This is the time parents nationwide are buying school supplies that will be needed by their children in just a few weeks. In the 1800s, as education was growing in importance, school supplies were often homemade or recycled. We thought it would be fun to compare school supplies used in the mid-19th century to what kids use today. Maybe you can share some of your comparisons, too!

Slate pencils vs. lead pencils

THEN: Slate pencils were made of soapstone or softer pieces of slate rock, sometimes wrapped in paper.

NOW: Wood-cased lead pencils were produced in the Boston area by William Munroe beginning in 1812. Munroe’s cores were made from dried graphite paste and were not hardened in a furnace. Today’s pencils are graphite wrapped in cedar wood. No. 5 pencil for a test, anyone?

Cigar boxes vs. Superhero pencil boxes

THEN: Many students used old cigar boxes or empty stationery boxes for their precious writing utensils. More affluent students might have had a store-bought box called a scholar’s companion.

NOW: A must-have today is pencil cases with cartoon characters or comic book characters, as well as a rainbow of containers in plastic or other materials that can fit into a backpack or school desk.

Colored pencils vs. crayons

THEN: A 19th-century “crayon” is either a wax, chalk or colored pencil.

NOW: The first Crayola Crayons were made in 1903 by Binney & Smith (later named Crayola), a company that made carbon black for printing and shoe polish, paints, dustless chalk and other related products. Today, crayons and markers are common on school supply lists.

Slate tablets vs. computers

THEN: Schoolchildren used slate tablets to practice handwriting and arithmetic without wasting precious paper.

NOW: Today, a “tablet” is an iPad or Chromebook. And cursive is frequently not taught.

Quills vs. pens

THEN: Students used quills with paper for schoolwork. Quills were large feathers with tips that were sharpened to a point and then dipped into ink to write.

NOW: Quills have been replaced by ballpoint pens, rollerball pens and felt pens.

Books vs. online textbooks

THEN: McGuffey Readers, formally McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, a series of elementary school reading books were widely used in American schools beginning in the 1830s.

NOW: Today, many schools are eliminating traditional textbooks for digital books—mostly free—accessed on Kindles or iPads.

Slide rules vs. calculators

THEN: From the late 19th century until about 1970, slide rules served as the principal calculating instruments for engineers, scientists, electricians, navigators, high school and college students and others.

NOW: Today there are calculators (some for less than $10!) and phone/tablet apps.

Paper vs. paperless

THEN: Paper was expensive in the 1800s, so students wrote on thin slabs of slate. Paper was primarily used for penmanship lessons.

NOW: Today, the concept of a paperless classroom is more than just a trend. Schools are using apps and other software as a replacement for traditional pen and paper.

Nothing vs. headphones

THEN: In the 19th century, you listened to the teacher talking or got your knuckles rapped.

NOW: Today, children put on their headphones, plug into the Chromebook and listen to an online lesson.

Book  straps vs. backpacks

THEN: School children in the late 19th and early 20th century tied their books together with straps or belts, which they could hang over one shoulder.

NOW: Today, backpacks are a hands-free way to carry books and more. They were invented in 1938 by Gerry Outdoors primarily for hiking and camping.

vintage crayons and colored pencils in box

Early crayons by Crayola, American Lead Pencil Co. and American Crayon Co.
Photo: Photo: National Museum of American History/Binney and Smith, Inc. and Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection


crayola colors of the world 24 crayons in box

Crayola Crayons


vintage school pencil boxed and cigar boxes

Antique and vintage pencil boxes
Photo:  National Museum of American History/Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection


marvel comics molded school pencil case

Marvel Comics molded pencil case

vintage pencils in box and patriotic pencils

Dixon Ticonderoga Co. Ethan Allen pencils and American flag slate pencils.
Photo:  National Museum of American History/Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection


antique pen quill pen and pen with nib

Antique quill pen and pen with nib
Photo: National Museum of American History/Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection


vintage silent book school slate

Book slate
Photo: National Museum of American History/Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection



One response to “Do Students Have It Better Today? School Supplies THEN and NOW”

  1. Babycatcher says:

    I was shocked to see the School Box pencil box– I have one and would love to sell it! It was my husbands in the mid-1940s. But I have no clue what it’s worth. (his mother never threw anything out! LOL) Hope to find more info. Great article, as always!

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