History of Math Instruction Retold Through New Smithsonian Exhibit

By David J. Hoff — February 20, 2002 3 min read
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While American children once learned to add by reading a poster of animals and birds, they do it now by playing games on computers.

Each step in between—whether it be a box of blocks or exercises written on a blackboard—is documented in a new display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

“Almost everybody in this country has taken a math class,” Peggy Kidwell, the curator of the exhibit, said Feb. 8, the day it opened next to Archie Bunker’s chair and around the corner from Julia Child’s kitchen, which is under renovation at the popular Washington tourist stop. “I wanted them to get a sense that the stuff they had [in math class] had a past.”

View pictures of the collection, “Slates, Slide Rules, and Software,” from the National Museum of American History. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The display succeeds in giving people a sense of how mathematics has been taught in various eras of American history, according to one expert in math education and its history.

“These tools and objects help you track what’s of interest at any given time,” said David L. Roberts, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park, who reviewed the collection on the Smithsonian’s Web site.

The 19th-century materials that helped students learn basic arithmetic and geometry reflect society’s need for people to perform those functions in everyday business transactions, he said. By contrast, Mr. Roberts said, by the middle of the 20th century, the objects reflect an interest in protecting the country from being outdone by the Soviet Union.

Birds and Bees

Back in the 1830s, teachers read from “arithmetic cards.” About the size of a poster, the cards include artwork and a script for teachers to follow. One shows a series of questions designed to teach young children how to add one to any number.

“How many bees are six bees and one bee?” the teacher read. “Then six and one make how many?” The poster repeats the exercise with different numbers of birds, butterflies, and other animals.

The display also includes a box of wooden squares, triangles, and other shapes that were commonly used to teach geometry and arithmetic, starting in the middle of the 19th century.

The box was “good enough for the best, and cheap enough for the poorest,” inventor Josiah Holbrook, wrote in advertising his wares.

Ms. Kidwell considers the most unusual piece in the display to be a blackboard used in a New Hampshire school during the 19th century. The blackboard is from the era when schools actually painted a board black. Slate blackboards did not become common in American schools until the late 19th century, she said, when railroads could move the heavy rock across long distances.

For the display, Ms. Kidwell wrote out math problems published in popular textbooks of bygone years.

By the 1970s, young children started learning math from electronic devices, such as “Little Professor,” a toy marketed by Texas Instruments in the late 1970s and on view at the museum. The calculator quizzes young children on simple arithmetic, asking them to enter the correct answer.

Today, mathematics experts debate whether such gadgets should be part of elementary schools, but none questions the power of graphing calculators in helping students collect and analyze data in their high school science classes. The Smithsonian exhibit displays two of the hand-held computers.

Missing Pieces

One item the museum doesn’t own, though it presents a picture of one, is a number line. Typically posted above blackboards, these long strips show a string of negative and positive numbers to help students visualize addition and subtraction. The 1960s invention became popular in the American classroom with the advent of new ways of teaching math in the post-Sputnik era.

“I’m hoping someone is going to donate one that’s actually been used in a classroom,” Ms. Kidwell said. “I would like to get one from about 1960.”

Pictures of the entire collection, Slates, Slide Rules, and Software: Teaching Math in America, can be viewed online at

The exhibit will be up at least until the end of summer. But the online version will continue to be available after the museum removes the display.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as History of Math Instruction Retold Through New Smithsonian Exhibit


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