The evolution of the school desk - JuniperCivic.com
Serving Middle Village and Maspeth since 1938.

Originally published in the September 2017 Juniper Berry Magazine

The evolution of the school desk

No more pencils.

No more books.

No more teachers'

Dirty looks.

The above lyrics might take you and me on a short trip down memory lane back to our school days but it probably is not the same for the current crop of students.

I recently was on a tour of a 21st century school and was amazed at how technology has invaded the classroom. Smart boards, Interactive Whiteboards, miniscule laptop computers, iPhones, Student Response Systems, networks, wireless this, wireless that and more. It boggled the mind of this middle aged technological Neanderthal. As I left the exhibit I had new found respect for Ned Ludd.

As the above ditty states the days of pencils and books are almost gone forever and they might be followed by teachers.

When I returned home I rummaged through some old family relics from the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I came across the ancient laptop wood desk that my great-great grandfather used when he took up space in a now forgotten drafty school located somewhere in the old town of Newtown. He entered this earth in January 1843 and spent several years attending school whenever his father did not need his help on the family farm. He learned enough 'numbers' and 'letters' to read, write and do basic math. I doubt he attended past age ten or eleven. Textbooks were a rarity in the early 1850s and most reading was taught via the bible and perhaps the McGuffey Primer which became popular in the mid-century.

Writing was learned, and sometimes mastered, on a slate tablet that fit inside the lap desk as can be seen in the accompanying picture. Paper wasn't readily available at that time so a slate and chalk made due and if the school was lucky a large blackboard was featured in the front of the classroom. Students were called upon to come in front of the class and do math, writing and spelling problems on the big board and God help them if they were wrong.

'Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic

Taught to the tune of the hick'ry stick...'

was not too far off the mark. However the old tale of a slower student being made to sit in a corner and wear a dunce cap was mostly a literary fable.

My great-great grandfather's lap desk was passed down to his son when he attended the old Middle Village public school which was located near the corner of today's 69th street and Juniper Valley Road. He attended the old wooden school in the mid 1870's through early 1880s. My great grandmother attended the same school in the 1880s and also used the desk and slate but it was replaced by a long raised narrow table which students sat behind. Neither of them attended high school but both were very accomplished at the three R's.

My great-grandmother's autograph book from the late 1880s features both very good and very poor cursive writing. Her older brother was a lifelong Parks Department employee who eventually advanced to supervisor of the building and maintenance of all Queens County Parks greenhouses of which there were many.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the long school tables were replaced by desks and chairs and then by desks with attached chairs as seen in the photo. By this time paper and pencils were available to all. Writing with ink pen was used in writing class and desks were equipped with a circular hole to hold the ink well which was basically a small jar with a cork or rubber top. Many a girl had her long hair dipped into the ink well by a mischievous boy.

These desks survived well into the mid-twentieth century. Some of my grandparents, my parents and I as a youngster used these desks. In the late 1960s my great aunt, a retired teacher from PS 87, informed me that the school was ridding itself of the old desks and they were out on the street. I hurried to 80th street and managed to salvage one. I somehow negotiated the local streets with the desk precariously balanced on my bicycle basket with neither it nor me falling off.

These utilitarian pieces of educational furniture were eventually replaced by desks that many of us remember well. These desks were not attached to the floor and had the ability to be mobile. They were constructed of wood or sheet metal with wood backs and desktops. The desktop also had an arm support which many students used to support their elbow which supported their forearm which supported their hand which supported their noggin when tired. Yawn. Zzzzzzzzzz. Yes, school could be boring.

The modern school desks are not that much different from those of the recent past. I guess it is difficult to change a good and useful design.

September is now here and...

School days, school days,                         

Time for back to school days.                     

Backpacks, and pencils, and paper, too.   

You'll need crayons and scissors and sticky glue.

Well, the more things change the more they stay the same.

September 2017 Juniper Berry Magazine

September 2017 Table of Contents