The Magic Slate erasable writing toy was invented in 1923 by R.A. Watkins. The Magic Slate consists of a piece of cardboard with a black wax sheet attached to one side. On top of that is a piece of translucent plastic. When the user applies a plastic stylus to the plastic in the form of a drawing or letters, the plastic sticks to and reveals the wax underneath, leaving behind whatever was drawn. To erase the image, you just pull the plastic sheet off the wax and get a satisfying “riiiiiip” sound when you do it. This could be done over and over again as long as you didn’t press down too hard and leave an impression on the plastic or the wax underneath.
Watkins came up with the idea for the Magic Slate while working at a corset factory in Aurora, Illinois. The factory was looking for a way to keep track of employees’ hours without having to print paper timesheets. But when Watkins showed his new timesheet replacement to his kids, he realized it made a pretty good toy, too. He took his idea to the Strathmore Company, a printing company in Aurora, and production of the Magic Slate toy began.
As you can see from this early Magic Slate, the toy was also marketed as a practical replacement for school slates…
In the 1950s, Watkins-Strathmore licensed popular cartoon and comic book characters, like Mickey Mouse, Tom & Jerry, Batman, and The Incredible Hulk, and added them around the borders of the Magic Slate design. In 1958, Strathmore was bought out by Western Publishing, who really ramped up the licensing opportunities. By the 1970s and 80s, you could find Magic Slates for just about every popular property.
The popularity of Magic Slates began to wane in the 1990s and was eventually sold to DIC in 2001.
The concept of the Magic Slate has since been replaced with small, cheap, LCD drawing screens that operate in a similar fashion. However, to erase your drawing, you just press a button and the screen goes blank. About 5 years ago, all the kids in my extended family got one of these for Christmas and, I have to say, they’re pretty cool. Although I think we can all agree that they lack the style of the licensed Magic Slates of our childhood.
For whatever reason, I have a Sherlock Hemlock Magic Slate in my collection. I guess I still have it after 40 years because it’s small, flat, and was easily stored in a bin along with magazines, coloring books, and a few old comic books.
If you don’t remember him, Sherlock Hemlock was introduced on Sesame Street in 1970 as an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes. On the show, Hemlock would take it upon himself, The World’s Greatest Detective, to solve mysteries. Whenever he would come upon one of these crime scenes, he would yell out his catchphrase, “Egad!” and examine the clues left behind, usually espousing a convoluted and complex narrative as to how the crime occurred. Inevitably, it would turn out the mystery had a very simple explanation, and on occasion, it would be revealed that it was actually Hemlock who accidentally committed the crime in the first place.
On a recurring segment called Mysterious Theater, a play on PBS’ long-running show Mystery (1980-2006), Hemlock would be accompanied by a dog named Watson. In these segments, Watson would solve the crime long before Hemlock, who was still looking for a more complex solution to the case, but eventually Watson would lead Hemlock in the right direction. (Side Note: For much of the show’s history, Mystery was hosted by Vincent Price. Mysterious Theater on Sesame Street was hosted by Vincent Twice Vincent Twice, which is just top-tier joke writing if you ask me.)
Hemlock was slowly phased out over the years and is now very rarely used on Sesame Street other than brief cameo appearances.
But his memory will live on in my Magic Slate.
I don’t remember being a huge Sherlock Hemlock fan as a kid, but I guess when it came time to get a Magic Slate, probably to keep me busy on a long car ride, I chose one with a Hemlock design. I have to say, I dig the footprint motif and the fact that Hemlock is very excited about whatever I drew on the Magic screen below. Maybe someday I should pick up a Magic Slate stylus off eBay to complete this weird little collectible.