Although rarely heard these days, the term "davenport" can refer to two totally unrelated pieces of furniture: a type of sofa or a type of writing desk. One was developed by a furniture company and the other piece was designed for a ship's captain. Today, davenport is used as an older, but more generic and formal term in the furniture industry. Read on to learn about the history and designs of davenport furniture.
Davenport, the Sofa
The use of the term "davenport" for a large upholstered sofa began around 1900 when the Cambridge, Massachusetts, furniture manufacturer A.H. Davenport Co. created a boxy sofa, now iconic. The term can also mean a sleeper sofa.
What's the difference between a davenport and a sofa or couch? It depends on what part of the country you ask. The term davenport is rarely used today except regionally, where it has limited use as a synonym for "couch." In areas of the Midwest, for example, as well as the Adirondack region, older adults may still use the term to refer to any couch. In some parts of the country, the term is associated with a particular type of formal couch or with a futon-style couch with storage drawers in its base.
The A.H. Davenport Co. was one of the most prominent American furniture manufacturers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The company manufactured custom upscale furniture and partnered with well-known architects such as H.H. Richardson and Stanford White to produce grand interiors. The Davenport Co. produced custom-made furniture pieces for the White House renovation of 1902; the New York Court of Appeals Room; the John J. Glessner House in Chicago; the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; the J. the Massachusetts State House in Boston; and the Henry Clay Frick House in New York City, among many others.
The Davenport Co. merged with the Boston furniture maker and interior design house Irving & Casson in 1914 to form the Irving & Casson—A.H. Davenport Co. After a long decline, the once-legendary company closed for good in 1973.
Davenport, the Desk
The second known use for the term "davenport" is for a small British desk that is unique in form. This desk, also called a ship captain's desk, was originally made for a man known only as Captain Davenport, who originally commissioned it from the Gillows of Lancaster company near the end of the 18th century. This type of desk was extremely popular in the 19th century and especially in the Victorian era.
The davenport desk has a slanting top that can be lifted on hinges. Beneath the desktop is a compartment for writing supplies, as well as drawers and pigeonholes. The desk features drawers and cupboards that open on the side, not the front. It looks a bit like an old-fashioned school desk of the early 20th century, only larger. Original examples of this desk can be found at auctions, in vintage furniture stores, and online. It is still made as a reproduction and owners find that it adds an interesting element to a study or living room.