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Monday, January 28, 2013

Mahogany Secretery Desk (ca.1930)

The Completed Desk

 A piece I recently restored was a secretary desk made by the Northwestern Cabinet Company of  Burlington, Iowa. I believe the desk to have been made sometime around 1930. The Burlington Public Library has put together a webpage detailing the history of some of the furniture manufacturers of that town. An entry on the history of the Northwestern Cabinet Company can be found here. It is the third entry down:


In addition, while researching this desk I came across a photo taken recently of the factory. A link to that photo can be found here:


Below is a page from a catalog of the Northwestern Cabinet Company showing an almost identical desk to the one I worked on. The differences I can see are two more drawers inside the desk compartments as well as a slightly more elongated pediment. The original sale price in the catalog was $47.40.

The desk is referred to in the catalog as a "Governor Winthrop" desk. This is a bit of a misnomer as it was named after Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Governor Winthrop lived during the 17th century while the design of this desk reflects a mid to late 18th century taste and would most closely be associated with the Chippendale style. Wikipedia shed some light on the origin of this name, saying that it was first coined in 1924 buy the Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston Massachusetts, who offered the "Gov. Winthrop Desk" during the Colonial revival period in American furniture manufacturing. The use of this term dates the desk I worked on to after 1924 and realistically it was probably made in the 1930's, 1940's, or even as late as the 1950's. Below is a photo of the label on the back of the desk. The name of the manufacturer is seen in the bottom right hand corner of the label.
The advertisement above mentions that the desk was originally offered in a Walnut or Mahogany finish. Indeed, the primary wood used in this piece is Birch that has been stained and finished to resemble Mahogany. Birch was commonly used in this fashion because when stained, it has a look similar to Mahogany, and was much less expensive to use since it is a domestic wood. Below is a photo of the desk as it came into my shop. One of the drawer fronts had become loose, the feet were loose and missing portions on the claws, the finial was missing a portion, and the finish needed a cleaning and touch up. In addition, the false dividers for the glass were warped badly as was one of the drawer bottoms. One last piece was that the plating on the hardware had come off , revealing the metal sub layer which was pitted and rusted. The owner and I decided to replace the hardware, as seen later in the post.
This photo shows the top drawer front being glued to the rest of the drawer.
The glue block used to support the finial had become loose. This photo shows the piece being reattached to the back side of the pediment.
As stated above, several portions were missing from the "claws" of the feet. This was due to glue failure and the fact that the feet were not solid, but comprised of several boards glued together. Feet get a lot of abuse from vacuums and feet passing by. This photo shows the patches on two of the feet in a semi-carved state. they were later finished and touched up to match the existing finish.
One of the drawer bottoms had become very warped and was beyond repair. I used the original as a template for the new one. In order to do this I had to clamp the old bottom down to the new in several places in order to get an accurate tracing.This is seen in the photo below.
Below is a photo of the new bottom on the right next to the old drawer bottom on the left. You can see the amount that the old bottom had warped. It had also become delaminated.
Below is a photo of the old hardware on the right next to the new hardware on the left. The new hardware was slightly larger and had a more traditional profile than the old. It was also made from solid brass rather than  brass plated metal.
The old hardware was also pressed as seen below to give it the depth of brass hardware. The next photo shows the back of the new hardware that was flat and not pressed. Overall, the new hardware was a nice addition to the piece.

One last photo of the repairs was gluing down the lamination on the dividers for the windows. You can also see in this photo how warped the divider had become. To deal with this, I reversed the dividers when I put them back in to flatten them against the glass. The next two photos show the completed desk.


  1. I have acquired a Northwestern Furniture Secretary #590. The basic parts are in fairly good shape, but the finish has seen some hard use. Pitted, scratched and dirty. My question is what type of finish was used on this piece and what needs to be done to "restore" this piece? Can it be done without stripping? I would like to retain as much of the original finish as possible. Thanks for any suggestion you might have.
    Glenn McConnell glennmc@bellsouth.net

  2. We have this same secretary. Where can we get it appraised?

    1. Did you get it appraised. I have the same exact thing

  3. Have very similar secretary (the cubed slot area is curved instead of straight). It is in a state of disassembly as my sister had removed all the paint my grandmother had put on it over the years, and need to complete. Process used to resore the finish on yours?

  4. I have recently restored the same Secretary desk made by the Northwestern Furniture Company in Burlington, Iowa. It's mahogany and I did strip all the wood, stained with Red Mahogany stain and coated with lacquer and hand rubbed that. The result is beautiful. I would like to sell that one and another one that is similar but a different make.

  5. I have the Governor Winthrop desk that I found in the 1931 Northwestern Catalogue. It has been in my family since it's original purchase. It seems to me that it was really never a valuable piece of furniture as evidenced by the numerous blocks of wood which do not match and comprise the drawers and other issues as well. I am thinking of painting it. Should I be convinced otherwise?

    It has been in my family since it was originally purchased and is in good condition

  6. We have acquired a Northwestern Cabinet Co. 542M Secretary...with out the feet/legs and the Scrollwork and /or finial that once adorned the top. Would you have any ideas as to what these original parts were and or looked like?

  7. I inherited a desk of this exact same model from my grandmother. You are the only one I have been able to find with any information on it. It was originally purchased in Washington state from a business that no longer exists. Does anyone know of a website where you can search archived business records?