Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
At first glance, Eudora Welty’s bedroom looks just as you’d expect—a large mahogany bed against one wall, a dresser and bookshelves against another, and an electric typewriter atop a small side table. However, in the east corner, another piece of furniture looks displaced in time: a large desk with the year “1804” hand carved inside a yellow oval.
The piece is a reproduction of a nineteenth-century plantation desk that once stood in this room. Welty purchased the original desk at a New Orleans antique market, and used it to store documents. Plantation desks earned their name thanks to popularity among Southern plantation owners, though they also saw frequent use among attorneys, postmasters, and railroad clerks.
Plantation desks were designed in two sections: a lower piece, resembling a table with two pull-out drawers; and an upper piece, resembling a cabinet, with hinged double doors and a series of cubby holes.
Welty included the desk in a scene from The Optimist’s Daughter, an example of real life finding its way into her fiction. Laurel Hand, the title character, enters her deceased father’s study and discovers an unusual desk:
It had been made of the cherry trees on the McKelva place a long time ago; on the lid, the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin…
On its pediment stood a lead-mold eagle spreading its wings and clasping the globe; it was about the same breadth as her mother’s spread-out hand. Laurel touched the doors where they met, and they swung open together. Within, the cabinet looked like a little wall out of a country post office, which nobody had in years disturbed by calling for their mail.
Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter in 1973.