Elegant no matter how you spinet

 Gay Guthrie

Victorian spinet desk


Marie Antoinette had one at Versailles and, in England, Queen Charlotte entertained her friends on a beautiful one decorated with inlaid patterns in various precious woods. The spinet was a lovely instrument – small, elegant, reasonably portable and ideally suited to the intimate setting of the home and the private music parties, known as “musicales,” which were fashionable in the 18th century.

The spinet first appeared in the 15th century in Italy and, as an instrument, is the link between the earlier clavichord and the later harpsichord. Like the clavichord, the first spinets were basically a simple rectangular box with a small keyboard, the keys of which struck horizontal strings to produce a tone. Over the next hundred years or so, the spinet evolved: The keyboard increased in size to five octaves and the shape changed to a pentagon with the keyboard at the narrow left side and an increased number of strings filling the wider right end.

A typical late-17th-century spinet measured about four feet from side to side and had no legs or special stand. It could be carried from room to room and placed on a table when it was played, or stored out of sight when not needed. It produced a pretty sound but lacked the volume and variety of tone that made the harpsichord better suited for use as a concert instrument in larger public halls.

Significant improvements in the sound a keyboard instrument could produce had been developed by the middle of the 18th century, and to accommodate the new mechanisms but still produce a small instrument suitable for the home, a German named Zumpe, who had immigrated to England, made the first square piano in 1766. By 1780, John Broadwood had become the leading English square-piano maker.

Although they were always called square pianos, Broadwood retained the traditional rectangular shape of the early spinet, with its offset keyboard and strings arranged horizontally to the right. The pentagon shape was discarded. Early square pianos were mounted on a simple stand with slender legs, but as the style evolved in the next decade or so, the case, stand and legs became more robust. Until about 1860, a “Broadwood square” was the usual domestic piano found in drawing rooms and parlours throughout England, Europe and North America. So successful was Broadwood’s design, many fine furniture and piano makers copied his invention.

The 19th century was notable for the importance placed on family and home – heavily influenced by the example of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who constantly presented themselves and their children as examples of the delights of family life. Scenes of domestic interiors in the first half of the 19th century almost invariably show a piano (a Broadwood square, of course) and, often, a family gathered around it. It was the ideal instrument for a young lady to show off her musical accomplishments or perhaps indulge in a little gentle flirting over the keyboard, and an immense audience for popular songs, sentimental ballads and the sheet music needed to enjoy them at home soon developed.

Alas, the Broadwood square became a bit of a liability. Technical improvements – like an internal metal frame to support heavier and more strings, a seven-octave keyboard and the addition of hand stops and foot pedals, as well as decorative ones like the use of solid mahogany or rosewood for the case, more elaborate decoration and the overall larger scale of Victorian furniture – spelled the demise of the Broadwood square. The original advantages – the piano’s light weight, small scale, economical production costs and relatively low purchase price – were lost. The Broadwood square piano, descendant of the 15th-century spinet, was pushed out of the way by the small, inexpensive upright “cottage piano” by about 1860. Broadwood delivered its last square piano in 1866.

The handsome writing desk in the photograph tells the story of what happened to many square pianos. People simply couldn’t justify getting rid of a substantial, handsome piece of furniture, and although it isn’t known who first conceived of the notion a piano could be transformed into a writing desk, that is exactly what a surprising number of them became.

Conversion was relatively simple. The keyboard, strings, metal frame and any other additions like foot pedals or hand stops were removed and the keyboard opening was widened to centre it on the desk. Sometimes a slide-out surface was installed where the keyboard had been to increase the writing surface and, in more elaborate conversions, the space at the back of the writing surface was filled in with cubby-holes and small drawers to hold paper and writing equipment. Secret drawers or sliding panels to disguise a hiding space were sometimes installed as well. If the piano had a fold-back lid that could be closed to cover the keyboard, it was usually left in place. Despite being made from a square piano, these desks are usually known as spinet desks in reference to the rectangular spinet that inspired them.

The Victorian spinet desk like the one shown here, as a square piano, dates to the late 1850s and was probably converted at the end of the 1880s. It is made of mahogany, with beautifully book-matched pieces used for the section of the fold-down lid that faces out when it is closed. The case is decorated only with two applied reeded bands. An insert of small drawers and dividers was added, which at one side does not meet the back of the desk, providing a hidden compartment. The turned octagonal legs rest on bun feet, which would have originally had an extension at the bottom, making the piano about three inches higher. They were likely removed to make a more comfortable height for the writing surface. The legs can be removed by unscrewing them from the case – a feature particular to converted Victorian spinet desks as the original pianos almost always had removable legs. The hinges and simple locking mechanism are the original brass, but sadly, the key has long gone.

Square-piano conversions proved to be so popular that by the 1920s, reproductions of the 19th-century originals were being made. They are generally lighter in both appearance and weight, have fixed, not removable, legs and, while often well made and attractive in their own right, somehow seem to lack the handsome, solid elegance of their Victorian precursors.

Gay Guthrie has an extensive background in antiques and the decorative arts. She teaches a course in antiques for the Orillia department of parks, recreation and culture and can be reached at 

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