Oct 4, 2021 6:11 PM

There was a time when Google and its brethren defined themselves as forces for good and enlightenment, as spaces where we crowdsourced knowledge and shared the most intimate details of our lives. We held up “openness” as an inherent virtue; we were building a “commons.” Those days have passed. We now recognize the vulnerabilities inherent in unfettered transparency and the indiscriminate collection of data. As countless journalists and activists and scholars have demonstrated, ours is an age of leaks and hacks, identity theft and surveillance, doxing and public shaming. [1]

It’s also an age of resurgent cybersecurity. Information security and ethics scholar Quinn DuPont reports that, after 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked classified information disclosing the presence of massive global surveillance programs, “the rate of deployment of cryptographic technologies skyrocketed.” [2] A new consultant class also emerged to exploit our fears of exposure. After the 2017 Equifax data breach, companies like LifeLock and IDShield came to the rescue, promising to protect our online identities. [3] And after the 2018 passage of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, compliant websites confronted visitors with an army of intrusive shields, pop-ups informing us about their sites’ tracking techniques and privacy policies. These are just a few among the many new protective apparatae of containment that technologists have built to keep our digital stuff – and selves – safe. [4]

We’re of course not alone in our fascination with security and secrecy (or the lack thereof). Throughout the North Atlantic world, the 18th century was also an age of secrets. [5] The desire for discretion manifested itself then, as it does today, in new methods for organizing the material spaces around us – particularly around our bodies and in our businesses and homes. While women sewed pockets into their garments to secure their personal documents and sentimental objects, architects and builders carved spaces into separate realms for private and public activity, and furniture-makers created new equipment for the private writing and reading – and secret storage – of personal documents. In what follows, we’ll examine these secret drawers and hidden compartments as analog tools of security.

The secret-keepers and privacy-protectors of the analog past might have employed different techniques than we do today, yet we still resort to the construction of containers and keys and ciphers. We continue to practice techniques of obfuscation: today, the “deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, of misleading information,” as Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum describe; and back then, the physical veiling or secret containment of information. [6] Our values and policies about privacy and secrecy are still manifested in the boxes, drawers, and directories we make to contain our records and our private selves. [7] Thinking across these two historical periods demonstrates both the persistence and evolution of particular “secret techniques” – in information management, spatial design, governance, and so forth – across the ages. In developing his theory of “cryptographic media,” DuPont agrees that “epistolary practices,” like those we see in the 18th century, readily lend themselves to comparison with the “encrypted emails and social media messaging” of today. [8] Likewise, digging into the pockets and drawers of the past and present can illuminate how the private subject, and her secrets (epistolary and otherwise), are contained, encased, and rendered vulnerable by the technologies of her age.

My task here follows that of media historian Markus Krajewski, who traces the history of “the server,” and its implied servant, which fulfills “a multitude of historical and media-specific functions” — from baroque butlers to contemporary web servers. [9] By following “the intricate pathways of service in a broad arc from the present day to the baroque,” Krajewski aims to unpack the metaphor. Similarly, I aim to illuminate the multifaceted connections between containment and security across a broad arc so we can better understand how, from the epistolary age to the cloud era, evolving techniques of secure containment have promised protection from thieves and hackers. We’ll begin by examining various political, architectural, and sartorial techniques employed to shape privacy in the long 18th century. Then we’ll turn to the material culture and cultural techniques of literacy, focusing in particular on how new furnishings structured the writing and storage of private correspondence. The most magnificent furnishings, replete with secret drawers and hidden technical features, required the mastery of myriad covert techniques combining cabinetmaking, marquetry, and clockmaking. We’ll focus at some length on the work of the Roentgen workshop because it represents a double-secreting: the mysterious makings of furtive furnishings. Finally, we’ll consider how these analog techniques and models of containment transfer to the digital realm – whether drawers and locks and keys appropriately embody the protocols of cybersecurity.

The Age of Secrecy

Historian Jill Lepore offers a genealogy of three epistemological categories: mystery, secrecy, and privacy. [10] Mystery, she says, “is what we can’t know, but are asked to believe.” Immortality and matters of religious belief, and things that only the King knows, for example, are mysterious. Secrecy, which represents the secularization of mystery, is the purview of science. It encompasses “what is known, but not to everyone” – like the secrets of nature. The law, then, brings us privacy, which is “what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves.” As Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis argued in 1890, “The Right to Privacy” is our legal “right to be let alone.” [11] This epistemological genealogy is largely driven, Lepore says, by the “acquisition, recording, and dissemination of knowledge, and especially with the mechanization, secularization, and democratization of publication.” [12] The printed book marked the end of mystery, the camera exposed the secrets of the natural world, and the smartphone invaded our privacy.

Fig. 1: Occult imagery makes use of visual metaphors of secrecy, such as Isis’s hood or veil, representing the hidden knowledge of the natural world to be uncovered through alchemy and ritual. [13]


Lepore’s middle period, the “age of secrecy” between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, is what most interests historian Daniel Jütte. “No other period in European history, neither before nor since,” he explains, “has shown so profound a fascination with secrecy and secret sciences. Arcane knowledge was widely considered positive knowledge, and this notion of ‘good secrecy’ extended across all fields of life, including everyday life, the scientific and economic domains, and the political culture of the day.” [14] It seemed that everyone and everything kept secrets: the state, nature, the human heart, trade guilds, and God. Such a cryptic climate gave rise to occultism-tinged science and networks of spies, espionage and esoterica, ciphers and secret societies, like the Jesuits, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati. [15]

As late as the eighteenth century, sociologist Georg Simmel argues, “governments kept anxiously silent about the amounts of state debts, the tax situation, and the size of the army. Ambassadors, therefore, often knew no better than to spy, to intercept letters, and to make people who ‘knew something’ talk.” [16] Yet by the late 1700s, as leaders in the Atlantic world sought to “make representative government a legitimate and stable form of political authority,” Katlyn Carter reports, they had to determine “which aspects of governance to keep secret versus which to perform publicly.” [17] What mix of closed authority and transparency was appropriate for a government that claimed to represent its people? What strategies should they employ: opening their meeting chambers to the public and the press, publishing their decrees? The state even considered its obligations to protect its subjects’ secrets, as we see enshrined in the adoption of the secret ballot and the principle of “secrecy of letters,” which prevents governments from tampering with postal mail and other forms of communication. Lepore notes that the United States happened to be born at the fulcrum between mystery and secrecy; “its mysteries of state,” she said, “would be dis-cabineted” – a metaphor that will resonate later. [18]

Fig. 2: Modern democracy’s public consensus depends on the privacy of the secret ballot and the maintenance of state secrets. [19]


These debates over discretion also informed, and were informed by, new modes of organizing space. For instance, between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, British Parliament, through thousands of Enclosure Acts, transformed millions of acres of common land into private property. [20] Civic and domestic architectures – from state houses to law courts to row houses – metamorphosed, too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, domestic corridors and closets, multiplying bedrooms and staircases, secluded chambers and servant’s bells manifested new architectures of secrecy, as well as new relations between masters and house staff. [21] These new spatial orders might have afforded greater privacy (or secrecy?) to the elite, yet “the average London servant,” Amanda Vickery reminds us, “had no settled space to call their own.” [22] Instead, many carried a portable lock box. While householders tended to maintain an assemblage of distributed hiding places around the house, assistants and lodgers often stored their secret (or private?) matters in locked trunks, chests, and closets (Meanwhile, in the U.S., some enslaved people buried valuable property under their floorboards, and embedded secret messages and escape routes in hand-crafted quilts). [23]

At the same time, well-to-do Pennsylvanian Quakers, both men and women, kept their valuables – buttons, flatware, combs, snuffboxes, spices, and sewing equipment – locked in exquisitely decorated “spice boxes,” which were then proudly displayed in their homes’ foyers, in an act of conspicuous concealment. [24] The contraptions, a specialty of Chester County, housed an assemblage of tiny drawers and often incorporated elaborate inlay, paneled doors, and secret compartments. Locks and keys, Vickery says, “were tools of domestic control for householders and tenants,” but even for those occupying a lower social station, “a key could guard a compartment of inviolable space”; it “asserted that here was a personal boundary.” [25]

A needle and thread likewise afforded a bit of privacy to women across the socioeconomic spectrum. If they didn’t have rooms or cabinets of their own – and if convenient means of sartorial storage weren’t sewn into their clothing (as was common with men’s garments) – women used fabric remnants to construct tie-on pockets to be worn under their skirts and accessed through slits in their overdresses. Classed with undergarments, women’s pockets hung in a liminal space, close to the body, and at night, they lay under their pillows. In those pockets women kept not only the accoutrements of needlework – scissors, thimbles, and pin cushions – but also portable writing instruments and personal documents. If they were so lucky as to have their own lockable chests or closets, their pockets would hold the keys. And given pockets’ intimate, furtive position, women also used them as repositories for clandestine correspondence, beloved jewelry, and other objects of sentimental value. [26]

Fig. 3: The pocket afforded women a degree of emancipatory privacy through individual craft and ownership, enabling a public existence independent of the home. [27]


As Ariane Fennetaux explains, the making and maintenance of pockets cultivated thrift and gave women an opportunity to practice their needlework and household organization. Rather than serving solely as tools of domestication, though, they also testified to women’s “increasing mobility and independence.” [28] A woman could stuff her pockets and head out in public – to shop, to socialize, to do as she pleased. These modest appendages thus served as technologies for both privacy and publicity; they were emblematic of the woman’s domestic role and of her “growing mobility and enfranchisement from the domestic interior.” [29] Since the 16th century, pockets have afforded women “control over their own sexuality” and personal information, allowed them to explore their own interiority, and enabled them to express their individuality not through “public self-fashioning,” but through private action. [30] Throughout this period, the practicing of techniques involving locks and threads and blueprints – the crafting of secret domestic sites and sartorial appendages – created more spaces for secret action. And the imposition of new laws and codes governing those bodies and spaces made the secret, private.

Technologies of Literacy

Techniques of material literacy – knowing how to wield a needle or lockset – were more prevalent than textual literacy in the eighteenth century, Fennetaux acknowledges. Yet government and commercial bureaucracies were producing more and more official documents. And, at the same time, private citizens were “being encouraged to express themselves and create social bonds through the writing of letters.” [31] The spread of reading and writing shaped modern understandings of privacy. [32] Many scholars have acknowledged the roles played by the diary, the biography, the romance, and the epistolary novel in cultivating interiority and self-consciousness. [33] Before the invention of the mass-produced envelope, letter-writers developed elaborate techniques for folding and securing the page such that it served as its own secure envelope; “letterlocking” constituted an epistolary key. Yet domestic literacy was also applied toward more administrative ends, like bookkeeping and managing private household affairs, and the skill was not limited to elites. [34] Period paintings show laborers and housewives engaged in quotidian record-keeping.

Fig. 4: The emergence of writing and epistolary culture birthed a system of rules, customs, and best practices, materialized in formal academies and guides. [35]


There emerged a broader material culture of literacy, complete with new administrative and performative techniques, that shaped the privacy or publicity of script. That culture manifested in the technical apparatae of pens and inkpots, chairs and tabletops, ergonomics and standardized hands. Writers’ and scriveners’ guilds had long existed, but beginning in the sixteenth century, Paris witnessed the emergence of many new corporations of writing-masters, who sought to standardize their trade through writing manuals and academies, some of which prescribed particular postures and furnishings for inscription. [36] As design historian and curator Carolyn Sargentson explains, “It was utterly critical that you sat at the right angle to your desk, and [that angle] depended on whether you were male or female…. [Y]ou had to hold your quill at a certain angle, and your apparatus – whether it was the desktop apparatus or furniture itself – had to conform to these rules.” [37] Writers were advised to sit forward on their seats, which led some furnituremakers to make chairs specially designed to accommodate that front-loaded weight, with legs at the front, back, and two sides. Such an emphasis on posture brought eighteenth-century furniture designers into a new area of expertise: ergonomics. Furniture had to “embody the human activity,” the technique, of writing and record-keeping.

For professional writing, male secretaries often served as copyists, accountants – and, at times, secret-keepers – for their male bosses. They typically sat together, across from their clients, at a bureau plat, a large flat desk with a leather top, under which hung a horizontal row of shallow drawers. The bureau, historian Dena Goodman suggests, was associated with masculinity, the office, and its paperwork. [38] The texts written here were typically formal, impersonal, and administrative. But for matters of personal writing, the correspondent – male or female – typically traded in a human secretary for a wooden one: a secrétaire, a personal, private furnishing, a “single-user workstation” with its drawers and cubbies – and the private documents they contained – secured behind locked panels. [39] The secrétaire, unlike the bureau, often concealed its “deskness” behind a fall front, a roll-top, or cabinet doors. When those doors were opened and its pull-out surfaces extended, the desk’s facets and appendages framed, or enveloped, the writer – and created an environment for the “construction of self through personal writing.” [40] Yet even this single-user workstation was a social apparatus, too. “As a piece of furniture designed to enable the individual to confide his or her self and secrets to paper and thence to a trusted and complicit other,” Goodman writes, “the secrétaire was essential to the production of intersubjective intimacy.” [41]

Techniques of Secret Storage

Some of those secrétaires contained their own bodily secrets. According to Sargentson, 18th-century Parisian “court and city culture” demonstrated “unprecedented levels of self-conscious behavior” and widespread interest in “artifice, disguise, and trickery,” which manifested in “the specialized design and use of furniture and interior spaces.” [42] Furniture makers in France – as well as their counterparts in Germany, England, and the American colonies – sometimes tricked out their elite clients’ desks and chests of drawers (commodes and highboys) with secret compartments and false bottoms, elaborate triggers and springs to release them, and intricate locking mechanisms to keep them secure. These clandestine apparatae were typically known only to the woodworker, the locksmith, and the client. [43]) Within this secret interior, owners could hide money, jewels, private papers, furtive letters and gifts, and mementos. Many a literary plot has revolved around the secret compartment. As Edgar Allen Poe remarked in “The Purloined Letter,” any experienced police agent knows that “there is a certain amount of bulk – of space – to be accounted for in every cabinet.”

Through their internal and external architectures, these furnishings embodied the ways their owners compartmentalized and performed their public and private lives, as well as their concerns with security in an era before banks and safe deposit boxes. These faceted chests and desks, Sargentson says, reflected the ways their users, “especially but not exclusively women, managed their lives, their belongings, and their secrets within the domestic interior”; they articulated “a set of household and family relationships” while also guaranteeing protection from thieves and suspicious spouses. [44]

The making of some of the finest examples of cunning cabinetry was also a semi-secretive family affair. Abraham Roentgen and his son David made furniture renowned far and wide for its technical proficiency, its mechanical ingenuity, and its intricate marquetry involving decorative inlays of colored woods, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and metals. Collector Nicholas Goodison describes some of their more iconic pieces as “truly fantastic boxes of tricks,” equipment that both allowed for the practice of secret storage (or secret writing, reading, or music-playing), but also framed the secret as a virtuosic trick or whimsical gimmick set into motion, in a private show, for the owner who knows what keys to use and which buttons to push. [45]

Abraham, whose own father had a cabinet-making workshop in Muhlheim, Germany, left home in 1731 to serve as a journeyman in Holland and England, where he specialized in “engraving, making mosaics in wood, and producing mechanical devices.” [46] While in London, he joined the Herrnhut Brotherhood, a Protestant-Pietist sect that, according to Max Weber, regarded “the childlikeness of religious feeling” – perhaps we might call this “mystery” – as “a feature of its genuineness.” [47] The group also emphasized diligent record-keeping, which has allowed historians to understand the Roentgens’ practice more thoroughly than those of their contemporary craftsmen. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we find these two religious tenets – whimsy and records-management – manifested in the Roentgens’ work.

From 1742 to 1750 Abraham ran a workshop in Herrnhaag, Germany, a Herrnhuter community, until tensions with the local authorities drove a portion of the group to resettle in Neuwied. There, Count Friedrich Alexander, seeking to rejuvenate his county after the Thirty Years’ War, granted the sect freedom of worship and partial exemption from local taxes and guild regulations, which enabled Roentgen to market his furniture widely and to hire more employees, including masters in marquetry and clockwork. The workshop’s wares became status symbols across Central Europe, even among the Catholic elite. When the Seven Years’ War then suppressed sales, David – the eldest of eight children, educated at rigorous Hernnhuter boarding schools – organized a furniture lottery to spark interest among the aristocracy. He modernized the workshop and ultimately took over the business in 1775. He standardized production, implementing a rational division of labor, and built partnerships with other artisans and artists, like clockmaker Peter Kinzing, marqueteur Chrétien Krause, and painter Januarius Zick. [48] In-house, Christian Krause, served as mechanicus, or technical coordinator.

David’s commercial success was met with spiritual setback: expulsion from the brotherhood. While he repeatedly sought readmission to the sect, he also turned his attention outward, toward widely flung markets. Cosmopolitan and multilingual, David worked with dealers and publishers in Paris, and, wherever he went, he skillfully negotiated the local bureaucracy, even bribing local liaisons and customs officials. [49] He exercised diplomacy in wooing royalty – even, reportedly, serving as messenger between Marie Antoinette and her mother. [50] We might “draw a parallel,” Goodison proposes, “between David’s entrepreneurial flair and his father’s missionary zeal.” [51] Art critic Dugald Sutherland MacColl is a bit less charitable: “Roentgen was evidently a first-rate exploiteur, with a hundred workmen at his Nieuwied factory, and establishments for sale in several capitals.” [52]

Among his clients were myriad German nobles, including King Frederick William II of Prussia; William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire; Catherine the Great; and the court at Versailles. He was named ébéniste-mécanicien, or cabinetmaker-mechanical engineer, to both the French king and queen, and was inducted into the exclusive French corporation of ébénistes, makers of case pieces. [53] As cultural historian Souren Melikian notes, David “gave each piece an appearance in harmony with the recipient’s own temperament;” his furnishings seemed, flatteringly, to know their owners’ secrets. [54] Among the various pieces the workshop made for Versailles were a twelve-and-a-half-foot-tall secretary with marquetry representing the liberal arts, and a surprise piece created in secrecy: a music box – a dulcimer-playing automaton resembling Marie Antoinette herself.

For enlightened despot Catherine the Great, he made – again on speculation – a mahogany desk featuring a gilded bronze statue of the sun god Apollo on top, and sphinxes, symbols of female wisdom, flanking the pull-down writing surface. Inside the Apollo Bureau is a bronze plaque shaped like an architectural façade, in front of which sits a small dog that functions as a knob to access hidden compartments. The empress loved dogs, and this one was modeled after her favorite Italian greyhound, Zémire. [55] Operating the desk’s parts triggered an internal musical mechanism. David’s speculative gesture ultimately won the empress’s largesse; she paid in excess of Roentgen’s asking price for the desk and became a regular client.

Meanwhile, for the Prussian crown prince, the future King Frederick William II, the workshop made a massive mahogany and cherry writing cabinet adorned with elaborate colored marquetry and a chiming clock on top. Believed to be “the most expensive piece of furniture ever made,” the Berlin Secretary Cabinet featured a number of button-triggered mechanisms that opened up its doors, drawers, interior desk area, jewel boxes, and hidden compartments, while also cueing up the music of flute, cymbal, and glockenspiel. [56] Inside the desk we find a miniature room, a trompe-l’oeil dollhouse in marquetry. “Behind this plaque is housed the most ingenious of the cabinet’s mechanisms,” curator Wolfram Koeppe explains. “[It] opens small doors, hidden compartments, and swivel drawers… so numerous that the piece has been referred to as a ‘machine.’” [57]

As David allegedly described it himself,

One turns a key, and suddenly a writing desk, at which one can write quite comfortably while standing up, appears by itself, automatically opens and tilts downward to form a writing surface, and just above it a lectern appears on which to place something to be copied or to read, and at the same time two compartments open out on either side holding inks, boxes for sand, and writing utensils; all this can easily be folded back together at will and slid back into its proper place. [58]

These were no administrative bureaus, with their single, expansive, leather-topped tops that accommodate the shuffling of multiple stacks of paperwork – a horizontal stage for the performance of their owners’ busy-ness. The Roentgens’ tightly-packed desks and commodes, by contrast, internalize their logistical complexity. Yet that interiority is always poised to explode, privately, in a Voltron of pop-out drawers, layered tabletops, extending armatures, spring-mounted mirrors, candlestick stands, and bookstands. This furniture performs. As design writer Geoff Manaugh proposes, it “tests the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, … simply showing off, … a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.” [59] The “painted” surfaces often depict other rooms or spatial topologies, serving as interfaces to alternate dimensions and private heterotopias. Critic Roberta Smith recasts Manaugh’s “Olympics” metaphor as a Gesamtkunstwerk, noting that these furnishings meld painting, sculpture, architecture, and even theater and dance – a private, prototypical Wagnerian opera staged in miniature in the drawing room. [60]

Fig. 5: The Roentgen’s intricate mechanical and technical mastery created ludic, theatrical sequences out of furniture pieces, a sleight of hand acted out in wood. [61]


Techniques for Furnishing Secrets

How does one craft a miniature Gesamtkunstwerk in mahogany? How does one encase a secret interiority? Bernd Willschied, director of the Roentgen Museum in Neuwied, describes the workshop’s practice as one infused with religious mystery: “They worked as if God were standing beside them in their workshops. To them, their creations for the European elite – expensive, elaborate, and of the highest quality – surely represented a kind of ‘gospel.’” [62] Daniela Meyer and Hans-Werner Pape find in the machines a more secular magic: the later Roentgen works, they say, “reflect a direct response to contemporary industrial advances, adding a touch of magic to an increasingly rational time in which human effort was progressively replaced by machines.” They were “means to impress and entertain.” [63]

What other trade secrets informed the technical work of these craftsmen? The Roengtens’ marqueteurs developed new techniques for dying, staining, washing, engraving, cutting and collaging, and even standardizing and streamlining the creation of intricate floral designs and painterly figures. [64] Clocks and musical apparatae were created externally, by Peter Kinzing’s workshop, and incorporated into the Roentgens’ casings. Internal mechanisms – pop-out drawers and slide-up surfaces, set into motion by weights and pulleys, levers and latches, pivots and springs – were overseen in-house by employees representing different trades. These works “relied on both a metalworker’s and a cabinetmaker’s mentality,” and required continual negotiation regarding what needed to be internalized or externalized, Sargentson argues. [65] Such complicated designs required an architectural sensibility, too, since “spatially complex furniture worked like small rooms or buildings,” all of which required their designers to consider the connections between spaces and the routes between them. [66]

French locksmiths, like master-writers, were organized in a guild that protected its own trade secrets. Their secrecy reflected, and protected, that of the larger society. In order to secure their clients’ valuables, locksmiths “faced the challenge of devising ever [more] complex mechanisms that would keep their owners just ahead of the game. The technical ingenuity of the locksmiths,” Sargentson says, “merely reflected…the deviousness of their violators.” [67] We might assume that kings, queens, and dukes – among the Roentgens’ clients – attracted a host of such potential trespassers. Yet some furnishings proudly publicized their inviolable secrecy (and locksmiths, their virtuosity) via ornate escutcheons, or keyhole plates. They seemed to dare picklocks to pick them.

And while furniture makers developed new techniques for making furniture that supported reading and writing and storing and secret-keeping, those furnishings’ owners had to develop new techniques, too – not only for literacy and organization, but also for operating the furniture itself. Users had to learn how to “open [a] piece of furniture in the way that it now takes a highly skilled conservator to do.” [68] That access often began with turning a key, which wasn’t always so simple. Keyholes were sometimes concealed, and their mechanisms occasionally required multiple or bidirectional turns to trigger specific actions. Those who were “in control of locks and keys” – those who not only had the keys, but also knew how to use them – “were in control of so much more than a piece of hardware,” Sargentson argues. [69] They had access to the secret techniques of making, keeping, and exposing encased secrets.

Keyholes were among the furniture’s visual clues to the presence of secure areas and hidden volumes. Yet users developed more sophisticated, multisensorial techniques for discerning the presence of faux fronts and doubles fonds (double bottoms) and their modes of operation. Users learned to feel for differences in texture – to examine the interior using what Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee called the “Braille method,” in order to find a tiny depression for a fingertip. [70] They also learned to listen to the furniture “talk back,” attuning themselves to the “feedback mechanisms” of the steel springs that sat behind the furniture’s façade. [71]

Failures to discern these cues could result in the shameful publicizing of one’s ignorance. Sargentson tells the tale of a husband who invades his wife’s writing desk in search of secret correspondence from her suspected lover. After he fails to find what he’s looking for, he then has to hide the evidence of his intrusion, but he can’t figure out how to fold everything back together. Thus, “rather than exposing to the husband his wife’s secrets, the table was turned, so to speak, to expose his subterfuge instead.” Sargentson also describes her own detective work as a curator: “I had to work [the mechanics of some furnishings] out as a rookie curator on my own, using touch more than intellect. And the experience taught me a valuable lesson about the multisensuality of mechanical furniture. I needed to look, feel, and think all at once.” [72]

In the late 19th century, well after Abraham’s and David’s passing, the Roentgen family offered modern curators and collectors another clue to their furnishings’ operation: Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, a descendent of the Neuwied clan, discovered that X-rays could reveal bodies’ interior mechanisms – including his forebears’ hidden drawers and altered locks. Radiography is now commonly used to understand the intrinsic details of paintings, textiles, sculptures, archaeological artifacts, and other cultural objects, like furniture. Wilhelm’s imaging techniques thus betray the secrets of his ancestors’ craft.

Fig. 6: The invention of the x-ray revealed the inner workings of bodies in a likewise intricate display of hidden mechanical systems. [73]


The Age of Encryption

Some of the 19th-century’s new visual and sonic technologies, from X-rays to stethoscopes, promised access to the body’s enigmas. Other technologies, like the telegraph, threatened to leak state and corporate secrets, and their use was subject to regulation and international agreements. As the 19th-century’s new mass press recognized the commercial value of publishing leaked secrets, various states, for the first time, recognized the need to legally protect those secrets. [74] Their secrets, Lepore would say, became private through legislation. What about the secrets of the body? It wasn’t until 1920 that a U.S. court recognized that doctors wielding those X-rays and stethoscopes are bound by “professional honor and…ethics” to “keep secret” what their patients tell or show them in confidence, rendering that information private, too. [75]

Today’s Internet is a different ontological and legal terrain. As communications scholar Shawn Powers explains, because the Internet is conceived as a shared, public space, Western legal doctrine “protects free speech” online “but not the anonymity of that speech or the secrecy of one’s communications.” The entire business model of the Internet is dependent on the gathering and analysis of user behavior, and, in the U.S. and elsewhere, companies face few consequences for data breaches. [76]

Yet some governments are finally realizing that Internet privacy can’t be left to the market. The European Union passed its General Data Protection Regulation in early 2018, and a few months later, California passed its Consumer Privacy Act, which gives state residents control over their personal data and allows them to learn about and limit what businesses know about them. [77] In Fall 2018, in the wake of Russian trolls’ meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and the Equifax and Cambridge Analytica leaks, privacy representatives from Apple, Amazon, AT&T, Charter Communication, Google, and Twitter all spoke before Congress about how their companies are working to protect user privacy.

Until meaningful regulation is implemented outside the EU, if it ever is, corporations and consumers turn to modern-day “guilds” of white-hat hackers, and to digital-security tools – passwords, keys, and encryption techniques – that sometimes take cues from their forebears in analog security, whether locksmithing or pocket-sewing. As Lepore explains, “mystery and secrecy often involve concealment and sometimes disguise: cloaks, veils, and obfuscations. Privacy can involve seclusion and sometimes, like secrecy, security: closets, locks, passwords.” [78]

Our “present discourses about safety, security, and surveillance,” Sargentson acknowledges, “are not entirely disconnected from those of the past.” Today’s private citizens, like those of the 18th century, are no strangers to “identity theft, illicit surveillance and domestic and political subterfuge.” [79] And like our cabinetmaking and pocket-sewing predecessors, we’re still organizing space and building furnishings to secure our digital selves and our digital stuff, which still resides in locked boxes – laptops, smartphones, and servers in high-security data centers – and still proves highly tempting to digital thieves. [80] Skeuomorphic icons depicting locks, crypts, and shields still appear on our screens, signaling the presence of password organizers and secure file managers.

Fig. 7: Digital privacy invokes the trappings of analog encryption – locks, keys, and vaults – with a debatable degree of success. [81]


As Ariel Hahn, former organizer for README, a group of ULCA information scholars and librarians advocating for digital rights, told me,

framing digital security through an accessible framework, often utilizing these figures of physical containment, is essential for our work. Plus, by continually aligning things like the cloud with more ‘touchable’ realities, we are not only able to bring more people into conversations about privacy, but we are also able to stay in touch with the edges of our own knowledge. [82]

The ability to “bring more people” into the conversation – to make security intelligible and accessible to even the most technically unsophisticated users and vulnerable populations – requires speaking an accessible, and often tangible, language. And as with our nineteenth-century counterparts, the feasibility of particular techniques depends in part upon their intellectual and financial accessibility.

Encasing and encrypting have been more than mere graphic metaphors in cybersecurity. [83] These icons hint at various security logics exercised through hardware and software and other techniques of containment. IT professionals, for instance, might secure their physical workplaces by applying “physical barriers and control procedures as preventive measures … against threats to resources and sensitive information.” [84] The whole IT department itself, as an architecture, thus serves as an apparatus for physical security. Consumers, meanwhile, might duplicate all of their data through regular back-ups, and store it in multiple virtual containers – say, on a drive and in the cloud. They might use “ghost,” or “vault,” apps, which look like conventional smartphone apps, but, once unlocked, open up to secret virtual storage vaults, much like secret drawers. [85] Folks might back up their data to an external drive that they then unplug from the network, kind of like a portable lock box. Or, they might digitally encrypt individual files – a technique that parallels our forebears’ practices of cryptography and letterlocking – or encrypt a whole directory or disk, which is a bit like locking a drawer or securing an entire secrétaire. Encrypted data, scrambled and unintelligible, can be opened only with an encryption key, a collection of unique algorithms. It’s sort of like using a new lockset every time we lock and unlock a drawer. Or consumers might use a physical security key, a peripheral device that’s a bit smaller than a metal housekey, that allows them authenticate their identities; they’d then likely keep that key in a secure location, perhaps in a pocket. [86]

Other cybersecurity techniques draw on biometric data and voice recognition. While the Roentgen workshop might not have perfected mechanisms to allow one to open a desk by calling out its name or scanning one’s irises, the recognition of faces and bodies and voices is of course a time-tested means of both apperception and deception. And while these fractal furnishings’ makers and users and curators sometimes relied upon taps and jiggles to identify internal mechanisms through touch or sound, similarly tactile methods are used today in keylogging software, which logs users’ keystrokes. [87]

We might find procedural and psychological parallels between the analog and digital realms, but cybersecurity experts disagree about the utility of these analog metaphors in promoting greater security. Some research has found that “metaphors of physical security” – including icons of brick walls, locked doors, and bandits – do help to communicate security warnings and promote safe behavior, particularly to less technically savvy users. Yet other technologists – like a Google security director who tweeted at me – are convinced that “such metaphors don’t work.” [88] In July 2019 OpenIDEO, the “open innovation platform” run by the IDEO design firm, launched its “Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge,” which called for new imagery to supplant the “pictures of locks, men in white hoodies, or green 1s and 0s that do little to convey the reality of this complicated, critically important topic.” [89] Maritza Johnson, a human-centered security and privacy researcher at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, told me that “most of our attempts at metaphors and illustrations fail to meet expectations, and in some cases are downright unproductive.” [90] She lamented the ambiguity surrounding the green lock icon indicating an SSL connection (which establishes encrypted links between web servers and browsers), and the masked bandit icon representing “Incognito mode” (which prevents one’s browsing history from being stored) – and she celebrated Google’s switch to an unambiguous negative indicator: if a site isn’t encrypted with HTTPS (that is, secure hypertext transfer protocol), it’s simply marked as “not secure.” [91]

With the integration of artificial intelligence into cybersecurity, such lock-and-key metaphors are perhaps becoming less pertinent. Laura Norén, Vice President of Privacy and Trust at Obsidian Security, told me that “the newest cybersecurity tools and techniques are moving more towards detection than prevention and more towards encryption than hiding the goods. I suppose people still use key metaphors to talk about encryption, though that’s more for marketing….” [92] Consumers might still see lockbox security icons on their phones, but cybersecurity professionals, Nóren says, conceive of their terrain as more of a “battlefield,” a “hunting” ground, or a cloud infused with “intelligent” systems, than a discrete, lockable container of information. A vast cloud requires different monitoring techniques than does, say, a local network. “Cybersecurity is sort of like the cops and the NSA all working out of the same industry,” Nóren said. “We’re dealing with the equivalent of corner-store hold-ups and extremely sophisticated cyber espionage” at the same time.

Fig. 8: Instead of a secretive interiority, the new visual language of security pairs global, ephemeral scope with militarized metaphors of interconnectivity and theaters of operation. [93]


Fig. 9: Hooded or cloaked figures, instead of representing hidden knowledge, now are more likely to represent the violent seizing of a user’s information. [94]


Public calls for increased digital security and privacy address a real and pervasive threat, as a perusal of any recent news feed will demonstrate. Yet some of the security firms and consultants poised to swoop in and save us have stirred up paranoia and played up the Delphic mysteries of their own practices. Their crypto-labels and aggressive, hyper-masculine techno-medieval logos portray them as cyber-secret societies, an InfoSec Illuminati. And much like the Roentgens, they perform their privileged intelligence. Their provision of privacy, via techniques of secrecy, is often shrouded in mystery. And the private selves and lives they promise to protect are themselves entangled in paradox. As Lepore writes, today we live inside a box where we “register for an account on Twitter using a password, a cipher of numbers and letters, so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose. That box is a paradox… Inside [that] box, the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity.” [95] Perhaps we derive some pleasure, some excitement – as our forebears likely did, too – from testing these boundaries and tempting the picklocks and hackers.

What has become of mystery, she asks, now that “the inviolability of the self” – that private self cultivated for public consumption – “has replaced the inscrutability of God?” [96] Perhaps God is no longer the Great Inscrutable. Perhaps, instead, the Internet itself is the new sublime – one that we try to keep in a box, with a lock and key, in a futile attempt to contain its mysteries.

  1. See the work of Ruha Benjamin, Gabriella Coleman, Joan Donovan, Laura DeNardis, Ava Kofman, Helen Nissenbaum, Renata Ávila Pinto, Julia Powles, Molly Sauter, and Luke Stark, who are just a few of the countless scholars studying digital security, broadly conceived.
  2. Quinn DuPont, “Cryptographic Media,” in Jeremy Hunsinger, Lisbeth Klastrup, and Matthew M. Allen, eds., Second International Handbook of Internet Research (2018): 2.
  3. Concerns about digital security, and the ability to make informed choices based on those concerns, varies widely by socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. See Mary Madden, “Privacy, Security, and Digital Inequality: How Technology Experiences and Resources Vary by Socioeconomic Status, Race, and Ethnicity,” Data & Society Report (September 27, 2017): https://datasociety.net/output/privacy-security-and-digital-inequality/.
  4. Of course other parts of the world have their own secret histories, but we’ll focus here on the North Atlantic region, charged with political upheavals and social transformations that depended on new techniques of communication.
  5. Markus Krajewski, Craig Robertson, Lynn Spigel, Cornelia Vismann, and I have all written about storage cabinets as embodiments of values and politics. See, for instance, Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs, 1548 – 1929 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Shannon Mattern, “Before BILLY,” Harvard Design Magazine 43 (2016): http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/43/before-billy-a-brief-history-of-the-bookcase; Craig Robertson’s forthcoming work on the filing cabinet; Lynn Spigel, “Object Lesson for the Media Home: From Storagewall to Invisible Design,” Public Culture 42:3 (2014): 535-76; and Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law an Media Technology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). Other scholars have theorized containers: John Robb, “Contained Within History,” History and Anthropology 29:1 (2018): 32-6; Natasha Dow Schüll, “Digital Containment and Its Discontents,” History and Anthropology 28:1 (2018): 42-8; Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, “On Containers: A Forum. An Introduction,” History and Anthropology 29:1 (2018): 1-6; Zoe Sofia, “Container Technologies,” Hypatia 15:2 (Spring 2000): 181-201.
  6. G. E. Mingay, Parliamentary Enclosure in England: An Introduction to its Causes, Incidence, and Impact, 1950-1850 (New York: Routledge, 1997); J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  7. Martha B. Katz-Hyman, “’In the Middle of This Poverty Some Cups and a Teapot’: The Material Culture of Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Virginia and the Furnishing of Slave Quarters at Colonial Williamsburg,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 350 (1994): https://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/view/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0350.xml; Hugh Crow (edited by the Executors), Memoirs of the late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool Comprising a Narrative of His Life Together with Descriptive Sketches of the Western Coast of Africa, particularly of Bonny (Liverpool: G. and J. Robinson, 1830; reprint, London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1970): 251; Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Penguin Random House, 2000).
  8. Dena Goodman, “The Secrétaire and the Integration of the Eighteenth-Century Self” in Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, eds., Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us About the European and American Past (New York: Routledge, 2011): 183-203.
  9. See Katherine Ellison, “Digital Scholarship as Handwork and Brainwork: An Early Modern History of Cryptography,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13:4 (Fall 2013): 29-46; Katherine Ellison and Susan Kim, eds. A Material History of Medieval and Modern Ciphers: Cryptography and the History of Literacy (New York: Routledge, 2017); and Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
  10. Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982); Cécile M. Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print, Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999); J.O. Lyons, The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Rachel Scarborough King, Writing to the World: Letters and the Origins of Modern Print Genres (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018); Carolyn Steedman, “Literacy, Reading and Concepts of the Self” in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy, ed. David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 221-41.
  11. Dena Goodman, “The Secrétaire and the Integration of the Eighteenth-Century Self” in Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, eds., Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us About the European and American Past (New York: Routledge, 2011): 183-203 – 186.
  12. Carolyn Sargentson, “Looking at Furniture Inside Out: Strategies of Secrecy and Security in Eighteenth Century French Furniture,” in Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, eds., Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us About the European and American Past (New York: Routledge, 2011): 205-36 – 207, 232.
  13. Wolfram Koeppe reports that, as early as the late sixteenth century, “furniture making with intricate interiors and secret compartments was among the specialties of German cabinetmakers…. Originally such features had spiritual meaning, but by the eighteenth century that was no longer the case.” (Wolfram Koeppe, “From Rococo Playfulness to Neoclassical Elegance” in Wolfram Koeppe, ed., Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 78, n. 4.
  14. Nicholas Goodison, Review of Roentgen Furniture by Hans Huth, The Burlington Magazine 118:881 (August 1976): 604. Sianne Ngai describes the gimmick as a “charmingly miniaturized machine” – which these furnishings often were – that incite feelings of “suspicion, followed closely by contempt,” or feelings of “misgiving or fraudulence.” (Sianne Ngai, “Theory of the Gimmick,” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 466-505 – 471-2). The gimmick promises, but fails to “lessen human toil.” That is not the case with these furnishings; while they are engaged in the gimmick’s attention-seeking behavior as a means of self-marketing, they do not ultimately generate “distrust and aversion” because they do not fail to deliver on their labor-saving promises. Thanks to Jason LaRivière for this reference.
  15. Quoted in Nicholas Goodison, Review of Roentgen Furniture by Hans Huth, The Burlington Magazine 118:881 (August 1976): 604. Much of the following history, across the next few paragraphs, is drawn from Hans Huth, Roentgen Furniture: Abraham and David Roentgen, European Cabinet Makers (New York: Sotheby Parke Barnet, 1974) [original: Abraham und David Roentgen und ihre Neuwieder mobelwerkstat, 1928]; Wolfram Koeppe, “Abraham and David Roentgen,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roen/hd_roen.htm; and Bernd Willschied, “Abraham and David Roentgen: Moravian Artist and Merchant-Diplomat” in Wolfram Koeppe, ed., Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 17-23.
  16. Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings, ed. and trans., Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (New York: Penguin Books, 2002): 92.
  17. Wolfram Koeppe, “From Rococo Playfulness to Neoclassical Elegance” in Wolfram Koeppe, ed., Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 3-16 – 12.
  18. Bertrand Rondot, “David Roentgen and the Court of Versailles,” in Wolfram Koeppe, ed., Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 31-7 – 33.
  19. David Roentgen, Game Table, ca. 1780-83, oak and walnut, 78.3 x 98.3 x 49.5 cm., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, accessed July 27, 2019, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/236667, CC0 1.0 Universal.
  20. Daniela Meyer and Hans-Werner Pape, “Hidden Technology in Roentgen Furniture” in Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 234-8 – 234.
  21. Hans Michaelsen, “Painting in Wood: Innovations in Marquetry Decoration y the Roentgen Workshop” in Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 2012): 228-233.
  22. Huggins, “The new Roentgen photography.” Engraving. Life, February 27, 1896. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007680190/ (accessed July 25, 2019).
  23. Hitoshi Nasu argues that legal protection of state secrets emerged in the 19th century because “media started to realize the commercial value of publishing State secrets for increasing the sale of newspapers.” (“State Secrets Law and National Security,” International & Comparative Law Quarterly 64:2 (April 2015): 365-404
  24. McCormick v. England, 494 S.E.2nd 432 (S.C. Ct. App. 1997), quoted in Daniel J. Solove, “The Origins and Growth of Information Privacy Law,” 748 PLI/PAT 29 (2003): 18. See also Hamilton Bean, “Privacy and Secrecy,” in Craig R. Scott, Laurie Lewis, James. R. Barker, Joann Keyton, Timothy Kuhn, and Paaige K. Turner, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2017): 1958-1970 for a discussion of privacy and secrecy in modern organizations; and Sarah Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), for a history of privacy across the 20th century.
  25. Apple Inc., MacOS X El Capitan security and privacy settings, September 30, 2015, screenshot by author July 25, 2019.
  26. Konstantin Beznosov, “Can Metaphors of Physical Security Work for Computers?” Konstantin (Kosta) Beznosov (August 17, 2011): http://konstantin.beznosov.net/professional/archives/175; Fatimeh Raja, Kirstie Hawkey, Steven Hsu, Kai-Le Clement Wang, and Konstantin Beznosov, “A Brick Wall, a Locked Door, and a Bandit: A Physical Security Metaphor for Firewall Warnings,” SOUPS ’11: Proceedings of the 7th Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (2011): http://lersse-dl.ece.ubc.ca/record/262; Ben Laurie, Twitter, July 16, 2019: https://twitter.com/BenLaurie/status/1151148533799694343. Alma Whitten and J.D. Tygar concluded, in a 1999 study, that “the standard model of user interface design… is not sufficient to make computer security usable for people who are not already knowledgeable in that area.” They then propose usability evaluation methods and design strategies – borrowing from educational software, and employing “warning messages, wizards, and other interactive tools” – to more effectively communicate risk” (Alma Whitten and J.D. Tygar, “Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0” in L. Cranor and G. Simon, eds., Security and Usability: Designing Secure Systems that People Can Use (O’Reilly, 2005): 699, 700.
  27. Raytheon Cyber, Cyber resiliency, December 6, 2014, screenshot by author July 29, 2019 https://www.raytheon.com/cyber/cyberresiliency.

I’m grateful to Kevin Rogan for providing invaluable assistance with image selection and rights clearances, and to Laura Nóren, Ashley Richter, Maritza Johnson, and Ariel Hahn, who patiently answered my naïve questions. Thank you to Alessandra Ponte for inviting me to share a first draft of this work at the Phyllis Lambert Seminar at the University of Montreal, to the other participants for their encouraging feedback. Roberto Vargas at Swarthmore, Trevor Jockims at NYU, and Courtney Young at Colgate then gave me an opportunity to share a second draft; I’m grateful to all of them and their colleagues. Finally, I thank my two anonymous reviewers for their helpful recommendations, Michael Nardone for expertly managing the production process, and issue editor Grant Wythoff for giving me an opportunity to make something of my long secreted fascination with furnished secrets. Thanks, too, to @C__CS, @CassieRobinson, @detectiveeyes, @digitalFlaneuse, @georgiamoon, @Ilincalurascu, @iltimas, @JasmineMcNealy, @johannagunawan, @RDBinns, @rorys, @s89, @sarahtgold, @shashashasha, @vitor_io, @wfumihsu, and @zararah for offering cybersecurity leads on Twitter!

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Image: "Intereactions," (Screenshots) by Eric Schmaltz with Kevin McPhee and Graeme Ring (2017).