You won’t be standing alone

A brief history of productivity at standing height

When I think of the standing desk, I think of it as a contemporary solution to our sedentary lives. Face it, we are not meant to sit for eight hours a day; hundreds of years ago humans walked up to fifteen miles a day, and more recently people were on their feet working on the farms and fields.

“A sedentary life may be injurious. It must therefore be your resolute care to keep your body as upright as possible when you read and write; never stoop your head nor bend your breast. To prevent this, you should get a standing desk.”

This was actually written in 1797 by a Presbyterian minister called Job Orton. He was not even the first to mention problems associated with too much sitting; at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot had written that desk-bound intellectuals suffered from poor circulation and engorgement of their innards; bad posture made them susceptible to dropsy and hemorrhoids.

It is no wonder then that some of the brightest minds in history started to stand up at work. It is said that Leonardo da Vinci worked at a standing desk, but there is no real proof that he did. It sounds very plausible, though; Da Vinci was an inventor who was ahead of his times. And while he may not have designed a standing desk per se, one of his inventions did inspire a contemporary design of a sit-to-stand desk.

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Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have used one, but the first real evidence of a historical figure using a standing desk is Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States….and an inventor. One of his inventions was the tall desk, as he called it. He drew the specifications himself and gave them to a cabinet maker in Williamsburg to build sometime in 1780. The resulting desk featured a slanted top that could be adjusted with a ratchet and had six legs to improve stability. You can see the design for yourself at Monticello, his estate in Virginia, but there is a second example in the State Department up to this day. It certainly inspired Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld to employ a standing desk himself.

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Standing desks were very popular in the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. While Jefferson never filed a patent for his standing desk (he thought inventions should benefit all of society), hundreds of others did. History is full of references about them, and searching Google Books for the words ‘standing desk’ brings up 530,000 results. One random example is Wright’s Bookkeeping Simplified by Prince Albert Wright (1901). In a chapter called Office Routine Illustrated, he says: ‘On the opposite side of the room are represented three men standing at a long, high desk, with stool and waste basket beside each…’

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Biographies are filled with references to standing desks, like this one in Katie Louchheim’s The Making of the New Deal about Judge Holmes:

“He had a big, flat-topped lovely desk beside a window that faced on a little garden. In the western corner was a standing desk. I think it had belonged to a grandfather of his. In those days people wrote standing at a desk. He frequently stood at that desk…”

A contemporary of Judge Holmes was Winston Churchill who wrote many of his famous speeches and over thirty books while standing at his desk. In this case, the picture below says more than a thousand words.

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Most famous people back in the day who worked on a standing desk were writers, including:

● Charles Dickens: “books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs,” a friend described.

● Vladimir Nabokov: “Nabokov would be back at his desk by one-thirty and work steadily until six-thirty. Normally he would have started the day in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought,’ standing ‘at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spin, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study.” As described in Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

● Virginia Woolf: “She had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand at her work,” her nephew Quentin Bell said. Some say that Woolf saw her books as canvases, and she liked stepping away from them for a while to consider them from different angles.

Another author was Ernest Hemingway; he actually made his own standing desk, as described in 1954 by George Plimpton in the Paris Review:

“It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window. A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”

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Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross when he was hit by a mortar shell on the Italian front in 1918. His leg, which had fragments of shell in them from the explosion, would bother him for the rest of his life. It was at the suggestion of one of his editors that he started employing a standing desk, or in his case, a DIY standing desk. It is no surprise that an editor would make a suggestion like this; starting in the late eighteen hundreds, newspaper office were stocked with standing desks.

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An article in Popular Science from 1897 has the following entry:

“At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should at once get a telescope-desk. Literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits, though, as the alternative of a standing-desk, I should prefer a Turkish writing-tablet and a square yard of carpet cloth to squat upon. But Schreber’s telescope-desk enables the writer to sit and stand by turns, and has the further advantage of a sloping top that eases the wrist by resting the weight of the arm upon the elbow.”

There are always professions that are more likely to use a standing desk, such as architects for example, and many companies now offer their employees the choice. Facebook, for example, has over 300 employees standing on the job. Visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have even taken the standing rage on step further, they hold walking meetings. Even this is not a new idea, though, as Aristotle took his students for a walk during his teachings in Ancient Greece.

While the standing desk lost popularity in the mid- twentieth century, it is making a comeback now. People from all professions are showing interest after several studies have shown the benefits of standing up while working. Standing desks have become more readily available and at better prices; and the advent of sit-to-stand desks has eliminated the need for two different desks so you can enjoy the best of both worlds at the touch of a button.

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