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.
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.)