In the spring of 1850, John W. Dawson, Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, made a tour of schools in the eastern United States. He met with local school officials and toured several schools, observing the architecture and furnishings of the schoolhouses, as well as the methods of instruction and discipline.
On visiting a one-room school in Boston, Dawson observed a class of sixty young students, seated in rows, in a room “sufficiently large to allow abundance of space for this arrangement.” He offered a comparison of this school to those he had visited in Nova Scotia:
Each child occupied a comfortable little arm-chair of suitable height, with a rack attached to one arm for slate and books. It was quite pleasing to witness the air of comfortable repose with which these children sat in their snug little chairs. The contrast between them and the poor little people of the same age in our schools, perched in rows on tall, backless forms, was very striking; and gave a valuable lesson in the important department of school seating, so much neglected in this Province.
To assist Nova Scotia communities in building schools that would provide adequate space and comfort to allow students to learn properly, Dawson produced a pamphlet which set out plans for schoolhouses and furniture. He borrowed largely from an American book, School Architecture, by Henry Barnard (published 1850).
Some school districts could afford to purchase American model desks – the classic style we recognize with beautiful cast iron legs, wooden seats, and wooden desk tops, made for one or two students. But Dawson included in his plans a pattern for a desk made entirely of wood, which could fit two children. This ‘Dawson Desk’ could be made by local craftspeople, using wood of their choosing, thus allowing even poorer school districts to provide proper seating for students.
In spite of Dawson’s suggestions, fifteen years later schools across the province were not uniform in appearance or standards. In 1866, the Inspector for Cumberland County complained about the poor furniture in that county’s schools:
With regard to the ‘Furniture’ in the old school-houses, it is in general quite in keeping with the houses themselves – of the most primitive description. A rough deal [softwood plank] with four pieces of wood driven into as many augur-holes, for legs, generally constituted the seats for children. Anything was considered good enough for a little child to sit upon in school six hours a day. The desks were also of the same rude pattern, ricketty and unsteady, and generally ranged round the four walls of the room. There was no convenience, and less comfort.
Many of the inspectors were concerned for the comfort of the students and their ability to concentrate on lessons when inadequate seats and desks might be causing physical discomfort. Mr. J.B. Calkin, Inspector for Kings County (and future Principal of the Normal School in Truro), wrote,
In many otherwise very respectable [school]houses, the furniture is barely tolerable. The writing tables frequently consist of boards inclined from the walls, and the seats are not provided with any supports for the backs of the children. [...] The fact seems scarcely to be appreciated that when the child is not comfortably seated, he is liable to suffer physical injury, and that certainly his discomfort will impede his progress in study.
In spite of these cases of schools lacking adequate desks, there are examples in the 1866 reports of counties with the improved seating promoted by Dawson. In Colchester County, it was noted that “many of the old houses have been re-furnished, several of the new are already provided with the Dawson desk; and I am quite confident that all will, in a short time, be as well provided as circumstances will permit.” In some rural sections of Halifax County, it was claimed that all schoolhouses had the Dawson Desk, while other sections of the county lacked adequate desks because of the ignorance of builders. To overcome this ignorance, the inspector was authorized by the Board of Commissioners to provide each school section that was building new, or planning to refurbish old schools, with a model desk. In Hants and Shelburne counties, many schools at this time had Dawson Desks, although some of the districts were encouraging the purchase of the costlier American patent desk.
In Truro, the Little White Schoolhouse Museum, which preserves the history of public education and teacher training, has two Dawson Desks in its collection. Originating from different areas of the province, the desks differ in size and finish. One is painted and the other is varnished. When one thinks of school desks, it is likely one envisions the American model, with its attractive cast iron legs and polished wood seat and desk top. It is the cast iron model that tends to survive – perhaps its perception as the quintessential antique school desk affords it higher value in peoples’ minds. In comparison, the wooden Dawson Desk may look somewhat ‘homemade’. Yet the Dawson Desk was valuable to many, as it offered affordable and comfortable seating for students in even the smallest schoolhouses in Nova Scotia.