Posted by Roselyn Llovit

Black, green or white, the traditional scribbling board has come a long way


slate chalkboard

The vintage-look modern slate chalkboard: works with regular chalk and liquid chalk markers


Have you ever wondered what students in classrooms used before there were chalkboards and paper? Cave walls and hands. Then they wrote on small slabs of wood covered with black grit, called ‘slates’. These were cumbersome, however, because teachers had to go from student to student to check on their work and could present their lessons to only one person at a time. 

This is a true story of what happened in a world without chalkboards: In 1846, teacher Olive M. Isbell was faced with the impossible task of teaching the alphabet to students who had neither slates nor paper. The woman responsible for opening the first school in California had to write on what’s readily available: the backs of her students’ hands! There had to be a better way of conveying information for the whole class to read.

James Pillans, inventor of the chalkboard

James Pillans, inventor of the chalkboard

Mr. Chalkboard
Enter James Pillans, the headmaster of Old Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, the recognized inventor of the chalkboard and colored chalk for chalkboards. He used both to teach geography. He thought of a writing board encompassing an entire wall. He covered it with gray or black slate stone and used chalk to write on it. His formula consisted of ground chalk, color dyes and porridge. Before Pillans thought of one huge board, he placed his students’ reading tablets on the classroom wall, much like the display of flat screens we see in Best Buy’s TV department.

Historians disagree on when the chalkboard was invented. Some say it was 1801, the earliest record it was used in the USA by George Baron, a West Point teacher. Others say it was 1823, when Samuel Read Hall—who opened the first ‘normal school’ in Concord, Vermont—patented a design for a blackboard. 

What do eggs and potatoes have in common with the chalkboard?
As early as 1815, Scots referred to this writing canvas as the ‘blackboard’, because it was made of dark gray or black slate stone. Other countries adopted the name. The term ‘chalkboard’ started appearing in the USA in the mid-1930s. David A. Fryxell of Family Tree magazine claim that early ones were made from “pine covered with a mixture of egg white and carbon from charred potatoes.” Some classroom walls had “a paste of lime, plaster of Paris and lampblack” spread on them.


Green chalkboard in classroom
When blackboards turned green


When is black not black? When it turns green.
According to 1898 mineral industry statistics, slate blackboard manufacturing began in the US in the 1840s. Improved railroad networks allowed its distribution throughout the country. Its porcelain composition made it lighter and easier to ship. Green-colored chalkboards were introduced in the 1960s. Many preferred them to black ones, because they didn’t show old chalk lines as much and were more durable than slate. Also, the green color causes less eye strain.


The chalkboard easel—a favorite of dining establishments


From indoors to outdoors to basically everywhere
The chalkboard has come a long away from the green and black wooden schoolroom canvas. Its development was directly linked to its purpose—the easel, for example. It’s not just for artists, but for small businesses to announce product lines on streets, menus for dining establishments, and multi-board contraptions that act as dividers and visual exhibits.

Neon liquid chalk markersNeon liquid chalk markers—give your masterpiece a glow


Not limited to the wooden kind, steel chalkboards appeared in the 1960s. The use of chalkboard paint has endured into the 21st century and is found on many surfaces, increasing the versatility of its writing partner, chalk. With the advent of the washable liquid chalk marker, the chalkboard’s status was raised. Regular dusty chalk has paved the way for its dustless, odorless and non-toxic cousin. Despite much discussion on the superiority of liquid chalk over the powdered kind—whether used on chalkboard, whiteboard, or surfaces like glass and porcelain—it usually comes down to personal preference. An improvement on Pillan’s chalk is the new neon chalk marker, which gives an added glow to artwork.

Currently, chalkboards come in various formats:

The last one—as with its transparent equivalent, the think board—is flexible, thinner and softer, so it can be cut and molded into various shapes and sizes. It comes with an adhesive backing, so it can be attached to most smooth surfaces.


Chalkboard contact paper/vinyl sheet

Both regular chalk and liquid chalk markers work well with chalkboard vinyl sheets


Did you know that whiteboards nearly replaced chalkboards?
The school chalkboard found its way into boardrooms, laboratories, other medical facilities... anywhere ideas are presented. You would think that with the advent of the Internet, they would go the way of the T-Rex. Surprisingly, despite the invention of the whiteboard in the 1980s and its adoption by 21% of all American schools in the mid-1990s, the chalkboard lives on! Most universities in the USA still use them! Why is this so when the competitor is lighter, easier to clean, and its dry-erase constitution eliminated the need for water to erase chalk? Why do advanced learning institutions still prefer chalkboards? The answer lies in its durability. Whiteboards need to be replaced after a couple of years. Whiteboard expert Hanson Grant says it’s more about practicality: “It costs about $20,000 to replace an existing sliding system with whiteboards.” 

The changing face of the chalkboard
Who says chalkboards have to be flat? Chalkboards are not confined to walls anymore. They come in various shapes and sizes. Connect several boards with hinges and produce a room divider. Restaurants can use them to make an impromptu outdoor patio. Taller versions can act as a fence. Use it as a perimeter to set off your property from the pavement, or separate your garden from the neighbor’s. A chalkboard wall decorated with neon liquid chalk markers would make your front or backyard the talk of the neighborhood... especially if you change your illustrations every week.


Chalkboard calendar, chalkboard contact paper

The chalkboard calendar: can be made of chalk board paint, or chalkboard contact paper/vinyl sheet


Paint it black!
Your entire coffee mug can be a chalkboard. How? Coat it with chalkboard paint! In fact, with this paint, you can turn almost any surface into a chalkboard. Splash a massive chalkboard calendar across your home office wall. Place a bulletin board in your condotel lobby. Have your coffee break conversations around a chalkboard message center instead of the water cooler. Turn your floor or ceiling into a canvas for family members or colleagues to showcase their art.


Chalkboard paint plant pots

Plants, pots and chalk: an unlikely partnership that works


Vinyl doesn’t just mean your parents’ records
The vinyl sheet has given the chalkboard a kind of versatility it hasn’t had before. Its softness and pliability ensures it can be cut into whatever shape you want. They can be made into coasters, coffee stencils, wine glass trinkets, bottle tags, table signs, labels for plant pots, jars and other containers, entire walls of furniture and features on architectural elements (dressers, bedroom walls, window panels).

The chalkboard of the future
If you think about it, the prototype for today’s Android tablet and iPad is the 1846 slate board. In a strange case of life imitating art, science fiction writers accurately predicted technological advances, such as flat screens, electronic billboards and interactive smart boards, by regarding the lowly chalkboard as inspiration. If you’ve seen Total Recall (or similar movies), you would have noticed the animated screens adorning skyscraper walls, floating ones in train stations, electronic transparent ‘newspapers’ and Skype-like interfaces popping up when future moms want to check up on their teenagers. The chalkboard of the future may follow this path and pave the way for the aforementioned high-tech goodies to become realities.


smart board: the high-tech chalkboard

The smart board: the high-tech cousin of the chalkboard


Even now, images projected onto present-day interactive smart boards can be manipulated with fingers. Only a few years ago, the very idea of resizing a floating image with your hands was just a pipe dream—as envisioned in the Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report.


Time will tell whether the chalkboard will still exist 100 years from now. Thanks to its original purpose of conveying knowledge to the masses, however, it will always be regarded, not just as a ‘medium of instruction’, but also a vehicle of expression of creativity.


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