Lilly’s Writing Slate

Author: Kurt Deion


Lilly's slate

This writing slate fragment bears the name “Lilly” etched at the top.
(Courtesy of Boston City Archaeology Program)

Although a majority of the artifacts recovered in the archaeological dig at the former Dorchester Industrial School for Girls site cannot be connected to a specific individual, one object comes closer than most. This writing slate fragment, which was excavated from the privy, bears the name Lilly etched at its top. This may indicate it belonged to Lilian Leavitt, who boarded at the ISFG briefly from August to November 1872. It also could have belonged to Elizabeth “Lilla” Dobson, who was brought to the school with her sister in 1856.

Privy

The remnant of Lilly’s writing slate was found in this privy behind the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls in 2015.
(Courtesy of Boston City Archaeology Program)

In total, 7,534 objects were recovered in the privy, including over 400 writing slate and pencil fragments. None of the other writing slate portions unearthed in the dig bear the names of other ISFG students, which indicates it may have been unusual to carve them into the slabs. The number of discoveries in the privy also signifies that it was a popular place of disposal at the school and that these writing tools were an integral part of life there for the girls.

Writing slates were an important educational tool used throughout many parts of the world in the 19th century, the heyday of the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. The composition of these fine-grained rocks made it easy for them to be split into thin, smooth slabs on which to write. Though many of the writing slate mines were in the United Kingdom, there were major slate deposits in the northeastern United States, so it is possible that the slabs used at the ISFG were relatively local in origin. Lilly and her peers, like other children around the world, would have used a slate to practice school subjects such as handwriting, arithmetic, and spelling. They learned this material from instructors, or from textbooks such as primers and readers, and did their own work on their individual slates. This technique was regarded as efficient, as it allowed for all pupils to be occupied at once.

1879 writing slate

Slates were used by students to practice the different subjects they learned in school. This 1879 photograph shows a pupil at the Carlisle Indian School using his board to learn mathematics and draw.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

School children wrote on these boards with slate pencils, which were cylindrical strips made of a softer slate material. Slates and slate pencils were excellent learning tools that allowed repeated use on a clean surface: the pencils left an erasable white powder on the slate. When these two slate objects were scraped together it emitted an irritating squeak. This was amplified when an entire classroom full of students wrote out their lessons simultaneously, as it created a disharmonious din that was unpleasant for Lilly and the other girls. Nonetheless, the boards were popular in educational institutions, in part because, unlike paper, their stock did not have to be constantly replenished. Also, it was neater to use slate pencils as opposed to pens, which sometimes could lead to ink spills.

Writing slates typically came in sizes such as 5 x 7, 7 x 11, and 8 x 12, so Lilly’s intact slate would have been sizably larger than the fragment found at the ISFG, which is an inch and a half tall. Additionally, a complete slate would include a protective barrier along the edges, to prevent the user from getting jabbed by splinters. This could have been in the form of a wooden frame, or bound wire or ribbon.

Although there is not enough evidence to definitively determine who Lilly was, the remnant of her writing slate offers a glimpse into her experience at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.

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