The Magic Slate is a toy on which pictures can be drawn and messages can be written, then easily erased to create a clean surface. In addition to being a toy, it is also a communication device for people who are hearing or vocally impaired and as a way to deliver and disguise secret messages.

The Magic Slate is a simple design comprised of a firm piece of cardboard on a clipboard covered in waxed paper, and translucent plastic film covering the waxed paper on the top of the board. A stylus made of plastic or wood is used to write or draw on the plastic film, the plastic sticks to the wax underneath, and the wax’s darker color shows through the translucent film. The message or drawing can then be erased by lifting the plastic sheet which detaches from the wax and makes the writing disappear.

R.A. Watkins invented the Magic Slate in 1923, though it wasn’t meant to be a toy. Watkins originally created the Magic Slate as a way to save paper in the factory where he worked. When he showed it to his kids, they started to play with it, and he realized its potential as a toy. Watkins entered into a partnership with Strathmore Company, trademarked Magic Slate, and Watkins-Strathmore started producing the toy.

It became a huge success across the country, eventually gaining interest from media companies. Magic Slate was licensed to the Walt Disney Company, featuring Mickey Mouse and other characters, for superheroes like Batman and Hulk, and TV series such as Garfield and Family Matters.

The Magic Slate was put to work in the 1950s as a communication tool during the Cold War. At the US Embassy in Moscow, an American ambassador had been given a gift from a Soviet youth group that contained a listening device. Concerned that similar listening devices were hidden at the embassy, the Americans working there started using Magic Slate to communicate sensitive information with each other, and then wiped them clean to protect the message.

The US started using them again in the 1980s when Soviets were caught bugging the US Embassy in Moscow. Not only did Americans working at the embassy have their own Magic Slates, but visiting politicians and officials brought their own. Once US newspapers reported on their usage at the embassy, Magic Slate toys saw an uptick in popularity. The toy maintained its strength in the toy market until the early 2000s.