2-59. Lies My Tour Guide Told Me


On a whim, I drove up to St. Alban’s, Vermont and visited their excellent historical society. I love these small town museums, and their eclectic collections of things that are only connected by proximity.

If you’vre read or listened to the Daily Curio, you probably also know that the College of Curiosity has a Mystery Object project as well. Every day, we put up photos of an object and ask readers to identify it. Small museums provide a great many of these photos.

My tour guide in St. Albans was polite, but a bit standoffish. As soon as I started asking questions about things… questions she’d never heard before, she grew animated and started pointing out exactly the bits I wanted to see. The odd things. The things that people pass by and don’t think about.

Finally, she left me to my own devices and I set off to collect as many photos as I could. I was attempting to get a shot through a glass case (the bane of this project) when she burst into the gallery and said, “Do you know what THIS is?”

She was holding an object that looked like a ruler with five looped wire hooks on it.

“I do! I’m old enough to remember using them. That’s to hold chalk, and draw a music staff on a chalk board!”

“Aha! That’s what I thought too. But I was wrong. Look at this…”

I was wrong? I was certain of my identification as I’d seen the object in use. She continued.

“Back in the 1800s, kids didn’t have paper. They used small chalk boards. And to practice their letters, they needed lines to draw on.”

She took the object, now with three of the five chalk holders filled, and drew three perfectly straight lines that filled the small chalkboard. It looked exactly like those green penmanship practice papers I hated so much in second grade.

“See? This is what it was really used for. It wasn’t until later that people used it for teaching music.”

What she demonstrated made perfect sense, but I couldn’t fathom it. You can’t fit five lines on the small board, so why not make a chalk holder that held three pieces?

It wasn’t until i got home that I realized, it could also make five vertical lines on the chalkboard, and those fit perfectly.

So, there you go. I was wrong. This object that I was absolutely sure I knew, turned out to be for something else.

But that’s not the end.

While my explanation of the device made perfect sense, especially since I’d seen it used that way, so does hers. Which is the correct one?

Now we enter the realm of pure speculation. I have been a tour guide in an historic place: the Old Round Church in Richmond, VT. This involved hours of being alone in an unusual, 200 year old building. And, being the curious person I am, I found things and figured out things that weren’t part of my training.

For example, the doorstep looks like the type of limestone you find at Chazy Reef, an important paleontological site in the middle of Lake Champlain. I found some prominent fossils in the stone, and presumed that it had been chosen specifically from that site for this church.

I added this to my tour, and I was delighted that when i returned to the church ten years after my departure, the new guide also included the bit about the doorstep.

But… it was a guess. I’m not an historian, and I just assumed I was right because “it fit.” But was I right? Possibly, but not positively. The little research I’ve done shows that it’s plausible. There was a quarry there, and the Vermont State House also features similar fossil stones. Such a stone would have been considered decorative, and it made sense to place one at the doorway of the largest building in town. But I can’t know for sure.

Now consider the situation with the chalk holder. Did she simply figure out that it could be used for drawing lines on small slates and presume that’s what it was for, as I had with the doorstep? And did her excitement of discovery lead her to incorporate it into her tour? Possibly. Googling shows that these devices were used to draw lines for any purpose the teacher deemed fit, so there is no correct answer in the end. The only question is what the original manufacturer intended, and that’s far less interesting.

The lesson of all this is at the core of the College of Curiosity. Facts are not monoliths that we absorb and re-transmit. They’re ideas, and they’re subject to change. Your teacher and tour guides will lie to you. It will be largely unintentional, and it won’t detract from your tour. But it’s wise to have a loose grip on the things you learn. They need to wiggle a bit so they can grow and add to your knowledge. And for those times you need things to not wiggle, someone has invented a chalk holder that will draw five straight lines. You can use it for whatever you’d like.

Last bit of music by Possimiste.

How many lines is it supposed to draw?

How many lines is it supposed to draw?

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  1. The only place I ever saw those being used was to draw lines on a chalkboard for music (I started school in 1952). I personally doubt that they were used at an earlier time to draw lines on slates for writing. Back in the day, children used slate pencils to write on slates, not chalk.

  2. I side with the idea that the manufacturer made this tool with 5 arms so as to ease up the process of making a musical staff on a chalk board (why else choose 5 rather than 6?) — but clearly the idea could have evolved from earlier inventions used to draw parallel lines for other reasons — and could be used for many other reasons — such as making a grid for charting graphs.

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