Artifacts

Slates

What is a slate?

Image of a SlateSlates were like small, portable blackboards for students to write on. They were widely used in the United States when paper was scarce and expensive. Even though paper had become commonplace by the late 1800s, it was still considered too expensive for the demands of children in rural schools.Until 1900, many children in rural schools still used slates for writing their assignments.

What were slates made from?

Slates were named after the stone that was used to make them. Slate is a kind of stone that can be separated into flat sheets. These flat sheets were typically cut down to pieces roughly 8" x 11". Early slates were made without any frames. Later, wooden frames were constructed around the edges of slates to provide support. Sometimes, a piece of felt or perhaps a ribbon of string was run around the edge of the frame to protect small hands from slivers. Slate is still commonly used today for roofing, flagstones, in buildings, and for the tops of pool tables.

How did people use slates?

Slates were ideal for work that didn't need to be saved like math homework or penmanship. Students might practice a lesson in class and take it up to the teacher to check. The lesson could then be erased and the student would work on the next assignment. Slates were easily cleaned and, unlike paper, nothing was thrown away or wasted.

There were special pencils made for writing on slates. These pencils were themselves made from slate and were sold in boxes of six or twelve. Often, the pencils had a paper wrapping on them like crayons do today. If the slate pencil broke, the pieces could still be used.

How old are slates?

Slates have been in use in the United States for a long time. They were advertised in newspapers as early as 1737. Slates with wooden frames were advertised in 1749.

It's often hard to tell how old a particular slate might be. They are still manufactured today and have been a popular toy off and on over the years. Perhaps the best way to determine the age of a slate is from the frame. The frames of older slates were often handmade from better wood and had fitted dovetail corners. Newer slates typically are framed in pine and are held together with small nails.

Do all slates look pretty much the same?

Most slates looked like any other slate. However, there were some interesting varieties that appeared. The Blackwell has examples of "double slates." These were created when two slates were tied together so that they could be opened and closed like a book. We also have books that were called "book slates." These weren't really made out of slate, though. They were made of thick paper t