The Standing Desk: What’s Old is New Again

When I started using a standing desk at the day job, I thought I was onto something new.

Turns out I was wrong.

In fact, standing desks have been used for much of human history. The elevated surfaces were built so that people could stand and write on a slanted surface. Tall stools were often nearby for when people needed to sit for a bit.

Members of the Doctors Commons, a society of lawyers, stand while working. (circa 1857)

Members of the Doctors Commons, a society of lawyers, stand while working. (circa 1857)

Thomas Jefferson was among the first on record to adopt the standing desk; he designed his own in the 1700s.

The nation’s third president came up with an adjustable desk that allowed him to stand (maybe while writing the Declaration of Independence?) or to bring it down to a level where he could sit  on a stool.

The six-legged desk also had an adjustable work surface that slanted upward.

The standing desk designed by Thomas Jefferson.

The standing desk designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens were also known to use standing desks.

Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, wrote that 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.”

I’m not sure why they all worked on their feet, but I was motivated by health concerns and the impact of sitting for too many hours each day–first at the day job and then at home while writing my novels.

Multiple studies suggest people who sit for extended periods of time run an increased risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, leg disorders, soft bones…not to mention a sore backside.

Way back in 1883, Popular Science magazine also cited health reasons when encouraging readers to use standing desks.

“At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should 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.”

Illustration for an adjustable standing desk from an 1899 book, "School Hygiene," by Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann, John A. Bergström and Edward Conradi.

Illustration for an adjustable standing desk from an 1899 book, “School Hygiene,” by Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann, John A. Bergström and Edward Conradi.

A man stands while he works in this painting from 1829.

A man stands while he works in this painting from 1829.

Ernest Hemingway always stood while he worked, according to a 1958 Paris Review article:

“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.

Ernest Hemingway types at his standing desk.

Ernest Hemingway types at his standing desk.

In the book, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, AE Hotchner describes Hemingway’s set-up at his home in Havana:

“He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand up work place he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing.”

In Engaging the Earl, war hero Edward Stanhope returns home on the evening the woman he left behind becomes engaged to another man.

In Engaging the Earl, war hero Edward Stanhope returns home on the evening the woman he left behind becomes engaged to another man.

People have asked me if the creative juices flow while I’m standing up.

I was on my feet for much of the time while completing my latest book, Engaging the Earl, which is out today. (Shameless Plug Alert: $.99 for a limited time!)

I’ll admit writing was a challenge at first, but now I don’t even think about it. In fact, I’m more comfortable standing for four or five hours each day.

All in all, I feel much better, my body isn’t as stiff, my bottom doesn’t get sore, and I rarely get those aches across the back of my shoulders that I feel after sitting for long periods of time.

I’m such a fan that I am ready to get rid of my makeshift standing desk at home to splurge on the real thing.

After all, Hemingway, Woolf, Carroll and the rest of them must have been onto something!

And before I leave you…

5 Interesting Reasons to Read ENGAGING THE EARL

1. The hero returns from years at war on the evening the woman he left behind becomes engaged to another man.

2. Edward suffers from nostalgia…which is known today as Post Traumatic Stress (The U.S. military has stopped referring to this condition as a disorder–dropping the D from PTSD–to remove the stigma associated with it.)

3. The heroine’s dog helps Edward cope with his attacks. I decided to bring a dog into the story after being moved by an article about an Iraq war veteran whose trained service dog helps him manage his PTS.

4. Edward is loosely inspired by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who wasn’t allowed to marry an earl’s daughter because he was a second son with no prospects. Ten years later, after gaining a dukedom for his war service, Wellington returned to marry the woman he left behind.

5. Engaging the Earl is only $.99 for a limited time. And who doesn’t love a good bargain?

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24 Comments

  1. Jenna Blue

     /  June 9, 2014

    Hi Diana. As you know I was having troubles myself and often had to stand and write during the draft of Unhinged Evil. Still have my milk crate at the ready, but am using it rarely these days because now–foot issues! Ack!
    So enjoyed your post! The quotes and pictures are fab! And I can’t wait to read Engaging the Earl. I always love a good engaged-to-someone-else story! Good luck with the sale, I’m off to buy it now!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 9, 2014

      Hi Jenna,
      I do remember you standing during one of our writing retreats. Sorry to hear you have foot issues :( I have had to give up super-cute shoes for more sensible ones suitable for standing. I miss the happening shoes but am adjusting…

      Reply
  2. Lori

     /  June 9, 2014

    Happy Release Day Diana! I signed up for an ARC of Engaging the Earl – read it in a day – it’s awesome people. Anyway (sorry) Vera holds a soft spot in my heart. I suffer from seizures and anytime one is coming on me my golden retriever stays by my side through the attack. I really loved that extra layer you added into your book. As for standing I admire anybody who can (I can’t ironically for health reasons) and now that you mention it in A Christmas Carol and I believe in Mary Poppins the bankers are standing. Great post to get me thinking (with this brain it doesn’t happen often)
    Lori

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 9, 2014

      Hi Lori –
      I’m so glad you enjoyed Engaging the Earl. I have to admit, I loved Vera the dog as well. I’m sorry to hear about your seizures but it’s moving to hear that your golden retriever stays by your side throughout the attack. There is an innate, sweet alertness in dogs that makes them truly special.

      Reply
  3. Oh, hey! I have trouble with my shoulders aching when I write or even proofread for long periods of time. I’ll have to try this thing of which you speak!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 11, 2014

      Hi Sally – Your back might hurt for a little while after you try standing but it goes away and you’ll feel much better overall. I know I did!

      Reply
  4. Happy Release Day! I’m off to buy your book.
    Thomas Jefferson is always an inspiration to me, but I’ve done him one better on this one: I have a walking desk, using my treadmill. Built it myself!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 9, 2014

      We always knew you were smart, Nancy! How do you like the treadmill desk? How often do you use it and for how long? Inquiring minds want to know!

      Reply
  5. Very interesting post and a sobering reminder of just how much time I spend sitting. Thanks, Diana, for giving me both food for thought and a practical suggestion for my home office. Congratulations on your new release too.

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 9, 2014

      Hi Jen – Good luck! I know some people stand while reading through email and checking social media and then sit for the more serious work. I tend to stand until lunch time (4-5 hours) and then sit for the rest of the day at the day job.

      Reply
      • Hi Diana, Another useful tip – thanks again. I have a day job where I wouldn’t be able to stand but my writing work is a different matter.

  6. Very interesting bit o’history! I could use a stand up day or two myself. If nothing else but to waylay the bunched shoulders and cramped neck. Good luck with the release day! Just got myself a copy for my Kindle.

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 9, 2014

      Hi Nicole – Standing totally takes away the should and neck pain, at least it does for me. When I sit, it all comes back! Thanks for taking the time to try out ENGAGING THE EARL :)

      Reply
  7. Reblogged this on Embrace the Unknown and commented:
    I don’t know about you, but too much of my time is spent sitting down. I’m either driving or planted behind a laptop for 12 hours a day and it’s no surprise I have knots in my back as well as my legs.

    A standing desk is a genius idea that’s been around forever and could use a comeback, in my opinion. Sitting is a killer and I, for one, need a change.

    Check out The Violet Femmes blog post on the topic and consider it. Would you make the transition and stand?

    Reply
  8. Great post, Diana! I had no idea that Hemingway had a standing desk as well. I’m trying to get up and walk around every hour or so, and I find it helps with the creativity as well. Congrats on your release!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  June 10, 2014

      Hi Tina – I love the picture of Hemingway at his desk. You’d think he’d have come up with a more elaborate set up! Thanks for the congrats :)

      Reply
  9. This is amazing! I never would have guessed. You’re making me want to stand up to write this. Congrats on the release! I loved this book. :-)

    Reply
  10. Diana Quincy

     /  June 10, 2014

    Hi Joanna – Thanks about the book! And, sadly, I confess that I am sitting while writing this :/

    Reply
  11. Hi Diana, I love how you based your new character on a real historical person! In my day job, I have a standing desk. Or desks…like twenty of them, all with students seated behind them. ;) You are an inspiration and I will do my best this summer to stand and write. Maybe drop a few pounds while I’m at it. Best wishes on your release. Michele

    Reply
  12. Hi Diana! what a great blog post! I had no idea that Dickens and Lewis Carroll also used standing desks and that they went back to the Victorian period. I also use a standing desk as part of my role here at Posturite and having worked in many other offices in my time can say that the standing desk has made a huge difference to how i work, I also feel much more energised. I use the Deskrite 500 writing standing desk (I’ve attached the link below) :) congrats on your book release! http://www.posturite.co.uk/deskrite-300.html

    Reply
  13. Hi, Diana,
    Sorry I’m late to the party! I never really thought about a standing desk, although I knew Nancy Herkness built her treadmill desk. With my foot issues right now, it might not be the time to try this, but it definitely gives me food for thought. The one thing I dislike about being a writer is sitting on my derriere all day long. ;)

    Thanks for giving us the history behind this. It’s something to consider, for sure!

    Jaye

    Reply
  14. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  July 8, 2014

    Hi Diana,

    First I have to say…I LOVE Engaging the Earl! Well done. I just love your voice and writing style.

    Second, I’m glad to hear you are enjoying the benefits of a standing desk. About a year ago when I was dealing with a nasty pinched nerve in my neck I researched the benefits of this and brought them to my employer. Apparently there are a few people who have them in my company but it is on the employee to finance the modifications to their work area. In the end I got a wireless headset for work which gives me a lot more freedom to get up and move around. When it comes to my writing world, I need to revisit this…create a stand or something for my laptop and keep moving. Thanks for the history on this and the great reminder.

    RoseAnn

    Reply

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