Mystery needle case with a family history
  • Sewing case stitched during infancy of the Civil War
  • Letter buried in camera lens case
  • " />
    Auction Finds

    Heavily used slate pencils in a metal case

    The small metal box had rusted on the top and gave no hint of what was inside. Opening the box, I found an even smaller and narrower box with an inscription that was partially rubbed off: “Young America Pencil Case for a Good Scholar.”

    At least I now knew what this case was used for. But I was just as stumped when I saw what else was inside it: several full and broken rods that looked like pencils. They were a dark charcoal gray in color, and one was partially wrapped in paper that bore the colors of the American flag.

    I assumed they were for writing since they were in the pencil case, so I tried scratching the tin with one of them. Nothing. Then turning the tin on the back, I found my answer. Someone had scribbled “Slate Pencils” in black ink on the green tin.

    A pencil case with slate pencils, one of which is wrapped in red, white and blue paper.

    A pencil case with slate pencils, one of which is wrapped in red, white and blue paper.

    I was unfamiliar with slate pencils, but I was about to learn a lot via Google.

    Slate pencils and slates (which resemble a small chalkboard) had their heyday in schools during the 18th century when paper was not cheap and not as efficient. Students used the pencils and slate boards for writing and arithmetic. They’d write the answers to their teacher’s questions on the board. Once the teacher had checked the answer, the students would erase it (possibly with a rag, as one site noted), and the lesson would be continued and the board reused. Slates were also used beyond the classroom.

    The term “a clean slate” is derived from this procedure.

    The pencils were made of soapstone or a softer grade of slate, and some were wrapped in paper, unwrapped or with a wood covering like a pencil. The sound, one site noted, was like “nails on a chalkboard.” In this country, they were said to have been first introduced at an exhibition in Boston in 1844 and used until around the 1910s. Slate pencils and boards were used in schoolrooms around the world.

    The narrower pencil case holds a slate pencil and another writing instrument.

    The narrower pencil case holds a slate pencil and another writing instrument.

    A Montgomery Ward catalog from 1895 showed German- and American-made slate pencils selling for $1.10 to $1.65 for a box of 1,000. You could buy a pencil sharpener for soapstone pencils for a penny each or 8 cents a dozen.

    The pencils in the flag-colored paper were advertised as Union or union papered. Here are other ads for slate pencils and boxes.

    Slate pencils and boards apparently go back farther than the 18th century. A slate tablet from around 1608 was unearthed in a well in Jamestown, VA, that had been the site of a fort. Tablets had been used aboard ships a century earlier to temporarily record such things as wind direction and speed. The tablet was believed to have originated in England.

    The back side of the pencil case.

    The back side of the pencil case.

    Archaeological digs have turned up pieces of slate pencils from the 18th century, too. At the Bray School in Willamsburg, VA., pencils and a board were unearthed several years ago. The school was founded in 1760 to educate free and enslaved black children in “principles of the Christian religion,” but the slate pencils seemed to indicate that they were also taught how to write. It operated until 1774 when the schoolmistress died.

    Slate pencils were replaced by chalk in the early 20th century.

    One of the more interesting things I found via Google was recent questions about eating slate pencils. People wanted to know if it was healthy. This apparently had been an issue from way back. O. Henry mentioned it in a short story titled “The Ransom of Mack,” part of a collection published in 1907.

    Tagged as: , , ,

    Leave a Response

    Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.

    bbc galapagos las islas que cambiaron el mundogalapagos cruise reviewsbest cruise ships galapagos islandsbest family galapagos cruisebest time to go to galapagos and machu picchubest time to go to peru and galapagosbiotech bedrijf galapagosbiotechnologiebedrijf galapagosbudget galapagos boat toursbudget galapagos cruise pricescaracteristicas de las islas galapagos antiguascaracteristicas de las islas galapagos flora y faunacaracteristicas de las islas galapagos mas antiguascaracteristicas islas antiguas galapagoscaracteristicas islas mas antiguas galapagoscelebrity cruise galapagos machu picchucelebrity cruise lines galapagos islandscelebrity cruises galapagos machu picchucelebrity cruises galapagos reviewscelebrity cruises galapagos xpeditioncelebrity xpedition galapagos 2014celebrity xpedition galapagos cancelledcelebrity xpedition galapagos cruisecelebrity xpedition galapagos cruise 2014celebrity xpedition galapagos excursionscelebrity xpedition galapagos machu picchucelebrity xpedition galapagos price