It's harder yet to realize that just a century ago, many schools had not even made a transition from slate boards to pencils and paper! Tamaqua public schools, which had a reputation as being among the more progressive schools in the region, finally made that move in its classrooms in may of 1912.
Much of the credit belonged to superintendent William Derr, the visionary school official who in 1910 boasted that the percentage of boys who entered college from Tamaqua "has been larger than any town of its size in the state."
Acting on Derr's recommendation, the six-member Tamaqua school board decided to take the district another step forward in 1912 by announcing that pencils and tablets would be replacing slates for all students.
"It was decided to abolish slates in the schools and use tablets and pencils in all of the grades," the Tamaqua Courier reported. "The change will be made gradually, the present supply of slates to be used until worn out and then replaced by pencil and paper."
The writer said that superintendent Derr was allowed to use his discretion in making the change. board members were unanimous in the opinion that "slates are very unsanitary and the tablets will cost little, if, any more."
Wood-cased lead pencils had been around for a full century before the Tamaqua schools made the changeover in their classrooms. Beginning in 1812, they were being produced in the Boston area by William Munroe and by the the early 1820s and 1850s, there were several other small pencil makers near boston.
Even American literature had its own pencil connection. "Walden Pond" author Henry David Thoreau worked in his father's pencil factory, inventing techniques for grinding graphite, the mineral that is called pencil "lead." It's interesting to note that a typical pencil today can write as many as 45,000 words, the length of a short novel.
mass production of lead pencils began in the U.S. after the Civil War. During 1864-67, several patents were granted for machinery to make the pencils, including a Dixon wood planing machine for shaping pencils that produced 132 pencils per minute. In the early 1870s it was estimated that over 20 million pencils were being consumed in the country each year.
Dixon Ticonderoga is the oldest U.S. pencil manufacturer still making pencils today and one of the oldest companies in the nation. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, four companies, including Eberhard Faber, all set up or expanded pencil factories in the New York/New Jersey area.
It's much more difficult to accurately date the origin and advancements of writing slates. At first, they were merely small squares of slate, framed with wood to keep them from breaking, and marked on with other shards of slate. Because paper was too expensive in the early 19th century America, these were the writing tools of choice in public schools.
After being mined in Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York, the dark, slate could then be transported by railroad to the thousands of prairie schools which popped up across the frontier in the 1840s. From that time, if not earlier, through the early 20th century, pencils cut from solid pieces of softer grades of slate or soap-stone were used by schoolchildren to write on tablets cut from harder grades of slate.
By the 1850s, the staples of most one-room schoolhouses included a wood burning stove, benches, a large blackboard and children with their slate boards.
After the Civil War, the frames for slates were made of cheaper woods, such as pine, and by the end of the century, they were attached by screws rather than wooden pegs.
A slate with a slate pencil instead of chalk means it is most likely pre-Civil War, or perhaps older.
In 1878, Charles J. Cohen of Philadelphia, advertised Dixon American graphite lead pencils. In 1892, Dixon Crucible alone manufactured more than 30 million pencils. In 1894, one observer noted that in 20 years the cost of pencils had been reduced by 50 percent, at least in part because of the invention of machinery.
In 1895, a patent awarded to Samuel Kraus describes a method of making slate pencils using ground talc or soapstone mixed with ground potter's clay. Slate pencils were available with the slate core unwrapped, wrapped in paper, and encased in wood like a lead pencil. wood-cased slate pencils were still sold in the early 1930s.
By 1912 the U.S. and world production of pencils were 750 million and two billion pencils, respectively. Thanks to the school board's decision to the modernize its classrooms, Tamaqua became a new and regular customer of the pencil and paper distributors during that summer a century ago.