One of my earliest memories of school in the early 1900s was being given
a tray of sand to write out my letters with my finger. It had the advantage
that there was no serious rubbing out to do. To start afresh, we children only
had to shake the tray.
Double-sided child's slate from the early 1900s, from
the effects of Anne Davey's mother-in-law. The left-hand photo shows one
side of the slate which is plain and the right-hand photo shows the reverse
side which has lines scratched onto it to guide children's writing. The
photo also shows the special pencil for use with the slate. I have been
unable to confirm what the slate pencils were made of. The most likely information
on the internet suggests that they were of a soft slate composition or soap
stone. The writing on the slate came out white.
This folding children's slate was photographed in Salisbury
Museum and labelled as made in Germany for the English market, 1910.
Learning to write 1900s style - slates and slate pencils
Later came slate and a 'slate' pencil, which made a horrible scratching noise
and was very dirty because we would spit on the slate to rub bits out.
Learning to write 1900s
style - pen and ink
A girl in the early 1900s, showing her drawing on her
China ink well set in a hole in a school desk. Note the
indent alongside for pens and pencils.
Later still came pens with nibs which had to be repeatedly dipped in ink,
and the nibs got twisted and had to be replaced quite frequently.
Each child's desk had an inkpot made of white china which was set into a
specially made hole. Ink pots were filled each week by children who the teacher
designated as class monitors.
Nib pen and spare nibs. Photographed at the Tilford Rural
Life Centre. Nibs could be eased out and new ones or ones with a different
stroke thickness could be eased back in their place.
Part of a letter written with a pen that had to have
its nib continually dipped into ink. Note how the writing is dark after
the nib has just been dipped into the ink and fades off until the nib is
next dipped in. Note also that the ink is blue, which was the standard in
the 1940s and 50s, and probably before.
The ink never seemed to stay where it was supposed to. Somehow it always
travelled up our second fingers and we had to be very careful indeed not to
get blots onto our clothes or our exercise books, which was very frowned upon.
Learning to write 1900s
style - chalk
We also had chalks which seemed to me to be even more trouble.
This was because
I, like most girls, wore a pinafore over my dress. Pinafores were white and
sleeveless with frills round the armholes. Some were embroidered, some had a
ribbon threaded through them and were very pretty.
Girls wearing the white over-pinafores that so easily got dirty - but which
presumably washed more easily than the dresses underneath. Photo courtesy of
One day I got my pinafore
in an awful mess at school with the chalks, and I was afraid to go home. The
girl who lived next door and was much older than me found me crying. She took me home and went in to my mother with me.
Learning to write in the 1940s
I was also taught to write with such a pen in the 1940s.
Later we graduated to fountain pens which stored ink, so didn't need to be
repeatedly dipped in an inkwell. Ball point pens were strenuously disallowed
on the grounds that they ruined handwriting.
Fun and games with pen nibs
I used to break the nibs to make them into twin pointed flightless darts.
This must have been a common practice in schools, as an old friend from
tells me that he also used to make the nib darts. He even fitted them with paper flights. The target
was usually the underside of the lid of
Reproduction Victorian and Edwardian school writing tools
- as displayed in the museum shop at the Museum of Reading - bottles of
ink, china ink pots. pens with replaceable nibs, writing slates with slate
It would not be advisable to use the ink pots without
first securing them in the hole of a desk - see photo above - as they would
easily get knocked over, and ink stains badly.