Sitting down to work dates back to Egypt in around 3000 BC, where the daily, back-breaking, physical work such as hammering was eased by the invention of a tilting, three-legged stool. It’s only in relatively recent times though, that the majority of us have transitioned to a largely sedentary work set up. Technology dictated this change, originally triggered by the industrial revolution and subsequent automation of many formerly manual jobs. In 1960, just 15.5% of the workforce were desk-bound, but that figure has now jumped to an estimated 80%, and the health implications of ‘sitting disease’ are becoming clear.
Standing desks provide an alternative to huge swathes of time spent seated and the associated lack of movement. Keeping the body upright and active while working promotes efficiency, focus and concentration, as well many physical health benefits such as decreased risk of heart failure, cancer and diabetes, reduced back pain, and lowered cholesterol.
This is by no means a new remedy though. It was common for monks to stand before their writing desks in the scriptorium. The standing desk had its first public health recommendation in 1797, when a Presbyterian minister called Job Orton advised “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.” Around the same time, Samuel-Auguste Tissot, a Swiss physician, warned that being seated all day at a desk risked poor circulation, bad posture and hemorrhoids.
Across history, some of the most eminent figures chose to stand while they worked. In 15th century Italy, Leonardo da Vinci stood to paint the Mona Lisa, and to sketch his inventions, including helicopters, parachutes and armored vehicles. He is quoted as saying "standing whilst working helps my creative juices flow freely."
Standing desks were used in the Cambridge University library in 1626, and in 18th century France, Napoléon Bonaparte found standing at his desk heightened his quick thinking and gave him an advantage while he worked through battle strategies.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, also liked to work standing up, and is actually thought to have designed and developed the first adjustable standing desk. The ‘tall desk’ as it was called, was like a podium with six legs. The top lifted up and could be tilted to the angle desired by the user, and a secondary desktop could be pulled out with a handle to provide an extra work surface. It also had extra notches cut into the front legs to allow the top to be raised higher, important for Jefferson who was over six foot two.
Similarly, Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia, was said to be standing at his desk by five every morning, and Winston Churchill always used an upright desk. He preferred to either stand or lie down to work, never sit, and when at home, Churchill wrote at a standing desk given to him by his predecessor Benjamin Disraeli.
Many famous authors are also known to have written standing up. The writer Elizabeth Gaskell, who regularly contributed to Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine, Household Words, noted after a visit to his house that Dickens wrote at a standing desk, “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.”
Virginia Woolf’s nephew and biographer Quentin Bell described how Woolf “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to do her work.”
There’s a photo from the early 1950s of Stan Lee, Marvel Comics creator, standing at his desk in his garden with the caption “Always wrote standing up – good for the figure – and always faced the sun – good for the suntan!”
But the last word goes to Ernest Hemingway, who said “I like to write standing up to reduce the old belly and because you have more vitality on your feet. Who ever went ten rounds sitting on his ass?”
- Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing by Michael Slater
- Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell
- The Good Life According To Hemingway by A. E. Hotchner