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A Short History of Blocks

Maybe there are simple toys older than Unit Building Blocks, but they are a very old toy indeed.  The term "building blocks" is ubiquitous, used to describe an enormous range of activities from the "Building Blocks of Nursing" to the "Building Blocks of Engineering," to the the "Building Blocks of Computer Design."  Whenever someone wants to conjure up the idea of a modular approach to learning, the "building blocks" metaphor is dragged out - all derived from this simple toy.  Wooden building blocks are the premier educational toy.  Few playthings come close.  Their long pedigree, according to Witold Rybczynski, can be dated to (at least) the end of the 18th century:  

The earliest mention of building bricks for children that I have come across is in Maria and R.L. Edgeworth's 'Practical Education', published in 1798.  It is no coincidence that this is a pedagogical text, since building toys were, from the beginning, not merely for fun. Building bricks were called "rational" toys, and they were intended to teach children about assembling many small different parts into a whole, about gravity and physics, and about how buildings were made. John Ruskin, referring to the Edgeworths, wrote that thanks to his wooden toy bricks - 'my constant companions' - by the time he was seven or eight years old he had mastered 'the laws of practical stability in towers and arches". That would have been about 1825. Twenty years later, Henry Cole's famous series of Victorian children's books, 'The Home Treasury', included a box of terra-cotta toy bricks that was accompanied by actual building plans contained in a pamphlet titled 'Architectural Pastime'.                       

(Witold Rybczynski in "Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture," Penguin (1992) with permission)    
Size and Material
      Traditional American blocks have been made of kiln dried hard maple or pine.   Hard Maple (Acer saccarum) is a specific variety of maple tree sometimes called the sugar maple or rock maple, and familiar to residents of the Northeast and Canada for its spectacular fall color and fine, hard, close grained wood.  It differs from soft maple (silver maple, red maple, big leaf maple) due to its hardness and has long been the source of wood for fine furniture, cabinets, coffins, and the like.  This is the stuff of old fashioned blocks and it is superior to any other material for this particular purpose.  Hard Maple blocks will last many generations.  The best blocks are unfinished.  Sometimes they may be sealed with a light coat of varnish or with Bees Wax, but this serves little purpose.  In the old days, blocks with some discoloration were often painted, but the complexities of safely painting blocks are such that most modern unit blocks are left unfinished.  They can be cleaned with a light solution of Clorox in water for the finicky, but wood is known to resist contamination by bacteria and this is probably a waste of time. 
The correct scale for school size blocks is 1-3/8 inches.  The reasons for this are murky, but the reason is probably that this is the largest size that could be regularly planed out of six-quarter material at the turn of the 19th century.  As time wore on, controls of lumber drying became more scientific, and it is no longer possible to use that size of lumber, but the scale persists, and the vast majority of school blocks are that thickness.  Building blocks are referred to as "unit blocks" because of their modular properties - every measurements is a multiple or fraction of 1-3/8 inches (1-3/8, 2-3/4, 5-1/2, 11 and 22").  However, the middle size rectangle is also referred to as "the" unit block and it is 1-3/8 by 2-3/4 by 6-1/2" in size.  Here's a picture:

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