Why Slates and Copybooks?

Before the middle of the twentieth century, paper was a precious commodity reserved for important governmental, business, and scholarly functions. Costly to produce and difficult to ship, paper products were simply too expensive to be used indiscriminately in public schools. Therefore, most seatwork was done with slate and slate pencil. The slate would be checked at recitation time, wiped clean with a soft rag, and then reused for the next study session. The slate pencil, not to be confused with the chalk used on the chalkboard, is a slender rod of pressed clay held like a wooden pencil. Although the slate pencil breaks easily under pressure, it is popular with visitors reenacting a day in a one-room school.

The copybook, pen, and ink were reserved for more permanent work in the last and previous century. The teacher would write a line, perhaps of spelling words or arithmetic problems, in the scholar's copybook, and the scholar would then copy the material repeatedly until the work was committed to memory. This form of rote learning, now deemed as punitive, was then common practice. Juvenile pranks, perhaps born out of boredom and involving the ink well, abound in the folklore of the on-room school. Nevertheless, the use of the copybook can be a valuable part of the school day, and the book itself becomes a souvenir for the youthful visitor. (An eraser-less pencil is recommended rather than pen and ink since pencil is less likely to damage either persons or artifacts.)

Traditionally, copy books were made by hand using pen knife, darning needle, linen thread, and cut paper. Today, the same effect can be achieved using a paper punch, waxed cotton thread or dental floss, and two weights of legal sized paper. The heavier weight stock makes the cover to the copybook; the lighter weight stock makes the pages on which to write.

Goal:  To make a copybook.



  1. Select a design for the cover. Include a line for the student's name.
  2. Lay out the cover design horizontally, with the back cover to the left and the front cover to the right.
  3. Using the heavier of the two legal sized paper stocks selected for the cover, photocopy the cover design for each book to be made.
  4. Take three sheets of the lighter weight stock for each copybook. Fold each horizontally precisely in half. Do this separately for each sheet so that the creases will be sharp and the pages precisely divided.
  5. Measure precisely one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters of the way down along the crease of one of these pages. Lightly mark these points with pencil.
  6. Place all sheets, including the cover, together with the pencil markings facing you.
  7. Use a paper punch or darning needle to produce symmetrical holes where the measured marks are located.
  8. Take a length of thread or dental floss about twenty-four inches long. Run it from the middle hole of the page side of the copybook through to the cover side. Leave about six inches hanging inside the book.
  9. Run the thread from the cover side through the top hole to the page side.
  10. Pass the thread back through the middle hole to the outside of the cover.
  11. Pass the thread through the bottom hole from the cover through to the page side of the book.
  12. Pick up the excess thread left hanging on the inside and tie a simple square knot to secure the thread.
  13. Trim excess thread if desires.

Product Evaluation:
Use the copybooks and pencil during your day at Pioneer Sholes School. Each scholar should keep his or her own copy as a memento.
(Thanks to Storrowtown Village Museum, West Springfield, Massachusetts, Nancy Powers and Ann Haverstock of Geneva, Illinois for ideas on copybook design.)

Illinois Learning Standards 3.C.2b, 5.C.2a, 26.B.2d, 27.B.1

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