A short history of stand up desks

Autonomous Autonomous | May 24, 2017
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Yep, that's Winston Churchill, winning WWII at a stand up desk. 

For those of us who grew up imagining “the office” as a fluorescent-lit, grayscale nightmare where you go to sit hunched over a desk in an endless row of cubicles, the stand up desk may seem like a fringe health-nut idea that caught on with Millennials and thus office furniture producers a few years ago. You’d be mistaken, though, to think that health-conscious people in the second half of the 20th century were the first to think of standing while working. While it’s difficult to confirm that it goes back as far as Leonardo Da Vinci, as some have claimed, the stand up desk does have a long, storied history.

In a wonderfully well-researched and well-written history of where standing desks pop up in surprising places in literature, author Dominic Smith writes:

“In an 1883 article from Popular Science, Dr. Felix Oswald expounds on the remedies of nature. Mingled with imperatives about taking cold baths before dinner and opening bedroom windows at night is this pearl: “At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should get a telescope-desk. Literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits, though, as the alternative of a standing-desk, I should prefer a Turkish writing-tablet and a square yard of carpet-cloth to squat upon.”

The Turkish writing tablet never quite took off, but the standing desk, over a century later, has entered its heyday. It’s changing the cubicle skyline of corporate America, the open-plan shared workspaces of the startup world, and the studios and work nooks of thousands of writers across the country.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most prolific thinkers, writers and politicians of modern times really did have their best ideas at stand up desks. The modern idea of the soul-sucking office is, in fact, a modern invention. That’s why our mission at Autonomous is to make smart office products that help people reclaim their workspace as a space that works for them.

For fun and some historical perspective, here is a shortlist of some of the people who used stand up desks over the last few centuries. Unfortunately we found fewer female historical figures than male, but if you come across a well-known woman from history who stood to work, please help us add to the list!

Charles Dickens 1812–1870

Perhaps most widely known for the opening line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote more bestselling books than it makes sense to list here and is considered by most to be the preeminent novelist of the Victorian era. He is considered by many to be one of the best writers of all time. Dickens conjured the “gloriously vivid” cast of characters for his novel David Copperfield at his stand up desk, as 19th-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell noted when she visited his study.

Friedrich Nietchze 1844 -1900

Philosopher, cultural critic, and poet, whose ideas continue to ripple through modern intellectual thought, Nietchze not only stood to work but fervently believed that work done sitting was useless: “How quickly we guess how someone has come by his ideas; whether it was while sitting in front of his inkwell, with a pinched belly, his head bowed low over the paper — in which case we are quickly finished with his book, too! Cramped intestines betray themselves — you can bet on that — no less than closet air, closet ceilings, closet narrowness.”

Friedrich Nietchze 1844 -1900

Virginia Woolf 1882–1941

One of the foremost modernist writers and intellectuals of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf is best known for her three books Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, in which she wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own is she is to write fiction.” Her nephew and biographer wrote that she “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to do her work.”

Winston Churchill 1874–1965

Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister from 1940–1945 and 1951–1955. During the 1940s he was the key decision-maker who led Britain to victory over the Nazis in World War II. He also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his lifetime body of work. One of the most famous photos of Churchill (above) is of him at his stand up desk, mulling over documents while chewing a cigar. Perhaps he was working on one of his famous speeches, which continue to echo through history. 

Ernest Hemingway 1899–1961

Both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, Hemingway is perhaps the best known historical figure who can be seen, mostly in his later years, using his typewriter at a stand up desk. He got the idea from his editor at Scribner’s, and almost always stood to work, due to a leg injury from WW I. As George Plimpton wrote for the Paris Review of Hemingway’s bedroom in Cuba: “It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases — the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed — that Hemingway has his “work desk” — a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets.” (Hemingway also tops the list of famous people who had cluttered desks.)

Ernest Hemingway 1899–1961

Stan Lee 1922 -

Former president and chairmen of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee is the mind behind “The Fantastic Four”, “X-Men” and “Spiderman”. The caption from the photo reads: “Always wrote standing up — good for the figure — and always faced the sun — good for the suntan!”

Stan Lee

Donald Rumsfeld 1932 -

A 1988 Washington Post article said of the former Secretary of Defense from 1975–77: “Donald Rumsfeld became a convert before the tall desk was widely available. His first experience working while standing was with a wall-mounted drafting desk in Brussels when he was appointed ambassador to NATO in 1973. Later he bought an old school desk for $215 and mounted it on a credenza. He continued to use a stand-up desk when he was White House chief of staff in 1974 and 1975 and then as secretary of defense from 1975 to 1977.

“[later] Rumsfeld mused about his desk: ‘I can’t claim my brain worked better, but if you feel good, you do tend to work better.’”

Rita Dove 1952 -

Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove can be seen here at her stand up desk in Jill Krementz’s book The Writer’s Desk.

Rita Dove

Tim Cook 1960 -

CEO of Apple Tim Cook is the one who coined the phrase “sitting is the new cancer”, so you can bet he works at a stand up desk. He was what we might call an early adopter of the standing desk, although now we all know better considering all the brilliant minds mentioned above, some of whom lived, worked and died before Tim Cook was born.

Tim Cook
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