Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"The Insanitary Slate is Also Out-of-Date": Mystery Artifact Revealed

Last week's mystery artifact was apparently a tricky one! 

A few folks guessed that this simple machine with a brush inside might have been used to buff long, thin items, while a couple of others guessed it might be a boot cleaner.  As I think I mentioned, knowing the context in which this item was used might help in guessing it's function:  this machine was used in schools.  It is a chalkboard eraser cleaner.

Chalkboards were being used in schools alongside individual student slates by the beginning of the 19th-century, and the railroad system allowed large pieces of slate to be shipped from Eastern States to one-room school houses on the Midwestern frontier by the 1840s.  Most teachers and students used an old rag to clean the slate boards.  John L. Hammett, the owner of several early school-supply stores in New England, invented the felt chalkboard eraser in 1863.  While giving a presentation, Hammett grabbed a handful of wool felt strips, discovering that they cleaned the chalkboard much more thoroughly than cotton scraps, and his idea for the modern felt eraser was born, as were generations of school children banging erasers together or against the side of the school house to clean them of chalk dust.

Eraser cleaning machines came into vogue in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, as the populace became more concerned about sanitation and the impact chalk dust might have on children's health (according to the illustration below, it was also common practice for little Timmy to spit on his slate to clean it - yuck!)  This advertisement for the Haynes Blackboard Eraser Cleaner proudly trumpets "The Insanitary Slate is Also Out-of-Date" as it warns about the dangers of slates ("a breeding place for disease spreading germs") and chalk dust, because "civilization and education come only when they are stimulated by appreciation . . . [and] the desire to learn how to live better."

How many readers remember banging chalkboard erasers together as both a favor to the teacher and a reward at the end of a long day?  I certainly do!  I also remember similar concerns about chalk dust and its effects on children's respiratory systems in the 1990s, and by the time I became a teacher in the late 90s, most schools had switched over to whiteboards.  Of course, my children's schools now have electronic smartboards with internet access, as well as the standard whiteboard, and iPads for student use instead of slates.  After such an amazing century of technological innovation, it's hard to imagine what the next century of school technology will bring!

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