An Artifact as History in Art Education

By Pinto, Walter; Smith, Peter | Art Education, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

An Artifact as History in Art Education

Pinto, Walter, Smith, Peter, Art Education


"The Chautauqua Industrial Art Desk" can be described as a computer without electricity. This "Desk" was a turn-of-the-century venture in instructional technology and embodies many concepts in embryonic form that now have been developed into complex programs delivered through electronic means. Here are the seeds-if we may speak in metaphors-of what now is sprouting luxuriously, whether like a flower or a weed is for each of us to evaluate. Its archaic simplicity may help us to better understand what now may confuse us in the din of techno-babble.

Diana Korzenik was the first art education historian to pay schol arly attention to the Chautauqua Industrial Art Desk, in "Doing Historical Research" (1985) an article which included photographs of fragments from a Desk that had been found by a student, Ray Lund.1 This information was all we knew about the Desk until Clyde Watson, Professor Emeritus of Arizona State University, gave one of the authors a complete Desk from his personal collection.

When opened, the Desk has a vertically mounted scroll of some 24 "source pictures" that can be rolled into sight, a horizontal chalkboard surface, and spaces for chalk, pencils, pens and so forth in little recesses beneath the scroll. On the back of the vertical panel holding the scroll is a map of the United States with the products of each state listed. This provides us with a clue that the desk was probably manufactured in 1913 (or slightly later), since New Mexico is listed as a state and it entered the Union in 1912. The Desk is made of oak and hinged in a way that makes it collapsible, with the fragile paper scroll and drawing tools safely stored within it. It can be carried about like a laptop computer, although it measures about 18" by 24" and is about 3" deep. It is also constructed so that it can be hung on a wall out of the way. Because the Desk has no legs, it can be placed on a table level surface or on the floor for use by smaller children.


The Desk was not a self-explanatory teaching machine. At least two booklets, The Home Teacher and Child Life, both dated 1913, were published to guide parents in using the Desk. The manufacturer of the Desk claimed that its direct antecedent was a Chautauqua adult education event, a "chalk talk" given by Frank Beard in 1886 (Anonymous, 1913). Unfortunately in the section of The Home Teacher titled "Our History," that made this claim, no descriptions of Beard's talks were provided. Since a number of the images on the scroll are in white lines on dark background, we would guess that the "chalk talks" were lectures accompanied by rapidly executed simple drawings. The author (or authors) of "Our History" go on to claim:

The scope of the Desk we first presented [1890s?] suggests the amazing fact in the educational history of our country that the value of drawing was then practically unknown and an inclination on the part of the children thus to express the ideas that float before their inward vision was an outcropping of evil tendencies. (Anonymous, 1913, p. 13. Emphasis in original)2

Present-day art educators familiar with the fame of Walter Smith's work with industrial drawing in the 1870s (Smith, 1996) may be puzzled by such an assertion, while amused by the peculiar rhetorical style. Perhaps ignoring the well-publicized school drawing education of Walter Smith and his followers was part of the disconnection Korzenik saw between education in the school and home around 1900, even projecting a feeling of rivalry (Korzenik, 1985). The Foreword to Child Life pictures a society in which the home was fast losing its educational function through industrialization and the resulting separation of work from the sphere of the home. Interestingly, the author of this publication saw the new social conditions as, "Fashioning the new woman-the woman of selfdependence and self-reliance" (Anonymous, 1913, p. …

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