I shared my post "Flipping Jefferson's Desk" with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello to get their opinion on my theory. Their associate curator, Diane Ehrenpreis, was not convinced. She referred to "first hand accounts that Jefferson used the three pieces of furniture as we [Monticello] show." She described the use of casters as to how Jefferson could get his legs under the desk. She also claimed my arrangement of the suite (the term used to describe the 3 pieces) would not fit in the cabinet room.
I made a passionate rebuttal.
"The human body", I wrote in reply, "just isn't designed to sit forward with the legs straight out. In order to use the ottoman, the body has to lean back in the chair so the legs can rest comfortably. However, this position is very unsuitable for writing." I invited Mr. Ehrenpreis to try writing a letter while leaning forward in the proper writing position at the desk (left image) to demonstrate just how uncomfortable it is to do with the legs extended. The only comfortable way to use the ottoman is to lean back into the chair and this is opposite of a comfortable writing position. I continued with more reasoning, "The problem with the ottoman under the desk is that you can't swing your legs into position or cross your feet - which is what makes ottomans so comfortable and easy to use." Gaining momentum (or so I thought), I suggested, "...perhaps the claims about Jefferson using his suite are based on assumption or poor recollection as to the actual manner in which he used the suite." Regarding the suite fitting in the room if it were rearranged; well, I guess I haven't tried rearranging the suite at Monticello, but from the pictures of the room, it sure looks like it could fit with the ottoman behind the chair.
Ms. Ehrenpreis' second response was very brief. My theory, she wrote, "just wasn't so". She noted Jefferson's arthritis saying "he specifically chose this posture and seating arrangement for his personal use and comfort."
Ms. Ehrenpreis is a highly respected curator at Monticello. She is an academic. She has far more historical knowledge and access to the suite than I do. As much as I enjoyed our discussion, there was nothing more I could say to convince her that I was on to something. My theory is hands-on, legs up, and posture tested over long periods of time. It's physical application and, apparently, inapplicable to Jefferson's use... because of his arthritis? Perhaps it is only an alternative arrangement of Jefferson's suite, but for me and, I presume, most people; the trailing ottoman is far more usable and comfortable than one under the desk. In any case, the Jefferson suite is a versatile invention, customizable for anyone to use, even a novice historian and day dreamer like me.
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