Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

ca. 1796
United Kingdom: England; Netherlands: Rotterdam
British; Dutch
wood; mahogany; beech
Overall: 6 3/4 in x 20 in x 10 1/8 in; 17.145 cm x 50.8 cm x 25.7175 cm
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848); to his niece, Elizabeth Coombs Adams (1809-1903); to Horace Appleton, 1842, by gift.
The upper section, opening to reveal the following inscription "John Adams's / bought [of] Enoch Rust Junr. [Abt.1773-1813]/ Rotterdam -- April 1796"; the lower section with paper label affixed to the underside reading "this writing Desk I / give to Horace Appleton / E. Adams [Elizabeth Coombs Adams] / [torn] 1842".
Credit Line
Funds donated by The Grainger Foundation, Inc.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

Of standard form and style for the early neoclassical period, this portable writing desk is distinguished by its documented ownership by John Quincy Adams (1767–1848). Reflecting the family’s penchant for documentation, the desk is inscribed in ink on the back of the upper folding writing section: “John Adams’s / bought [of] / Enoch Rust Junr. / Rotterdam —April 1796.”1A later paper label pasted to the underside of the writing surface notes the descent of the desk: “This writing Desk I / give to Horace Appleton / E. Adams / [torn] 1842.” The inscription is attributed to John Quincy, rather than his father John, on the grounds that its graceful, fluid style strongly resembles the handwriting of the young diplomat and varies considerably from the more controlled and rigid penmanship of the elder statesman.

In 1796 John Quincy Adams was in the middle of a three-year appointment as the United States minister to Holland. The inscription indicates he purchased the desk from Enoch Rust, Jr., possibly as a used article of furniture, in April of that year. At that time, however, Adams was in London, squiring his future wife among other things, and he did not return to Holland until early June.2See Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1974), 1:1677, and Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 92–98. Thus he may have added the inscription at a later time, misremembering the date of purchase slightly when doing so, or he may have ordered the desk from Rust (probably a former owner or a merchant rather than a cabinetmaker) in April and acquired it later.

A prolific correspondent and nearly compulsive writer, like the rest of his family, Adams made good use of this desk, as attested by the presence of columns of figures, shadowy inscriptions, ink stains, and other graffiti on its wooden surfaces. The Collection includes several important desks associated with great American statesmen, including a similar example owned by Thomas Jefferson.3The Jefferson desk is owned jointly by the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc. See Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. no. 94 (Acc. No. 85.51).

Gerald W. R. Ward

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.