Drawing Act 150: Let’s Celebrate

“Drawing depends upon two faculties – understanding and taste; skill being the result of practice or experience. It is of the utmost consequence that the first faculty should be developed in harmony with the second.” – Walter Smith

Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870

This May we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Drawing Act. On May 16, 1870 legislators in Massachusetts signed into law “An Act Relating to Free Instruction in Drawing”, also know as Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870.

The Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870 is regarded as a benchmark in the history of American education. With ratification of this legislation, Massachusetts became the first state to mandate drawing education in its public schools, thus placing drawing alongside eight other subjects required in Massachusetts public schools during the late-nineteenth century. These subjects were orthography (the study of spelling and word structure), reading, writing, English grammar, geography, arithmetic, the history of the United States, and good behavior.* (Richardson & Sanger, 1860, p.215)

Drawing Act 150 Celebration

The Representative’s Conference Room at the MA State House

In my position as Advocacy Liaison for the Massachusetts Art Education Association, I was invited to a meeting at the Massachusetts State House on February 13 to discuss a possible statewide celebration for the anniversary of the Drawing Act. State Representative Mary Keefe (Worcester) and Massachusetts College of Art Chief of Staff, Susana Segat, worked together with their staff to pull together a group of collaborators from various arts affiliates to be known as The Drawing Act Coalition*. Together we developed a celebration called Drawing Act 150, to be celebrated at the State House in May*. All of the information can be found here:


A PDF of this flyer can be found here: Drawing Act 150 call for art 2020

Please note: Keeping in mind that schools have recently been closed throughout Massachusetts until at least April 7, our plans for the Drawing Act 150 celebration may change. I will update this post when that happens.

MAEA Drawing At School 1870-2020 Exhibit

In conjunction with the State House observation and celebration of the anniversary of the Drawing Act, the Massachusetts Art Education Association is hosting an exhibit at the State Transportation Building in Boston at the end of April. All details and registration for this exhibit can be found here:

Note: Again, should exhibit plans be altered by current school closings, I will update the information.

Walter Smith, Art Master

In order to facilitate implementation of programming for the then new Drawing Act, Massachusetts hired Walter Smith of England to serve as the State Director of Art Education. Smith was also named General Supervisor of Drawing in the Boston Public Schools. The first order of business was for Smith to develop a program of study in drawing and to create resources for classroom teachers to use as they instructed students in drawing.

“What we are trying to do in our lessons is to make the children know how to draw, not how to make drawings, and I hope you see the distinction. And the great reason for them to draw is, that the process of drawing make ignorance visible; it is a criticism made by ourselves on our perceptions, and give physical evidence that we either think rightly or wrongly, or even do not think at all.”* – Walter Smith

Walter Smith authored several books about drawing instruction, and over the past few months, I have acquired a few of them through eBay and abebooks. I am especially pleased to have acquired an original 1872 edition of The Teachers’ Companion to the American Drawing-Slates and Cards by Smith.


Original 1872 edition

To add to the excitement, the book is inscribed by J.W.C. Gilman to Lucas Baker on November 17, 1872.

It also includes these notes on the otherwise blank first page of the text:

And there are margin sketches throughout the book presumably made by Lucas Baker. I love that!

I was able to find the book through the digitizing of library books by Google. I downloaded the book, cleaned up the digitizing by discarding sloppy scans, added a copy of the cover, and uploaded it to my drive. you can see the book and download it in its entirety here.

In researching J.W.C Gilman, I learned that he is a co-author of Manual of Freehand Penmanship published in 1877. I was also able to find this book through the digitizing of library books by Google. You can see and download the book in its entirety here.


Drawing Cards

I have an especially keen interest in the Drawing Cards (see more about the Drawing Cards below). I am curious how my fifth and sixth grade students would respond to learning to draw this way. With that in mind, I isolated the Drawing Card images throughout the book and compiled them in a new document to share with my students. The collection of Drawing Cards can be found here.

Drawing card

As the Drawing Act was instrumental in establishing art education in public schools, it is understood that teachers of the lower grades taught all subjects, spending the full day with their students. Therefore, whether or not the teachers possessed an ability of their own, they had to learn how to draw well enough to demonstrate for their students.

Teachers carefully made the drawings on a blackboard, and students imitated them using chalk on slates. Walter Smith’s recommendation was for drawing instruction four times per week of a half an hour each or six of twenty minutes each for children under 10 years of age. Older students could have longer, less frequent lessons.

From The Teachers’ Companion to the American Drawing-Slates and Cards

Drawing Slates 2020

Because I now have the document containing all of Walter Smith’s Drawing Slates from The Teachers’ Companion to the American Drawing-Slates and Cards, I will be sharing it with my students through Google Classroom. Imagine how Walter Smith would react to that! I am going to encourage my students to follow the sequence of the cards and to draw in their handmade sketchbooks using pencil. I am excited to hear how they respond to the challenge and to see their drawings. here are some more of the Drawing Card images:

Passion Project

When I first heard about a celebration of the Drawing Act, I was immediately interested. It wasn’t until I started researching the act and those who implemented instruction that I realized I had included a paragraph about the Drawing Act in my Master’s thesis back in 2002! No wonder it was so familiar to me!


Master of Education in Art Thesis

For the past few months I have been busy searching out resources and reading the books I’ve acquired. This has become a bit of a passion project for me. Along with the digital books with links included in this post, I have physical copies of a few others:

At this point in the process I am ready to attempt the drawings along with my students. I am looking forward to starting my own sketchbook of drawings and promise to share as I go. I’ll be posting on social media with the hashtag #DrawingAct150 Please join me!

* Notes courtesy of Billy Claire

*The Drawing Act Coalition affiliates include Massachusetts House of Representatives, MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, MA Department of Higher Education, Mass Creative, Mass Cultural Council, Massachusetts Art Education Association

*See notes above about possible changes due to state mandated school closings


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