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Why Are So Many Blackboards Green?

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Though the term blackboard has a color right there in its name, most of them aren’t actually black. While we still use the term more or less interchangeably with chalkboards, blackboards tend to be green. Why the difference? Why call a surface a blackboard if it's green?

Because 200 years ago, blackboards were black. According to author Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, large boards of connected slates that teachers could write on for the whole class to see didn’t come around until the early 1800s, and the name blackboard wasn’t used until 1815. They were made with slate, or in rural areas, they were often just wooden boards painted dark with egg whites mixed with the remains of charred potatoes. Later, they were also made of wood darkened with a commercially made porcelain-based ink. They were, true to their name, black.

And the relatively affordable, ubiquitous technology was a huge success, changing education forever. By the mid-19th century, even the most rural schools had a blackboard.

As an 1841 teaching manual, The Blackboard in the Primary School, put it: “The inventor or introducer of the black-board system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

In the 20th century, blackboards began to look a little different, though the idea was the same. In the 1930s, manufacturers began to make chalkboards using a green, porcelain enameled paint on a steel base. By the 1960s, the green chalkboard trend was in full swing. Teachers had discovered that a different colored paint was a lot more comfortable to stare at all day, because green porcelain paint cut down on glare. By and large, many blackboards were slowly replaced by their green brethren. (Apparently, greenboards wasn’t quite as catchy of a name, though, so the term blackboard stuck.)

But today, many school children might not be familiar with either blackboards or "greenboards." In the 1990s, schools began converting their classrooms to whiteboards, which produce less dust (and eliminate that terrible screeching noise). According to The Atlantic, at the turn of the millennium, whiteboards were outselling chalkboards by a 4-to-1 ratio.

You can still find the occasional blackboard in a classroom, though—even if it’s just decorative. And some schools are rediscovering blackboards, literally. In the summer of 2015, construction workers renovating an Oklahoma school for smart whiteboards found two historic slate blackboards that still bore drawings from almost 100 years ago.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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