in. x 16 3/4 in. (12.22 cm x 42.23 cm x 42.55 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Mrs. Tobias G. Richardson, Vice Regent for Louisiana, 1901
Conservation courtesy of The Barra Foundation


Written in ink on the center back of both drawers, on the center back of the lid of the upper compartment, and on the inside of the front drawer opening in the case, on the proper right inside : “^” (on the back of the lid and the inside of the case it is written sideways).

Object Number


Colors (Beta)

Mount Vernon's object research is ongoing and information about this object is subject to change. For information on image use and reproductions, click here.
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