Archaeologists and museum curators and private collectors all know that the most difficult items to acquire for their collections are often the smallest and simplest, must mundane artifacts of day-to-day life. Everyone recognizes the value of and knows to carefully preserve the heavy silver, the fine weapons, the material objects that gave status to their owners when those objects were new. It’s the low-cost, disposable household items and workshop tools that are treated carelessly and discarded thoughtlessly when new technology or fashion replaces them, that are sometimes the rarest items after time has passed.
I have long heard about “sand tables” as a standard fixture of LDS Primary and Sunday School classrooms. These were described to me as long, narrow tables, at a convenient height for children either to sit or to stand, with tops framed as boxes to hold several inches of sand. My mother, talking about several years either side of 1940, said that she would stand her flannelboard figures upright in the sand and allow children to move the figures like dolls as she narrated a story, giving them a more three-dimensional experience than the typical flat flannelboard use.
From old instructional materials, I also learned that teachers would assist children in creating landscapes on the sand table – a mockup of Palestine, for instance, would help children visualize the relationship of the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, and the positions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Trailing their fingers in the sand during a story or tracing out the unfamiliar names of ancient prophets was also supposed to add a tactile experience to the visual and aural ones, in what seems to me a sophisticated recognition of the various ways children learn which has been supported by modern studies.
I had two questions, though: How did church janitors feel about what must have been an endless chore of sweeping the Primary and Sunday School classrooms? And, What did the darn things look like?
These sand tables were so common that old lesson guides refer casually to doing such-and-such on the sand table, the same way they direct teachers to write such-and-such on the chalkboard. But for the several years I have been watching, I couldn’t find a photograph or a sketch of a sand table, or directions for building one, or even a detailed description of how to use a sand table to illustrate any particular point in a published lesson.
Until this past April, when I found a small photograph of a group of Primary teachers and children of Manti, Utah, in a 1916 issue of The Children’s Friend. The printed photo is small and dark and gives rather poor reproduction quality here, but there it is: A sand table in use. In a nice touch for a Mormon history blog, the children are using the table to learn about pioneers and western settlement: You can see rough mountains and prairies, some covered wagons and log cabins, even the teepees of an Indian camp.
So there you have it – that rare surviving trace of what used to be common equipment in Mormon classrooms.