History of the magic slate: The strange story of this children's drawing toy

I was looking at some of the pop culture and retro stuff that I have in my collection like the magic slate toy.

I always wondered who came up with this idea. I feel like it's been around forever but I've never questioned it.

I have this one, in particular with the character Little Lulu on it.

So I decided to look it up. 

The one thing about the magic slate toy is that it's one of the staples of the party toys. It's something that you would see at the grocery store while you were waiting in line it was usually an impulse item.

You draw on the plastic sheet and it sticks to the wax underneath to show the lines.

The red plastic pencil that you draw with has pretty much been the norm for as long as I can remember. 

picture of red pencil on board

One of the things they would always say is that you can draw these characters that are on the board. But the problem is sometimes the wax just wasn't sticky enough unless you pushed really hard.

So looking up the history of the magic slate here's what I found.

When was the magic slate created?

The magic slate was created in 1923. That's actually much farther back than I thought it would be. 

Who invented the magic slate?

It was by a person named R.A. Watkins.

R.A. Watkins worked in a corset Factory. 

How did they come up with the idea for the magic slate?

There are actually two stories about how they think that the magic slate originally started. 

The first story is:

Watkins just devised a makeshift timesheet out of scraps of corset plastic on wax boards. so corset plastic would be thin enough? I guess I don't know enough about the manufacturing of corsets to really question this. 

Watkins thought they could save on paper because it was going to be reusable. 

The second story is actually more of a fun one. And I feel like it's made up just because of the way that it plays out. 

The second story is:

The second story of how they came up with the idea is a little more strange and it goes like this.

Watkins was actually approached by a man like a door-to-door salesman looking to sell the rights of the invention called "paper saver". A simple homemade device made from tissue wax and cardboard. 

Watkins told the inventor that he'd sleep on it and let him know first thing in the morning. 

Now my first thought was it would be something like, he stole the idea. 

But no. 

The way that it goes, the inventor that approached him was then arrested that very same night, and after he was arrested he called Mr. Watkins and said he would give him the rights to the invention if Watkins just paid his bail. 

So Watkins took over the idea and then changed it from wax paper to plastic because it adhered better. 

Now I don't believe that story just because the whole part where the salesman called this random person that he met to make his bail seems like it's made up.

But who knows? stranger things have happened I suppose.

The magic slate was supposed to be used for timesheets

What Watkins originally planned to do with this invention was to use it as a time sheet for the factory.

Watkins took the time sheet home and his kids found it and they started drawing on it and had lots of fun with it. Then he realized, maybe this is something that would be more profitable as a toy for kids. 

He also realized that it could be made with popular characters of the time.

Who made magic slates?

The first people that manufactured the product was a printer in Aurora Illinois called The Strathmore company and it was called "The Paperless Notepad".

Later that company Strathmore was bought out by Whitman publishing which is one of the largest publishers in the U.S. of children's games, comics, and books.

Here is a commercial where the magic slate was a prize in Post cereal.

Magic slates helped the U.S. against the Cold War

One of the even weirder stories in the history of the magic slate is one of espionage and spy lore.

A book called "Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War's Most Dangerous Operation" written by Jeremy Duns, it tells this interesting story about using the magic slate.

Dead Drop Book by Jeremy Duns

Two congressional delegates were flying to Moscow on a mission. They assumed that everything there was being bugged by the Russians. All their communications, the rooms, everything was being bugged. 

So what they did is they brought these magic slate pads that children used as a means to communicate with each other while they were in Moscow. 

So they would write on the pads to each other and then just pull up the sheet to erase it.

They used them because they were easy to travel with and easy to get.

Whitman sent the government free magic slates to help

Whitman the company that made the magic slates heard that the government was using these magic slates as spy devices. So they actually sent 50 cases (which is about 2,500 slates) to the U.S state Department to use.

At one point the people at Whitman were even kind of tempted to make light of it and wanted to start producing magic slates with pictures of cartoon Russian spies and American super sleuths on them. 

But they did not end up doing that.

Etch A Sketch thought the government should use its product instead

One funny thing about that is the competition at this time Etch A Sketch actually scoffed at them using magic slates. 

The owner of Ohio Arts who makes Etch A Sketch was saying all you have to do is put a piece of paper over the wax and rub it and you'll be able to see all the messages that were written. 

But if you're writing tons and tons of messages you really can't. You're writing over the same spot multiple times. 

He even added, if they used an Etch A Sketch they could shake it and then you'd never be able to see anything they wrote because the screen completely disappears. 

The problem I would like to bring up is that an Etch A Sketch leaks, it breaks, and you can't really carry as many of them because they're very bulky. And also have you ever tried writing with one? It would take forever! 

I'm not really against Etch A Sketch I just think it's kind of funny that he was just like, what about us?

That's what I learned about the magic slate toy

So anyway, that's what I found out about the magic slate. From corsets, to bail money, to spy tools.

I don't even think they make them anymore.

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