Eliza Law Custis Lap Desk, ca. 1795
The French lap desk still holds original papers from the 1820s written by the Washingtons' granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, attesting that the desk was sent to her as a gift by the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Marquis de Lafayette (1757 - 1834), a French aristocrat and military leader, became a hero of the American Revolution and a close friend of General George Washington.
(Image from clipart.com.)
During the 18th and 19th centuries, lap desks — also known as writing boxes or writing cabinets — were used within homes, where they were placed on tables, as well as by travelers who were away from home. Generally made of mahogany or walnut, lap desks are similar to briefcases in some way and have compartments for paper, ink, and sealing wax.
The lady's lap desk presented in the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW video was given as a gift to Eliza Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, by the Marquis de Lafayette. A wealthy citizen of France, Lafayette came to America to support George Washington and the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Lafayette was not only a key military ally of Washington, but he also became a close friend of the Washington family. In fact, Lafayette named his son George Washington Lafayette and asked Washington to be his son's godfather.
A plaque inscribed on the front of the lap desk documents that Eliza Custis gave this piece to her daughter, Eliza Law, in 1823. This object provides an excellent example of the importance of provenanceThe record of ownership of a work of art or antique object, often used as a guide to the item's quality, authenticity, and value., or history of ownership, in determining an item's value. "The provenance of this box is absolutely ironclad," observes the appraiserAn expert who assesses the value, quality, and authenticity of works of art or other objects.. With this in mind, he estimates the value of the lap desk at between $30,000 and $50,000.
A Closer Look
- What is a lap desk? What function did it serve? What does it tell you about the kind of writing that people did in the 18th century? Who would have owned a lap desk?
- What objects do we use for writing today? What would these objects tell future generations about us?
- Where was the lap desk crafted? Who was Eliza Parke Custis? From whom did Eliza Parke Custis receive the lap desk? What does the history of this object suggest about the political relationship between France and the United States during the Revolutionary period?
- What value did the appraiser place on the lap desk? How was this object's value affected by its provenance and by its intersection with historical figures?
- Consider the detail and ornamentation of the lap desk. How long might this piece have taken to create? What steps do you think the craftsperson probably took to create it? (Possible answers include design; finding the wood; cutting and carving the wood; joining the pieces together; and sanding, staining, and polishing the wood.) Would you imagine this to be the work of a novice or an expert craftsman? Why?
Activities and Investigations
- Read the article "The Washington-Custis Connection" on this site. Then make a graphic representation summarizing how this lap desk began its life in France and came to belong to one-year-old Eliza Law.
- Read several letters from the 18th century. How are they similar to and different from today's letters? Write an 18th-century-style letter to a friend about some aspect of your day or life.
- Identify another object from daily life during the Revolutionary period, such as an earthenware pitcher, a bed warmer, or fire irons. Describe this object and explain how its form and function have evolved from the 18th century to the present. Why do you think its form or function changed?
- Learn more about the relationship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. What evidence can you find — in the form of primary sources or artifactsAn object made by a human being, typically an item of historical or cultural interest. — of the friendship that developed between Lafayette and members of Washington's family?
- Design or make your own lap desk. If making a desk, use any materials at your disposal. Or make your own item that could be given as a gift by a political leader (either historical or contemporary) hoping to strengthen his or her friendship with members of a foreign ally's family.
- Investigate the history of craftsmanship during the Revolutionary era. How did apprentices learn their trade? At what age and under what conditions did apprentices typically begin their training?
For Further Exploration
Marquis de Lafayette Biography
In-depth profile of Lafayette, along with an extensive collection of links.
American Revolution Digital Learning Project
An introduction to the people who founded, witnessed, or opposed the birth of the United States, as told through period newspapers, broadsides, diaries, letters, maps, and family papers.
Rediscovering George Washington
Companion site to a film that explores Washington's life and times, and includes teaching resources, audio readings of some of Washington's letters, and a collection of primary-source images.
Maryland Historical Society
Eliza Custis-Marquis de Lafayette Correspondence, 1778-1828
Letters written between Eliza Custis and Lafayette, from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
Includes information about the estate and a biography and time line of George Washington's life.
Why Not Lafayette?
by Jean Fritz (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1999)
Describes the life of Lafayette and discusses his role in the American Revolution.
Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution
by David A. Clary (Bantam Books, 2007)
Conveys the importance of the personal and political friendship between Washington and Lafayette.
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