Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jefferson's Portable Ivory Notebooks

I like gadgets.  I'm typing this on my iPad, have my cell phone in my pocket and am never far from my digital camera.  I imagine that if Jefferson lived in modern times he would probably be a gadget guy as well with so much information at his fingertips.

The new thing that I learned this past week about Jefferson which I found most fascinating was the portable notebooks he used to write down short notes.  Jefferson keep detailed notebooks on items such as his buildings, the weather, his plants, etc. but he did not carry around all of these books with him during the day.  Instead, he carried a small notebook made of small pieces of ivory.

Jefferson's ivory notebooks - Monticello Visitor Center - July 2012

These portable notebooks were tiny but folded out like a deck of cards. Jefferson wrote notes on the ivory with a pencil and then transferred the notes to his more permanent record books at home.  He would wipe the pencil marks off the ivory and start with a clear notebook the next day.

The visitors center at Monticello has two of these ivory notebooks from Jefferson on display and I have included a picture with this post.

I find these very interesting and inquired about any replica notebooks that could be purchased.  No one knew of any replicas but Jacqueline Langholtz, a member of the Monticello education staff, told me they once created replicas for the learning center and suggested that use old piano keys to make a replica.  I think I will try to make a replica of the notebooks this summer to use in my class.  If anyone has about 5 or 6 old piano keys let me know and will incorporate them in my project.

Link : Official Monticello Website reference to the ivory notebooks

Link : Library of Congress - Picture of ivory notebooks

Link : Reference to Ben Franklin possibly using similar notebooks


  1. This is very cool, and I think it would be fun and educational to let my students make these on their own (how cool would they feel carrying them to other classes to take notes?!) However, ivory may be a just little impractical for students to each make their own; any ideas on things I could substitute for ivory?

  2. So, in a way, Jefferson invented the first portable "white board." Brilliant.

  3. Elijah - I was thinking about other materials you could use to have students make their own portable notebooks. A heavy white cardboard would work - students would write in pencil and then erase it just like Jefferson did with this notebooks. If you want something heavier you could use the material used to make whiteboards. Maybe a type of white plastic would work as well.

    Please let me know if you do create your own, I would love to see a picture of them.