“The Big Chief”

August 5, 2022 - It seems that the cost of going to elementary school in going up in a big way. I note that parents of these young students receive a list of necessary items the student will need from the school just to get started on day one of classes. One harried mother told me that the items cost her almost one hundred dollars from a major discount store for her third grade son.

This ritual is now followed every August. You must reluctantly drag your still-in-a-summer-vacation-mood bones to the store with your child and pick out the stuff that you need at the hated “Back to School” sale.

Back in the days when I was in elementary school no list of needed items were sent to my parents. I went to the first day of classes with two soft lead pencils, and eraser, a ruler, a compass for drawing perfect circles, a plastic protractor, and a huge monstrosity made of processed wood pulp known as a Big Chief tablet. We students had to furnish our own crayons, and paste when we got into the “cut and paste” class. My mother would make up a recipe of flour and water to use as paste. It worked wonderfully for a while until it began to sour.

The Big Chief tablet was a staple for elementary students. Had you walked into my classroom at the San Augustine elementary school in 1947 you would have seen rows of small chairs with built-in-tabletops, each with a red Big Chief tablet nearby, ready to record the thoughts of its juvenile owner. The Big Chief tablet was preferred for use by elementary students because it had around seventy-five lined pages. The lines were wider apart which made more room for use in learning to print letters, or learn cursive writing. After all, second graders were simply not ready for finer-lined spiral notebooks.

It is interesting that the noted Big Chief tablet has disappeared from the school scene. This tablet was the brainchild of William Ablrecht, whose family had a stationery business in Quincy, Illinois. In 1906 he opened the Western Tablet Company in St. Joseph, Missouri, and it became the world’s largest paper tablet producer. Western Tablet Company trademarked the Big Chief in 1947.

Western Tablet expanded in the 1920s and moved its headquarters to Dayton, Ohio, but most of the manufacturing components remained in St. Joseph. In 1964 it was renamed “Westab”. The Big Chief peaked in usage in the 1960s when another Westab invention – the spiral notebook – began to claim larger market share. In 1966 the Mead Corporation acquired the Western Tablet. After another company merger the Big Chief tablet was discontinued after some eighty years of production.

It is said that Mr. Michael Martin, a Caddo Indian chief, was used as a model for the fierce looking Indian on the tablet’s cover. However, that could not be verified. The Indian on the cover looked like he was ready to take over Alcatraz, or anyone else who got in his way.

John-Boy Walton used a Big Chief tablet to hone the writing skills that would get him off the farm and become a professional writer. So many generations of kids used the Big Chief you would have thought they would last forever. Not so. The last Big Chief rolled out of the factory in January, 2001. I suppose that the Big Chief tablets would now be labeled as politically incorrect, along with about 90% of the things I grew up with. But, that is progress, I suppose.