I never thought I’d be a collector, at least not of antique furniture. What little we could afford during our first years of marriage went specifically for necessities. By our first anniversary we were expecting Shannon and trying to set up her nursery on one thin dime. (though we didn’t know it was a her. The only baby whose sex we knew ahead of time was Adam and that was a couple hours before he was born) Hubs happened upon an old dresser at a garage sale on his way to Channel 4. Stripped, without drawer handles but the price was right for our tight budget, five dollars. We refinished it, set it in her room along with a 5 dollar used, brightly painted yellow crib. From that day on, I was hooked on antiques.
After that bargain buy, we actively sought out old furniture instead of new, though for a decade (minimum) the only pieces we could afford were the ones haphazardly placed in the back of the antique store. Most pieces were used for parts because they were in such bad shape. Lopsided, missing a leg, door, glass was broke (like us) or with 20 coats of paint were the ones we could afford to bring home. Might take us a couple months to make the piece suitable but we got pretty good at stripping, repairing and refinishing. We were both hung up on oak and it was rare if we bought another type of wood. At the time (mid 70’s through the 80’s) walnut was the premiere wood choice for antique furniture. We never got on walnut’s bandwagon though, always preferring the grain and color of oak.
By the mid-80’s we had a houseful of antique oak and all but a couple of pieces were refinished by the Hubs and yours truly. We loved working on them and every piece was not necessarily in the junk department of the store anymore. In 30 years of actively collecting, I’d have to say the majority of our antique explosion was while we were living in Davenport during the mid 80’s. And not very many came from antique stores, but garage sales with my bestie, Mary Ellen. She knew that metropolis like the back of her hand. Which streets had alleys, where to park, who had the best sales every year. We never went to Bettendorf or across the Mississippi to Illinois, just hit the garage sales in Davenport. She’d have her list written in her neat, tiny script. What time each sale opened and the route we’d take, eliminating backtracking. Damn she was good.
While I was always on the hunt for neat oak pieces, sometimes the oddest items caught my fancy and would soon be loaded up ready to go to their new home. Like the blue/gray pedal car called Kiddilac which weighed as much as I did. The boys were already too big to ride it but I had a real soft spot for old toys, especially if they were metal. Or the large box of old comic books all priced a nickel each. (I was trying to instill the love of reading Shannon was born with to our 2 boys who’d much rather play outside. But hey the comics did the trick-Hubs was right. That was in 1986. When the Hubs was right I mean). Cubs paraphernalia, kitchen gadgets, wooden boxes with advertising. I liked looking at everything, but nothing made my heart thump harder than when I spotted a gorgeous piece of oak, begging to be repurposed and find a home with me.
One day I spotted a small school desk with the lift up wood flap where you could store paper, pencils and crayons. Not oak, maybe birch. The desk part connected to a swivel chair made with enough iron to dent a floor. It was adorable. It was just the right size for Adam who was about 4. The price was right, only a couple of bucks but really needed work. The hinge which allowed the desktop to flip up was broke so John put on a new one. We stripped it and gave it several coats of polyethylene because well, he was a rough and tumble kid. John painted the ton of iron with a couple coats of black paint.
Adam loved that desk. Coloring, Matchbox storage, racetrack, watching TV and eating. Every breakfast/dinner/supper/snack he could eat at his little desk was a win for him. He did everything at that desk but sleep. After he was too big for the desk we put it by my old toy collection for a couple years, then stuck it in storage because I couldn’t get rid of something that was such a big part of his life.
Fast forward 20 years when Adam became a father to our 4th grandchild. We lugged the desk over for Graham to play with when he was about a year. Their house was quite small but I don’t think removing Adam’s/Graham’s desk has ever been an issue. G uses the desk even more than his daddy did, although the writing is on the wall. Graham’s legs no longer fit ‘under’ the desk but are splayed on each side. (Every time we leave their much bigger house, Hubs says, “I gotta adjust the chair and desk for Graham.” Because we’d like him to use it until he graduates ha-ha). We hope one day Graham’s son or daughter gets to play with our 3 generation desk.
It wasn’t long after my school desk find when I came across another small desk at an estate sale. It was on the landing of the staircase and I stopped dead in my tracks. This piece had my heart hammering like I was nearing the end of a marathon. A child’s size oak S-curve roll top desk (the S-curve is very rare, more common is the C-curve). With a matching chair. I was a goner. Had to have it.
It was more than I wanted to spend but if I ever wanted my pulse back to normal it had to come home with me. This was a piece the kids would not play with. It was too fragile and if the kids put the roll top up and down countless times it wouldn’t last. Adam already had a desk and Joshua and Shannon were too old to give 2 hoots about another antique I’d drug home while wearing a huge grin, bursting with pride.
One of the side boards of the desk was cracked all the way across and had been repaired, but otherwise it was in great shape. It had such dark patina you could barely see the oak grain. (Sorry folks, you’re not gonna win me over to “don’t touch the patina” mantra of antique die hards. Not the way I want my furniture to look. On the bright side, we refinished the desk about 35 years ago so it has some new-old patina forming).
I was thrilled to death with this little piece as the Hubs and I started to strip the old varnish off. John was unsure how to do the actual roll top and decided it had be taken apart so we could lay it flat and strip in between the slats. The chair and the body of the desk were stripped when Hubs made a fantastic discovery. When the roll top is all the way up, it’s hidden behind the pigeon hole compartments and the back of the desk. After Hubs got it apart, he found five recipe size cards and a pen in the seldom used hidey-hole.
Oh. My. Stars. My little desk had been used in school during the late 1920’s. The recipe cards were actually Davenport Public School enrollment cards. Can you just imagine a school room with 20 little roll top desks filled with 3rd graders sitting on the chairs, listening to their teacher and studying? Wouldn’t I love to have a picture of one of those class rooms?
The enrollees, Aubrey, Elmer and Roland (Roland had 2 enrollment cards going from 3rd to 4th, then on to fifth grade the following year) were all born in 1919. Over one hundred years ago. Amazing. Helen Mae was born in 1920. All list their birthday, address and whether or not they had been vaccinated. (None had any shots). Plus their father’s name and occupation. One farmer, one gardener, a city fire fighter and an employee of the Linograph Company (they manufactured typesetting machines. The building is now listed as a Davenport historic property.
The pen we found is a dip pen. It has no reservoir to hold ink so you had to keep dipping it in an ink well to keep writing. (A big thank you to all the kiddos who used drippy ink but never spilled a drop on my pristine desk). The pen was made by the Eagle Pencil Company, established in 1856. (I had to get out the magnifying glass) We noticed the end of the pen (wooden) has some teeth marks. Nice to know kids haven’t changed their habits of gnawing on pencils during school through the years.
One last gem about my little desk. Under the pigeon hole compartments is a handwritten price and number for the desk. # 40 $6.75. Guess Davenport School’s procurer ordered a minimum of at least 40 desks. With some wheeling and dealing managed to get them for the rock bottom price of $6.75 each. I’d say worth every penny…