Baby’s Sand Pile {1904}
In a great wooden box,
Nice and smooth to save her frocks,
Is the baby’s sand-pile, where all day she plays;
And the things she thinks and makes,
From a house and barn to cakes,
Would keep, I think, her family all their days.
Once she said she’d make a pie, –
Or, at least, she’d like to try, –
So up she straightway rolled each tiny sleeve;
For her plums she used some stones,
Made a fire of cedar cones –
Not a real fire, you know, by make-believe.
Next she baked some buns and bread,
“For my dollies, “so she said.
“‘Cause, you see, they like my cooking best of all;”
Though her flour was only sand,
Dolls, she knew, would understand,
And excuse her if her batch of dough should fall.
Sometimes cook will muss a pan,
Or a bowl, or spoon, or can;
But I think she’s very sure where they’ll be found;
For she knows it’s just such things
Baby uses when she brings
All her dollies to her sand-pile on the ground.

The sand box, as we know it today, has had many names. As the above poem suggests it was at one time referred to as the sand-pile. Then too more names included the sand-table and the sand-garden.

The idea was really brought out by Hermann von Arnswald. He was a pupil of the man who invented kindergarten, Fredrich Froebel. This is what Hermann wrote in a letter to Froebel,
“…I thought, might not a plane of sand be made a useful and entertaining game? By a plane of sand I mean a low, shallow box of wood filled with pure sand. It would be a kindergarten in miniature. The children might play in it with their cubes and building blocks. I think it would give the child particular pleasure to have the forms and figures and sticks laid out in the sand before his eyes. Sand is a material adaptable to any use. A few drops of water mixed with it would enable the child to form mountains and valleys in it, and so on.”

So here the idea was born in 1847, and Froebel loved it and incorporated the idea into his Kindergarten ideals. Ever since then they were being used in Kindergartens all over. However the general term ‘Sand Box’ or ‘Sand Pile’ in America did not reference the plaything for children. Matter of fact between 1847 and the early 1880s there is hardly a reference at all about sand boxes. I did run across one reference to the ‘Sand Garden’ in a children’s book called “The Rollo Books” published in 1855. The Sand Garden was described this way, “This sand-garden was made of clean sand, which Rollo and his cousin James once wheeled up from the brook ; and then, after they had smoothed it out and raked it over, they used to get plants and flowers, without any roots, and stick down, and then call it their garden. They used to water the plants, and so they could keep them green and bright for several days, which was long enough for them; for, after that, they generally preferred putting down fresh ones. ”

Well carrying on through time there is little mentioned in the decades of the 1860’s and 1870s. This is probably due to the term “Sand Box” being something they knew that Colonial people would have used to dry their ink. They would keep clean, fine sand in a tin which was called “The Sand Box” and it was sprinkled onto freshly written ink to dry it quickly. So I am sure it took some time for the word association to wear off.

In 1879 though was found this reference in the Ohio Educational Monthly, “…When they go into the schoolroom ostracism, often of the worst form, awaits them. They bid adieu to singing birds and beautiful flowers. They leave the sand pile, the mud cake, and beautiful sward, far, far away.”

So here we see the “sand pile” is outside among the singing birds and beautiful flowers. Probably much like it indicates…just a pile of sand to be played in.In 1888 an article was written about how one mother, Elizabeth Allen, wife of the author Alexander Viets Griswold Allen, had a load of sand brought up by a beach. She placed in the yard of her summer home in Boxford Massachusetts so that her two boys, Harry and Jack as they were known, could let their imaginations soar. What was significant about this particular sand pile was the way in which her boys, as well as the neighboring children were using it. Their sand pile took on a life of its own as they shaped a community out of it. You can read the article in its entirety in Scribner’s Monthly here .

Up until this point, aside from Froebels initial ideal, no mention has the Sand Box in connection with the American school or its education. It has merely been mentioned as a play-sport for leisure hours and usually located at the home in the yard. But during the 1890’s things begin to change. Kindergarten started to evolve into a more playful, artsy, ‘hands on approach’ type of learning center – closer to the Kindergarten we have today.

And with this comes the “Sand Pile” beginning to give way to what was known through the 1890s and into the early 20th century as the “Sand Table”, which was especially good for the classroom. In reference to either a fictional or non-fictional teacher this was said concerning the “Sand-Box”, “She makes geography lessons — plains, hills, mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes ; or the children make a picture of the story they have just heard. I saw them do ‘ Over the River and through the Wood to Grandfather’s House we go,’ ‘ Washington’s Winter Camp at Valley Forge,’ and ‘ The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

The “Teachers Manual” in 1896 gave instructions on making a sand table, “Make a table-top about three by four feet, with a rim raised two inches. Use seasoned wood. Place the top on a small table or stand, about 32 inches in height. Fasten at one end by hinges so that it may be tipped towards the pupils. Strips of wood, like those used to hold up piano-tops, may be used to support it at any angle. A zinc-lined drawer placed under the table-top will be found convenient for holding the sand, although it can be kept in any common box or bucket. A coat or two of blue paint on the table will tend to preserve it and give a good background for the sand.”

But the sand-pile was still quite fun even for grown-ups. In the August 1896 edition of St.Nicholas’, a popular magazine for children, there was a narrative called “A Sand-Pile”. It was about an inventive and imaginative father who got in with his “little son” to re-create the “great Battle of Bawled Hill” with the “Army of Kankakee” that “Uncle Arthur” had told them funny stories of. Then his father began taking photographs of their of the scenes they had been making. Its effect was quite impressive and I can imagine it was a lot of fun to be had in the making and photographing. You can read about the whole ordeal here.

During the early 1900’s and even into the 1920s, the sand box continued to be a popular choice for “play and learning” in the classroom or even in the child’s home. In 1900 this little submission was published in the Good Housekeeping Magazine on, once again, making a Sand Table, “Many families in Washington and Boston, and no doubt elsewhere, have made sand tables the past few weeks for the winter nursery. The sand table is made like a butler’s tray, and fastens to the wall with a strong leg, which folds under when the table is not in use. One side or end is on hinges, so it can be let down, and the sand cleared away for another load from shore or country. The nursery is full of sunshine, and its winter box of playthings stands in its old corner, but built in the biggest front window is the sand table. Little chairs with good backs and cushions stand before it, bewitching to the busy little ones as a picture gallery or a machine shop to their elders. One mamma told me that already Mary and Dick had made a journey to grandpa’s with a “really tin coach,” going up a hill of sand and down a valley of more sand, while Noah’s ark out of the play box furnished a grandpa and grandma, leaning against the wee wooden house “just e-zac-ly like grandpa’s in Vermont.” Noah’s Ark easily provided cows for the pasture, and the leavings of a “village” built a bridge over the creek by the barn. When Bess and Fred came home from school “jog-raphy” was both work and play. The little ones went into ecstasies over islands, lakes and rivers made of glass and bits of china. The size of this table depends upon the space one has to spare. The one just built for a New York nursery is four feet long and two feet wide, with the tray six inches deep. Make it strong and firm, and if but one foot long, put it in a warm, sunny place.”

Here we can see that sand-boxes have throughout the Victorian, Edwardian and 20th century been used to fuel the child’s imagination through play. Just as a final thought, the more realistic the play-item used, the quicker it was tossed aside. Clay models and whittled wood items were more engaging since they allowed the child to use his or her imagination. Also paper objects were made for the scenes of all sorts of subjects. This book published in 1909 gives instructions and inspiration for a variety of subjects that can be used with your sand-table. So let your imaginations roam free and have fun!