Slate tablets and slate pencils were big business in the mid-to-late 19th century. The states of Vermont and New York, often referred to as the “Slate Belt”, were geologically rich in slate. Mills began to appear as early as the 1840s and continued on to the mid-20th century, supplying America’s schools and schoolchildren with blackboards, tablets, and slate pencils. One such mill was run by the American Slate Pencil Works in Castleton, Vermont.
This illustration is from an 1869 atlas of Rutland County, Vermont:
The 1869 Pennsylvania School Journal reprinted an account of this company, which was originally printed in Scientific American. What follows is an excerpt from the article (emphasis mine):
“Twenty years ago all the slate pencils used were manufactured in Germany. She then supplied America with this commodity. In 1850, there was a young man living in West Rutland, Vt., eighteen years of age, who fortunately discovered a supply of stone for making a first-class article of slate pencils. He began by whittling out the pencils and selling them to school children.
He became possessed of the idea that there was a fortune in the business, and his dream has been realized. This quarry of slate pencil stone was situated in a large ravine, four miles north of Castleton, Vt., near Bomoseen Lake. The land on which it was situated was for sale at one hundred dollars. He purchased it, and begun operations by sawing out the pencils and whittling them round. Machinery was invented to facilitate the process, which has reached something like perfection, and enormously increases the production of pencils. At present the quarry and mills are owned by a joint-stock company. They are valued at three hundred thousand dollars. From fifty to one hundred thousand pencils are turned out daily, and upward of a hundred hands are employed in the quarry and in the mill.
After the stone is quarried it passes through four processes before it is made into pencils. It is sawn into rectangular blocks five inches by seven, and split by hand into slabs of the same length and breadth which are carefully assorted. These slabs pass through a machine which shaves them all to a uniform thickness of a quarter of an inch, when they are ready for final process. The machinery for reducing these slabs to pencils consists of iron plates fitted to receive them, fastened to an endless chain which passes over the roller at either end. These plates, of which there are about twenty on a chain, all receive a slab, and as it passes from one roller to the other the pencils are cut and rounded out half way to comple tion by semi-circular knives; a dozen different sets of knives being firmly fastened above them. The slabs are then turned over and passed back through another machine exactly similar, and a perfect pencil is the product. They are counted out by the children and packed one hundred in a box. The pencils are sold by the manufacturer at half a cent each, or fifty cents a box, or ten times the cost of slate pencils in Germany, where one thousand can be bought for less than fifty cents. Being made from a superior article of stone they are used throughout the United States in preference to those imported from Germany.
The slate pencil business, like the pin business, is a small one in itself, but becomes large where it is necessary to supply all the school children of America with pencils. Twenty years ago the whole of it was in the brain of a young Yankee boy. To-day it is a business involving over a quarter million of money.”
There is something unique about the smoothness of writing with a slate pencil on a slate tablet. For pencil users who haven’t tried it yet it’s highly recommended, and there is no shortage of affordable vintage slate pencils and tablets online.