Campaign desks weren't invented by the British although today we associate campaign furniture with the British colonial empire. Every culture that waged wars and occupations in the field developed portable furnishings that could be broken down for moving and set up under canvas in a field tent. Campaign desks were used by the Roman army, during the Napoleonic wars and even during the American Civil War. And they were often used by explorers roughing it on expeditions.
The pedestal desk masquerades as a substantial piece of furniture. It is a slab of wood that fits over two cabinets. The cabinets, or pedestals, contain drawers and are constructed with fine finishes, hardware and base molding. The desk surface may have one or more drawers built in and some have leather inlaid panels for writing. When used as a campaign desk, this style does not have a front modesty panel and the three main pieces separate so they can be easily moved and set up in a new location. Because the writer sits with knees in the space between the cabinets, the desk is sometimes referred to as a kneehole desk. It is the least portable of the campaign desk styles due to its size and weight and was used in semi-permanent postings where it was unlikely to be moved frequently. Pedestal desks were made with the fine woods and fittings of residential furniture.
Classic Campaign Desk
The campaign desk that comes most readily to mind is a large, rectangular tray top, generally made of polished hardwood containing drawers, an under-lid storage compartment or a combination of the two. It is set on two bases which may resemble saw horses---only much more graceful---and are sometimes collapsible. Some campaign desks have hinged supports that fold down and lock in place when the desk is in use and fold up flat to make the desk easier to move. Some campaign desks were made of rattan---which was sturdy but much lighter than the heavier wood desks---and had a hinged base that opened out to support the writing surface. Writer Ernest Hemingway used a plain, knock-down wooden writing desk in his tent on African safaris.
The field desk is the smallest, most portable writing furniture. It is a less imposing version of the classic campaign desk, designed for use near front lines and for scientific field work where it can be quickly and frequently packed up and moved. These desks often resemble a trunk with a top that folds out or detaches to become the writing surface. The inside is lined with drawers and compartments for papers, journals and writing implements. Old field desks were made of fine hardwoods with brass fittings and keyed locks. Modern field desks are made of steel, aluminum or tough, composite plastics.
- Photo Credit still life with safari helmet image by Nikolay Okhitin from Fotolia.com