The term “Davenport” can refer to two different, and entirely unrelated, types of furniture. Most commonly in America, the word “davenport” refers to a large, boxy couch, or can refer to any piece of upholstered furniture that is large enough to comfortably lie on. Though in Britain and antique stores that specialize in Victorian furniture, a Davenport is a style of writing desk.
Sound confusing? We understand, which is why we're here to break down what exactly is a davenport. Read on to learn about each furniture piece and the origin of the Davenport name.
What Is a Davenport?
If living in North America, a davenport most often is referring to a large lounger sofa. The British term means writing desk, instead. "Davenport" was originally the name of a series of sofas made by the Massachusetts furniture manufacturer A. H. Davenport and Company. Since it was such a popular model, the name stuck to describe the furniture piece.
What is a Davenport Couch?
The original Davenport couch was designed and built by the A.H. Davenport & Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Established in the mid-19th century, Davenport & Co. designed and manufactured upscale furniture for prominent members of society, and created custom furniture for many notable buildings. Most famously, the company worked with the famed architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White during their renovations of The White House during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.
In the late 1800s, the Davenport Furniture Company designed the iconic Davenport sofa, with a large, boxy design that was fully upholstered. Over time, the name “Davenport” became synonymous with all couches, much like Q-Tips and Kleenex—both trademarked name brands—became synonymous with all cotton swabs and tissues.
The original Davenport sofa was phenomenally popular, but as the usage of its name changed, so did the type of sofa it referred to. Because Davenport sofas were large, upholstered, and comfortable to sleep on, the term “Davenport” was used to describe sleeper sofas.
Once the name Davenport became a widely accepted synonym for couches, it could be applied to sofas that had little to no resemblance to the original design. By the middle of the 20th century, it could refer to a futon-style couch with drawers for storage built into the base. In some corners of the country, the word Davenport was exclusively used to describe higher-end couches used for formal living or sitting room, as opposed to couches that might be placed in a den or recreation room.
Today, the term Davenport is rarely used, though it still survives as a part of regional slang in New England and the Midwest. Even then, it’s predominantly used by older people who remember the Davenport sofas of the early-to-mid 20th century.
What is a Davenport Desk?
Davenport desks originated in Great Britain in the late 18th century. The first Davenport desk was made by upscale British furniture maker Gillows of Lancaster, commissioned by Captain Davenport; the details of Captain Davenport’s life, including his first name, have been lost to history, but it is known that he was the captain of a ship, which is why the design is also known as a ship captain’s desk.
Davenport desks bear some resemblance to the slanted school desks of yore, though they are much larger, and have more features. Davenports have a pitched writing surface attached to the frame with hinges; lifting the desktop reveals a large compartment for storing paper and writing supplies, with small drawers and pigeonholes for storing additional items, like ink and fasteners. The writing surfaces of most original Davenport desks were covered in leather.
A Davenport desk offers additional storage in drawers and cupboards located on one of its sides, which may be concealed by a decorative panel. These storage areas make up the back of the desk, and support the bulk of its weight. The front of the desk is supported by two legs or pillars that are usually carved in ornate designs. The bottoms of Davenport desks were fitted with casters so that they could be moved around easily.
Davenport desks were moderately popular during Britain’s late 18th-century Georgian era and became an extremely fashionable piece of furniture by the mid-19th century Victorian era. Though they’re rarely manufactured today, some smaller furniture makers offer styles inspired by or similar to the original Davenport desk design. If you’re interested in putting a Davenport desk in your home, the best places to find them are in vintage furniture stores, antique shops, estate auctions, and specialty retailers online.