Did Da Vinci Really Use a Standing Desk? Probably Not. But Plenty of Other Famous People Did and Do.
You know that thing where a plausible-sounding but demonstrably false idea takes on a life of its own and becomes conventional wisdom?
It would appear that this phenomenon is afflicting the lore around famous standing-desk users.
More articles and web pages than I can count have repeated a very similar list of famous historical figures who ostensibly used standing desks.
These lists appear mainly in two places – 1) in news stories which appear to have relied on Wikipedia as their sole source of information on famous-stander and 2) in promotions from standing-desk vendors and manufacturers.
I have verified (see below) that most of the folks on these lists actually worked standing up, but there is substantial doubt that some of the most famous alleged historical standers actually worked at a stand-up desk.
As a long-time office-fitness evangelist, I have no problem with marketers using a variety of persuasive techniques to get people to buy and use standing desks.
And there is nothing more persuasive than a parade of stellar role models who have used the product you’re selling.
But as a critical reader, a card-carrying member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a close friend of many rigorous thinkers, I can’t stand idly by as misinformation is perpetuated.
So, in the rest of this article, I will quickly debunk a few of the more egregious misappropriations of historical role models.
And then I’ll share a long list of famous people who actually did use a standing desk.
Famous Standing Desk User #1: Abraham Lincoln
My favorite bogus entry in this genre is this quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration for the Emancipation Proclamation:
“Verily, ’tis my standing desk that gave me the inspiration to end this wicked and iniquitous trade.”
This is obviously a satirist having some fun with the “Abraham Lincoln, the source of all internet quotes” meme. But I bet more than one uncritical reader has skimmed over this list and added Lincoln, Ghengis Khan, and Steve Jobs to their standing-desk hall of fame.
I suppose it’s also possible that someone came upon this picture of Lincoln’s officemate’s standing desk and mistakenly thought that Lincoln used it.
Famous Standing Desk User #2: Benjamin Franklin
The case of Benjamin Franklin being portrayed as a standing-desk user better illustrates what I suspect is going on here.
Most of us would find Franklin’s inclusion in a list of standing-desk users plausible, even likely, given his well-documented fondness for innovation.
But there is scarcely any evidence that he ever actually used a standing desk.
The case for Franklin using a standing desk seems to trace back to a Saturday Evening Post cover that shows him standing at what looks to me to be a normal sitting desk that is for some reason elevated on a platform.
So I searched for more evidence, scouring Google, Bing, and other search engines for terms like standing desk, stand-up desk, desk, stand, stood, stood to work, etc. linked to Franklin. There is only one other image that shows him at what might be a standing desk, and it shows only his upper body and the desktop.
Virtually every portrait of Franklin shows him sitting.
The University of Pennsylvania takes justifiable pride in holding his mahogany writing desk in its library, which is clearly a sitting desk.
More to the point, I cannot find a single document, book reference, scholarly citation, or other mention of him ever using a standing desk – except in poorly researched news articles and on marketing pages devoted to selling standing desks. When I visited the Ben Franklin house in Philadelphia in December of 2016, none of the several museum staff I asked had ever heard of him using a standing desk.
Furthermore, Franklin was notoriously sedentary, likely because he suffered from gout. Anyone who has suffered from gout can tell you that standing is far and away their least favorite activity.
Bottom line: It is highly doubtful that Benjamin Franklin used a standing desk much of the time, it at all.
Famous Standing Desk User #3: Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci is credited with so many inventions and innovations that it wouldn’t surprise any of us if he turned out to be an early standing-desk user, too.
But there’s not a shred of evidence that I can find that connects Da Vinci with standing to work. No credible mentions in any web, book, scholar, or image searches at Google or Bing. No mention in “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” or similar documents.
There is a standing desk named the “Da Vinci” – maybe that contributes to the myth.
I won’t go any further down this rabbit hole right, but I bet that if I did I’d find that somewhere along the line someone just tacked Da Vinci’s name on to a list, which led to a citation on Wikipedia, which served as a source for a poorly researched news story, which gave other reporters and marketers a seemingly plausible reason to add Da Vinci’s name to their list. And so on and so on.
Damn you, Wikipedia!
But Plenty of Famous People Actually Did, and Do, Use Standing Desks
Fortunately, standing-desk enthusiasts need not despair.
Most of the folks who appear on these lists actually did work standing up.
As I researched the names on these lists, I didn’t set a super-high bar for proof – I was just looking for the slightest shred of evidence that the famous figure in question had indeed stood to work.
All of the names below passed this threshold.
Writers and Literary Figures
Lewis Carroll very likely wrote “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Jabberwocky” at a standing desk. In “Lewis Carroll: Interviews and Recollections,” Morton Cohen wrote that Carroll “worked always at a standing desk.”
In the biography “Charles Dickens,” Michael Slater quotes the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell who described Dickens’ office: “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.”
A photo on a British antique dealer’s website shows the standing desk “actually used by Charles Dickens,” according the British antique dealer who is selling it, “a rare Georgian mahogany standing desk with an exceptional detailed provenance.”
Ernest Hemingway is probably the best-known and best-documented famous standing desk user.
If you’ve been researching standing desks, you have no doubt seen many times the pictures of him standing at a make-shift standing desk, which involved simply setting his typewriter on top of a bookshelf.
In a 1958 interview in The Paris Review, the journalist George Plimpton wrote, “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.”
In case you’re wondering, the kudu is a variety of African antelope, which Hemingway likely killed and skinned himself to create his standing pad. Nowadays, a variety of more humanely created standing mats are available.
A much-circulated photo of him writing in his back yard bears this caption: “Always wrote standing up – good for the figure – and always faced the sun – good for the suntan!”
The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov didn’t stand all day, but he did begin his writing days at a makeshift standing desk.
“I generally start the day at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I lie down in a corner of my small study.”
This quote from Graeme Harper’s “Creative Writing Guidebook,” shows that Nabokov was not only a regular stander, but also an early practitioner of regular posture change throughout the workday, which is now widely regarded as an office-fitness best practice.
Like many writers, the novelist Philip Roth is a creature of habit. And one of his routines is to work standing up.
It’s not hard to find references to Roth’s standing habit. Here’s just one example from the Daily Routines website:
“Roth wakes early and, seven days a week, walks fifty yards or so to a two-room studio. The front room is outfitted with a fireplace, a desk, and a computer set up on a kind of lectern where he can write standing up, the better to preserve a bad back. ”
The playwright August Wilson not only stood to work; he also took the the idea of the active office to athletic extremes.
Here’s a passage from a 2008 Guardian newspaper article about him:
“Wilson wrote standing up, at a high, cluttered accounting desk. For years, an Everlast punching bag was suspended from the ceiling about two steps behind. When Wilson was in full flow and the dialogue was popping, he’d stop, pivot, throw a barrage of punches, then turn back to work. ”
It turns out that Virginia Woolf was an early victim of the standing rivalry that has broken out recently in so many offices.
In her case, though, it was old-fashioned sibling rivalry.
Her sister Vanessa Bell was a painter who worked standing at her easel. Not to be outdone, Woolf chose to work standing up. Or, as her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell put it:
“This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.”
Bell also described her standing desk as being three feet, six inches high, which sounds about right ergonomically for the 5′ 7″ writer.
Edward R. Murrow
Radio and television news pioneer Edward R. Murrow was likely inspired to stand by his hero Winston Churchill.
In “With Heroic Truth: The Life of Edward R. Murrow,” Norman H. Finkelstein wrote:
“Ed now had a small, spare office furnished with network-issued desk and chairs and a special stand-up desk, similar to one used by Winston Churchill during the war.”
In addition to this source, I also consulted a friend, Peter Herford, who worked at CBS news in the 1950’s, and he reports, “Yes, he did [use a standing desk]. What I don’t know is whether it was for a back problem or his reverence for Winnie, or both.”
Kate White served for fourteen years as the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.
In a Fast Company article on “What Successful Night Owls Get Done Before Bed,” she described her writing routine:
“My craziest trick is that I regularly do my work standing up at a rolling butcher block counter in my kitchen. If I were to work sitting down, I’d fall asleep. I know it sounds awful, but I think of it as if I’m tending bar in the evening — a bar of ideas.”
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard no doubt thought clearly at his standing desk.
In “Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea,” Svetlana Boym shares how his assistant described Kierkegaard’s home:
“Kierkegaard’s extravagant house-fortress with many rooms, each of them containing a standing desk, so that the wandering writer should jot down his ideas whenever they visited him.”
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche not only appreciated standing; he also enjoyed giving his more sedentary contemporaries a hard time.
In a letter to his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, he wrote:
“I am writing this at my standing desk; my standing desk is against the window, and the window offers a pleasant prospect over the lime trees and the sun-bathed hills.”
But Nietzsche could get a little cranky, too, especially when it came to sedentary behavior.
When Gustave Flaubert claimed that “one cannot think and write except when seated,” Nietzsche retorted, “There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life (das sitzfleisch—literally ‘sitting meat’) is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”
Two quick thoughts on this:
- I bet Nietzsche would have loved a treadmill desk.
- I will from now on be tempted to refer (silently, in my head) to sitting people as “das sitzfleisch.”
The German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms wrote his musical works at a standing desk.
In a 1903 edition of The Windsor Magazine, T. Boughton-Wilby, wrote, “Brahms composed at a simple standing desk which would not have fetched more than two shillings at an auction as the utmost of its intrinsic worth.”
On a more enthusiastic note, historian and composer Robert Greenberg describes his visit to a museum in Vienna:
“The Brahms room contains the mahogany ‘standing desk’ on which he composed. This priceless, peerless object, on which Brahms composed innumerable masterworks, is just sitting there in the middle of the room, there to be touched, stroked, fondled, smelled, caressed, drooled on and worshipped by anyone so inclined to do so.”
This is easily the most effusive standing-desk description I have come across to this point.
Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for songs in some of the most popular musicals of all time – Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, The King and I, and Show Boat – standing up.
In “Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II,” Hugh Ford wrote that early in his career, “Oscar had complained to [his collaborator] Jerry about working at a desk, which he found uncomfortable and confining. Jerry gave him a Victorian traveling desk which [Hammerstein’s wife] Dorothy mounted on legs tall enough for him to work standing up. Oscar used the desk for the rest of his life. ”
The German opera composer Richard Wagner, knew what was important in his work space.
Writing an 1855 letter to his wife about a recent move, Wagner said, “My setting up is fairly finished. A splendid Erard grand [piano] has arrived; I have had a standing-desk built for me, and have already picked up again, as well as I can, the threads of my profitless work.”
Piano first. Standing desk a close second. Self-pity about his low-wage creative career third. Wagner clearly had his priorities in order.
He was an active stander as well.
In their early 20th-century biography of Wagner, Carl Friedrich Glasenapp and William Ashton Ellis wrote, “Standing, not only could he feel himself more in the position of a conductor controlling his orchestra . . . but it left him free to pace his study, as was his wont, while mentally working out a scene or passage.”
Government & Political Figures
Otto von Bismarck
The 19th-Century politician Otto von Bismarck unified Germany and held sway over the continent of Europe from his standing desk.
In an 1896 article entitled “Francis Joseph and His Realm” in The Forum magazine, August Fournier wrote, “Alike in summer and winter the Emperor rises early, and by five o’clock he is occupied at his standing-desk.”
A quainter look into Bismarck’s standing practice was offered in The Ladies’ Repository in 1873: “Those who would like to have a peep at Bismarck’s sanctum may go along with us . . . A very tall standing desk is covered with books and maps.”
The British statesman, WWII-era prime minister, and Nobel laureate Winston Churchill was well known for his use of a standing desk.
Richard M. Langworth, the editor of the Churchill Centre’s quarterly journal Finest Hour, once said in a speech, “When he went to work, usually late at night, he shut himself up in his study, banned loud noises, hired teams of stenographers, and arranged his papers at a stand-up desk. And there, padding up and down in his slippers, he reeled off prose on the small hours.”
In “Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill,” C. Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer wrote, “The flooring of Churchill’s second-floor study deliberately resembled the timbers of a ship’s quarterdeck. Here was the engine room of his literary output, the nerve center where he paced before a crude wooden stand-up desk made by a local carpenter, dictating until late at night. ”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was known for his concise writing style, for which he credited his standing desk.
In “Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers,” Harry Bruce quoted Holmes, “If I sit down, I write a long opinion and don’t come to the point as quickly as I could. If I stand up I write as long as my knees hold out. When they don’t, I know it’s time to stop.”
Or, as he more concisely put it in Catherine Drinker Bowen’s “Yankee from Olympus”: “Nothing conduces to brevity like a caving in of the knees.”
My hunch is that Holmes could have written many more terse decisions if he had had a good standing mat.
Donald Rumsfeld was both an early DIY standing-desk user and one of the first to speculate on the productivity benefits of standing, according to a May 19, 1988 Washington Post story:
“Donald Rumsfeld became a convert before the tall desk was widely available. His first experience working while standing was with a wall-mounted drafting desk in Brussels when he was appointed ambassador to NATO in 1973. Later he bought an old school desk for $215 and mounted it on a credenza. He continued to use a stand-up desk when he was White House chief of staff in 1974 and 1975 and then as secretary of defense from 1975 to 1977.
“[later] Rumsfeld mused about his desk: ‘I can’t claim my brain worked better, but if you feel good, you do tend to work better.'”
Brian Surratt, the director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, attends as many as 30 meetings a week. When he goes back to his office, he works at a standup desk.
“I sit a lot in meetings and when I come back to my standup, I feel physically reengaged.”
Michael Dell, the multi-billionaire whose company has sold millions of affordable PCs, always works standing.
A 2009 cover story in Success magazine reported, “Walk into the hushed executive suite at Dell Computer Corp.’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, and you’ll see a man standing behind a podium desk, both absorbed in and invigorated by his work. Michael Dell’s office has chairs only for visitors. Dell works standing.”
Rand Fishkin, an internet marketing expert known as the “Wizard of Moz” (the name of the company he founded), stands wherever he finds himself working.
A 2014 GeekWire story quotes him as saying, “Both at home and at work I have a standing desk with a very large monitor (30″). I have a really bad case of sciatica, so haven’t been able to sit down and work for several years.”
In addition to the sources mentioned above, I also consulted these web pages:
- Maybe You Should Have Written That at a Standing Desk, The Billfold, 2014
- The Literature of the Standing Desk, The Millions, 2014
- The Standing Desk: What’s Old is New Again, The Violet Femmes, 2014
- Calorie burner: How much better is standing up than sitting?, BBC, 2013
- The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers, Brain Pickings, 2013
- Taking a Stand for Office Ergonomics, NY Times, 2012
- To Sit, to Stand, to Write, Cabinet, 2009
- Learn from the Greats: 7 Writing Habits of Amazing Writers, WritetoDone, 2008
- 12/9/16 – added info from my visit to Ben Franklin museum in Philadelphia
- 7/6/17 – added Brian Surratt to Government & Political Figures section