To someone laying eyes on Historic Deerfield’s newly acquired table-desk for the first time, this artifact appears nothing special. It’s just over three feet tall and runs three and a half feet in length. Its boards are plain, though the table apron’s detailed edge suggests that its unknown maker took some care in its construction. The writing surface is well-worn, bearing the marks of centuries of use. When placed next to some of Historic Deerfield’s more ornate case pieces, the table-desk is an ugly duckling to say the least. Despite its ungainly appearance, however, I’ve developed a soft spot for this desk in the time I’ve spent as an intern in Historic Deerfield’s curatorial department. On my first day, I was entrusted with the task of tracing the table-desk through three centuries, filling the gaps in its history. The table-desk’s first known owner was Puritan Minister Nehemiah Bull (1701-1740) of Westfield, Massachusetts, but it’s very first owner and subsequent holders after Bull were a mystery. My search through thousands of probate inventory1 pages and additional secondary sources has been a saga of patience and stubborn determination, punctuated by the occasional heartbreak and exhilarating moments of success.
Probably Springfield, Massachusetts
ca. 1690, hard maple, white pine, yellow pine, iron
Museum Purchase with partial funds given in memory of Lawrence K. Wagenseil
The upper portion of this piece was made with writing in mind. By designing the middle drawers to open sideways, the unknown craftsman made sure that anyone writing at the table-desk would not have to move his or her papers in order to access the drawers. Similarly, the upper drawers are high enough above the writing surface to prevent paper-shuffling. Additionally, the two long, side drawers span the width of the table-desk, offering ample room for storing books and materials.
Although I am still searching for definitive information concerning the table-desk’s commission and early years, its construction holds several clues. The style of its turned legs, for example, is highly suggestive. These ball-and-ring turnings stylistically resemble others from the William and Mary period built between 1680 and 1700, narrowing the initial search window. Additionally, the upper right drawer bears the handwritten inscription “Nehemiah Bull,” which provides a helpful starting point. Nehemiah Bull was born in 1701 and graduated from Yale College in 1723. He was ordained in Westfield in 1726 to assist the then-ailing Reverend Edward Taylor with his ministerial duties. Taylor died in 1729, and Bull succeeded him as full-time minister. When Bull subsequently died in 1740, his probate inventory indicates that he owned a “scrutoire,” or writing desk, worth five pounds.
These few facts raise a number of critical questions. Since Bull was born in 1701 and the table-desk was likely made around the turn of the eighteenth century, it follows that he was not the first owner. Who, then, commissioned and first owned the table-desk? Furthermore, who inherited it after Bull’s death?
 In early America, when a household head died, a court-appointed appraiser made a complete list of all the dead individual’s property, from his or her wearing apparel, to furniture, to tools, to the last thimble. The resulting document is called a probate inventory.