Universal York

Part of the USA Today Network

York County children learned to write on slates.

I am working on an upcoming column on one-room schoolhouses, and finding a wealth of information in the 1855 book by Thomas H. Burrowes, Pennsylvania School Architecture.
It covers the plans, materials and every little detail about how a Pennsylvania school should be run, and why.

For example, paper was not nearly as available and cheap as it is today so the students had individual slates instead of tablets or notebooks. Burroughs writes:

“Every child old enough to attend School should be furnished with a small, neat, well bound slate. All children love to draw figures and make marks with the chalk or pencil. If the propensity which affords them so much amusement be properly directed, it will save them many a weary hour at School. If parents were confined six hours a day, with but little intermission, listening to their Teacher of sacred things, in the church; or if the father were obliged to sit for several days constantly as a juror,–a slate and pencil, a picture, even a pine stick to whittle, would afford great relief. Letters, words and figures may be written and picture may be copied during the time which, without these amusements and employments, would be spent in idleness, restlessness or mischief. Several kinds of slates are now in use. The lighter, stronger, and more beautiful the article, the more it will be prized and used.”

A strong argument for keeping little fingers occupied. The author seems to imply that parents wouldn’t be able to sit still that many hours in church or court without something to do with their hands either.

The slate above came down in my family. It is only about six and one half by eight and one half inches in size. The object tied to it is a slate pencil, which is a slim cylinder of slate used to write on the slate surface. The other choices were real chalk, soft limestone that could scratch small slates and large blackboards, and chalk-like crayons, like we used in school. But in 1855, the teacher often had to make those himself (or occasionally, herself). I will share some of those extra duties in later posts.