Slates, crayons, and quills: Back to school supplies of the past

By Sarah Barton
Photo of three boxes of crayons

The kids are back to school and parents have done their best to fill seemingly endless lists of new school supplies. But what did children bring with them back to school in the past? Here in the Division of Home and Community Life, our Education Collection consists of classroom materials ranging from the early 1700s to the late 20th century. As an intern processing this collection, I have become well acquainted with the evolution of pencil boxes, writing implements, and slates used in classrooms throughout American history.

Pencil boxes

Pencil boxes are an excellent example of how school supplies have changed over time. The simple box pictured on the left would have been typical for most students from the mid-19th century. Not everybody purchased a pencil box, though. Many children would use recycled containers, such as empty cigar boxes or stationery boxes, to hold their writing supplies. More affluent students might have had a box similar to the boxes in the center, also called scholar’s companions. School supplies were valuable, so many scholar's companions would have included a lock and key to keep contents secure. Many of these boxes were imported from Germany and advertised as gifts for children to encourage academic excellence. The deluxe middle box comes with its own small ink bottle. The larger box on the right is a typical 1960s version, designed to accommodate the additional supplies required as time went by.

Photo of pencils

Just what went into these boxes? Pictured on the right, slate pencils, like these from the 1880s, were common. In response to the great wave of immigrant children in the schools, efforts were made to Americanize students through flag rituals, nationalistic symbolism in the classroom, English language instruction, civic lessons, and patriotic musical and theatrical performances. The slate pencils from the 1880s, pictured on the right, are wrapped with American flag-themed paper. They are manifestations of Americanization through school supplies of the period.

Photo of quill pen and pen with nib

Throughout the 19th century, students also used quills with paper to complete school work and practice penmanship. Quills were large feathers with tips that were sharpened to a point and then dipped into ink to write. When quill tips broke, students would sharpen the quills with a "pen knife." In the absence of this small knife, a handy pair of sewing scissors would do. Quill pens evolved into wooden dip pens with replaceable metal nibs, like the red one shown in the photograph.

Four boxes of crayons

Just as objects can change over time, so can the meaning of a word. Take the term "crayon." In the museum's collection there are many boxes labelled "crayons" but upon further inspection, there are three types: wax, chalk, and colored (map) pencils. The large box, on the left side of the picture, contains wax crayons created by the well-known Crayola Company. Crayola crayons were introduced in 1903 by the Binney & Smith company of Easton, Pennsylvania. Designed for "Young Artists," this set was one of the earliest Crayola products made and contains twenty-eight colors, including celestial blue, golden ochre, rose pink, and burnt sienna. The thinner yellow box in the upper right corner was produced by the American Lead Pencil Company of New York, which later became Venus Pencil. While these are considered "crayons," they might be more recognizable to today's students as colored pencils. The chalk crayons in the red box on the lower right were also produced in the early 1900s by the American Crayon Company, and could be bought for a penny.

Photo of pastel image of young boy with brown hair and eyes in white collared top holding slate

Before the widespread production of affordable paper in the mid-19th century, most students used slates, such as the one pictured in this 1822 pastel rendering of "School Boy with Slate." The slate below would have been a deluxe model and is most commonly referred to as a "quiet slate," because it made less noise when it was set down due to the wrapping of fabric, leather, or yarn around the edges. This particular slate is also a "double" or a "book slate," with two slates attached along one edge, opening like a book.

Photo of slate

The museum's education collection contains many other types of school equipment from early American education. As we move further into the 21st century, it becomes increasingly important to understand and preserve the technological advances that fundamentally impacted more recent educational history. What are some educational materials used today, or in the last few decades, that you think your National Museum of American History should be collecting? Comment below or e-mail Associate Curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs at

Sarah Barton is a graduate of Texas Tech University and currently an intern working with curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs in the Division of Home and Community Life. She is assisting in processing the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection, a recent acquisition. If you enjoyed this blog post, read about our early school desks.