This article discusses hidden compartments found in antique furniture pieces, especially desks and secretaries, and describes some examples with multiple secret compartments. It originally appeared in the November 1939 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Secret compartments for money, securities, ancestral jewelry and silver plate, a missing will, or a carefully written confession of a crime committed years before, have served fiction writers well. In fact, so well, that they are apt to be considered as just literary props, something to sustain a tale and maintain necessary suspense. Today, sensible people keep their current funds in banks and their stocks and bonds and the like in safe-deposit boxes. But these have only been in existence since the turn of the 19th Century.
Before that, the man of property secured his movable possessions against thieves as best he could in strong boxes and cleverly concealed places of hiding in furniture and behind secret panels that, like the modern safe combination, baffled the outsider.
In the mystery of The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe tells how thoroughly Monsieur G, Prefect of the Parisian Police, vainly searched the apartments of a royal minister for a compromising letter that had been stolen from royalty. “Any man is a dolt who permits a ‘secret’ to escape him in a search of this kind,” states the French Chief of Police. “The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk of space to be accounted for in every cabinet.”
Of course, it is Poe’s master detective, C. Auguste Dupin, who eventually finds the missing letter and gets the reward of 50,000 francs. But the details of the story are beside the point. The sweeping statement of the Prefect regarding the stupidity of anyone who fails to find a secret drawer shows that he knew little about these ingenious evidences of the cabinetmaker’s skill.
I know of a collector who owned a piece of furniture for several years before finding that it even had a secret compartment. Many a piece has yielded up its hidden caches only when sent to a cabinetmaker for thorough reconditioning. Some pieces have a single secret; others have a score.
Sometime ago I spent an entire afternoon trying to locate the secret compartments in an American secretary that looked quite innocent of any. At the end, the owner came to my rescue and pointed out several that I had missed. There were twenty-one in this simple slant-top desk. Some were large enough for several letters; others were so small that only a coin or two, or possibly a half-dozen pieces of Continental currency folded in half, could be accommodated.
A piece so honeycombed with secrets reminds one of the answer Robert Browning once made to a question regarding the meaning of a particularly involved poem of his: “When I wrote it God and Robert Browning knew the meaning; now only God knows.”
In fact, I often wonder whether the original owners knew of all the secret compartments in their pieces, or if they did know, how much they used them. For contrary to fiction, I have yet to hear of a secret compartment in any piece of antique furniture that has yielded anything of real value or even of much interest.
However, the old cabinetmakers were practical men and probably did not waste their skill on useless details. So we may assume that the owners of pieces with secret compartments used the latter for hiding certain valuables and in time passed on the knowledge to the next of kin. Today, it is the hope that something of more interest than a paid bill may have been forgotten or overlooked in one of these caches that adds zest to antique furniture collecting.
With English and American furniture, the pieces most liable to contain secret compartments are desks and secretaries. Next are the chests; then come sideboards, highboys and chests on chests. Concealed drawers may also be found in tables, particularly of the card table type, where a swinging leg supports the upper half of the top when it is folded back. Traveling desks and small boxes sometimes have their secret compartments, usually in the form of false bottoms.
Just how early English and French cabinetmakers began to turn their attention to adding these hiding places to the furniture they made is a question, but I do not think it began until after the Italian furniture influence reached them, coming either directly or via France or the Low Countries. Secret compartments appealed to the Italian temperament and they made many cabinets, small and large, with hidden drawers and the like. These date from the late 16th or 17th Centuries.
One of polished bone (Illustration VII) is typical of Italian work. In the center of the interior is a small door flanked by classical pilasters. Behind it is a little compartment, removable if pressed carefully, and back of that two tiers of four very small drawers. This design presents the arrangement found in interiors of English and American desks of the 18th and early 19th-Century workmanship.
American cabinetmakers do not seem to have built secret places into their furniture much before the advent of the Queen Anne period, although I have heard rumors of such pieces in the William and Mary style. But from about 1720 through the Sheraton years, secret places were much in vogue. The desk was, of course, the favorite for such features. Here the owner wrote and transacted his business and here his money and papers could be put away.
As stated before, this Italian design inspired the central section of the interior (Illustration I) as the most logical position for concealed compartments. This might be a small closet or a grouping of pigeonholes and small drawers with or without a front (Illustration II). Such a section is an inch or two shallower than the pigeonholes and drawers on either side. It pulls out as a unit but is held firmly in place by slots of wood that slide sidewise and are usually concealed in the top or by some sort of wooden spring that must be pressed to release the section. The trick is to find it. The best way is to examine the interior by the Braille method in order to find a slight depression for a fingertip. This gives the needed hold for operating either slots or spring.
When this central section is released and pulled out behind it, either as part of the section itself or built into the available space, will be tiers of small drawers and sometimes narrow but deep pockets of the right proportions for letters or folded documents (Illustration II). Also beneath the central section will be found another thin pocket of wood with its opening toward the rear which can be raised with one’s fingernail or the point of a knife.
The second most usual location for secret places is behind the half-column pilasters flanking the central section. Attached to the back of these architectural ornaments are the “document drawers.” These are nearly the full height of the desk interior and practically as deep as the space extending to the back boards of the piece. Wooden spring catches hold them in place and access to these catches is usually by way of round holes, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, in the upright partitions at either side of the central section.
But document boxes of this type became too common. In some desks and secretaries, one finds the pilasters made as an integral part of the removable central section. Then such document boxes, behind them and separate from the pilasters, were available only after the central section had been released.
Other places of hiding were small shallow drawers concealed behind the arched trim at the top of the regular pigeonholes. When there was an arrangement of small drawers beneath, some of which were not of full depth, behind them were secret ones, which could be reached only after the front ones had been removed (Illustration IV).
At other times one finds additional document boxes concealed behind the pigeonholes which slide sidewise after the central cabinet has been removed. An example of this arrangement (Illustration IV) has such a box on the right and in the base of it is a second concealed pocket that is only found if the box is removed and the outer side studied carefully.
The desk that has this feature also is provided with a most ingenious set of hiding places that take the place of the first large drawer beneath the level of the writing top. Outwardly false, there is a sliding panel immediately below the central cabinet which gives access to a well such as is frequently found in desks of the William and Mary period. At the front is a series of three hidden drawers without knobs that are released by using the fingernails along the upright cracks that separate them. At the back of the well is a hiding spot the full width of the desk interior which is concealed by a thin panel that moves forward when the central cabinet has been taken out.
This unusual Queen Anne desk of curly maple, made in New England about 1750, has no less than sixteen secret compartments. The craftsman who designed and made it must have had real inventive ability for these hiding places are so skillfully executed on one-eighth-inch pine that one has to be an antiquarian detective to locate them. For instance, the back of the central cabinet is false and the upper board neatly dovetailed in place; but if pressed slightly, it moves sidewise and the board is released. Behind it one sees three pockets about a half inch from front to back.
Another desk, that on casual inspection gave no indication of a secret compartment, yielded one of the most ingenious hiding places that I have ever seen. The sliding brackets on which the slant top rested when open were of the usual thickness and height, an inch by three and one-half, but one of them had a secret place. If the first large drawer in the lower part was taken out, the pin that stopped the slide when pulled forward could be removed. Then the slide itself could be taken out and on the underside toward the rear was inset a small pocket just large enough to hold a half-dozen pieces of Continental currency when folded in half. Who would suspect so unassuming a country-made desk of having a hiding place. Yet there it was to prove what some cabinetmaker could do for a customer who wanted such security.
Next to desks, secret places are more frequently found in the bracket-footed chests in which linens, blankets, and clothing were stored. The most intricate have an end that slides up giving access to the drawers concealed in the false bottom (Illustration V). Because of the bulk of such a piece and the shallowness of the concealed drawers, this false bottom could readily pass unobserved.
Chests with secret drawers of this sort were made in both full size and miniatures. They were especially popular with the Pennsylvania-German cabinetmakers. Their painted decorations also helped to conceal the fact that one end was movable. In other chests where a small covered box or “till” was built into them, usually at the upper left-hand end, the inner side of the till was frequently movable. It slid upward when the top was raised to give access to two or three small drawers concealed in a false bottom.
The highboy is another piece of furniture that frequently possessed a secret compartment. The flat-top highboy of the sort made during the William and Mary, Queen Anne, and Early Georgian periods, with a broad cornice molding, was sometimes constructed with a shallow drawer, the width of the piece, concealed behind this cornice molding (Illustration VI) . It was without handles and hidden in the false top of the piece. One or two pieces of this type that I have examined have a wooden spring catch that locks the drawer and can only be released by removing the drawer below.
When such highboys were new, the cornice molding and the drawer behind it fitted so closely that there was no indication that a drawer was concealed behind it. Later as the sides or runs of these drawers wore, through use, the molding front had a tendency to sag slightly, thus giving a clue to what was hidden behind it.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.