An Unexpected Discovery in the Classroom: 100-Year-Old Blackboard Drawings

Last month, an intriguing set of photographs has surfaced in the online media landscape, documenting a discovery of blackboards preserved since 1917 in several classrooms at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City. The boards were revealed underneath another layer of slates that were dismantled by technicians during renovation works. Surprisingly, the uncovered blackboards featured untouched traces of the lessons taught at the former elementary school, including texts in cursive writing, arithmetic and musical exercises, as well as elaborate illustrations in coloured chalk.[1]
The textual and visual representations drawn in chalk, only partially damaged by adhesive material and holes in the board, offer a unique glimpse into early twentieth-century teaching practices and the everyday in the U.S. public school classroom. While most of the content is related to typical elementary school subjects, some of the information is concerned with daily rituals. For example, one board prominently features a list of personal hygiene rules entitled ‘My Rules To Keep Clean’, while another fragment represents a pledge of allegiance: ‘I give my head, my he[art], and my life to my God, and One nation indivisible with justice for all.’
One of the motifs appearing on several boards is the history of the Pilgrims, the early Plymouth settlers, which is not only represented by a text, but also by illustrations. For instance, there are several colour drawings of a ship that appear to represent the Mayflower, which brought the Pilgrims to North America in 1620.  In addition, a series of simple sketches in white chalk shows figures dressed in traditional Pilgrim clothing. The blackboards also feature large-scale drawings of turkeys, which are situated in the contemporary context by another fragment on the blackboard – a hand-drawn calendar. Despite being already labelled as ‘December’ and including the month’s first day, the calendar displays mostly November dates, with the 29th day, the last Thursday of the month, marked in red to emphasize Thanksgiving holiday.
Two chalk drawings of young girls in pink and blue dresses seem to be one of the latest additions to the blackboards, as they are rendered in rich, bright colours, and one of them is partially layered over an image of a turkey, as if she were feeding it. The representation of the second girl seems to be based on widely circulating popular imagery – an artwork by the illustrator Bessie Pease Gutmann, which was featured on the cover of the Pictorial Review issue of March 1917.[2]The motif of the girl blowing a soap bubble, which might burst at any moment, echoes the delicate and transient nature of the thin chalk layer the drawing is made of.
The most striking aspect of the blackboard discovery lies precisely in the exceptional state of preservation of such an ephemeral medium, which, in its everyday use, is characterized by constantly repeating patterns of inscription and erasure. The chalk drawings and lines are often wiped off with a cloth, eraser or damp sponge even before the next lesson begins, leaving behind no more than smudges and chalk dust on a blank surface.
With signed and dated statements, such as ‘We this day give to this room slate blackboards,’ the school’s janitor and the firm D. J. Gers & Co acknowledged their intervention, while creating a peculiar time capsule. [3] Simultaneously celebrating the arrival of new blackboards and embalming the messages of the past, the authors of the inscriptions were well aware of their historical embedding.
For nearly a hundred years, the original blackboards and their representations have occupied an interstitial space between the wall and the new slate boards. Unnoticed, these interfaces of communication and thought were suspended in space and time, which makes their discovery in the digital age, when interactive whiteboards are being introduced into classrooms, all the more salient. [4] The school district and city officials are now even looking into permanently preserving these fragments of the school’s past.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[1]For a remarkable instruction booklet for educational blackboard sketching from the beginning of the 20th century, see Whitney, Frederick. Blackboard Sketching, Springfield, MA: Milton Bradley Company, 1909; at https://archive.org/details/blackboardsketch00whit.
[Accessed on 1 July 2015]. Found via http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/36940%5D.
[2]http://www.jenx67.com/2015/06/vintage-slate-chalkboard-lessons-from-1917-discovered-in-oklahoma-school.html.
[3] The blackboards were dated and likely covered on November 30th, December 1st and December 4th 1917.
[4] For a brief (personal) history of blackboards in the U.S., see Buzbee, Lewis, ‘The Simple Genius of the Blackboard,’ 15 October 2014, at http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/10/a_history_of_the_blackboard_how_the_blackboard_became_an_effective_and_ubiquitous.html [Accessed on 30 June 2015].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s