The flashcard is a deceptively simple learning tool. One could picture Greeks and Romans jotting down facts on scraps of parchment, or medieval monks hunched over a desk, learning new languages by flipping squares of vellum back and forth in the flicker of candlelight.
But those assumptions are all wrong. Although the technology necessary for flashcards—the ability to write, and material to write on—has existed for millennia, both economics and cultural preferences for learning kept flashcards off the scene until the 1800s.
In the medieval era, there were indeed some writing materials available, but writing materials in the Middle Ages were extremely expensive, to the point where cost made the idea of a flashcard supremely silly. A book was a big-ticket item comparable in price to buying a car today, so no one wanted to “waste” a piece of paper on something disposable, like a flashcard.
In addition, flashcards weren’t yet used because memorization in medieval times was accomplished using a different tactic, often called the “memory palace” or “method of loci.” This technique was popular among ancient Greek and Roman orators, as well as orators in medieval times. Practitioners envisioned the layout of a building and then mentally pretended to traverse the rooms in a particular order, while tying various items in the rooms to significant facts they wanted to remember. For example, in modern times, someone might want to remember to check the train schedule by using a memory palace that resembled their kitchen. They could imagine walking by a sink full of dirty dishes and then visualizing a train floating on top of the dishes.
This method worked for memorizing information in an era where writing notes was costly and culturally frowned upon, but building a memory palace takes a great deal of time. Nowadays, flashcards have become a favored tool for learning distinct bits of information that belong to a whole, such as vocabulary words.
The first flashcards
In 1805, paper was much more expensive than it is today, but it was affordable enough for the first predecessors of flashcards to be used in group settings. Around this time, many religious groups, including Quakers, had started offering schooling for poor children. These schools were packed with children who were often unable to buy even a single book, and were staffed by teachers with little training or time for individualized instruction. Enter the flashcard, or, as it was termed at the time, the “reading card.”
Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker and educator, suggested the use of reading cards in these classrooms. Reading cards were essentially early flashcards. A page of a grammar or spelling book was enlarged and posted on a board, and then a teacher held that book up for a group of children and used it to instruct them on reading.
Within the same time period, the predecessors of flashcards were making their first appearance for individualized language education. First published in 1799 in Britain, Mrs. Lovechild’s Book of Three Hundred and Thirty-Six Cuts for Children featured cut-out cards that could be studied by a child with the help of a frame that blocked out part of the word. That way, the child could practice spelling and pronunciation, verify whether he/she was correct, and keep practicing. This technique mirrors our modern-day method of using flash cards to test and self-correct, even though the modern term was not yet used to describe it.
Society seemed to be converging on the same educational solution, the flashcard, albeit at slightly different times and through unconnected individuals. In 1810, John Stewart Mill, a notable English philosopher and economist, wrote an autobiography in which he described one of the first recorded uses of flashcards. He said that his father taught him Greek by writing out “vocables” on cards. “Vocables,” as he termed them, were lists of Greek words and their corresponding meanings in English. His father took this beyond a simple long list and instead jotted down the words on one side of a card and the English definition on the other.
A few decades later, in 1834, Favell Lee Bevan wrote a book called Reading Disentangled, which included illustrated cards that some credit as the first modern flashcards. The cards were used for reading instruction, primarily to teach children phonics. The cards had illustrations of words and the first letter of each word.
By the early twentieth century, flashcards as we know them had taken hold. The first copyright for “flash cards” was filed in 1908, and magazines in the 1920s capitalized on the new educational trend and began including flashcard sets for various subjects, including phonics and spelling, as part of their offerings.
The Oxford English Dictionary makes the word official shortly thereafter, noting that the first use of the word “flashcard” occurred in 1923. By the time we reached the 1930s, flashcards were widely used enough to prompt academics to examine their effectiveness. The first paper on the matter didn’t reach a conclusion, but it was a sign of the growing cultural caché of flashcards. The growth of flashcards as a learning tool was accelerated by the end of the paper rationing that accompanied World War II. During the post-war boom years, companies like Milton Bradley sold flashcards.
Speak to anyone who went to school in the past half-century, and you’ll find that flashcards were a key part of their education. From prepping SAT vocabulary words, to learning new languages, to reviewing math formulas, individualized sets of flashcards help students get ready for exams and retain new information. The ability to flip back and forth between the sides of the card is a tactile experience that makes self-quizzing an easy matter, and often makes learning more fun than struggling to memorize a long, printed list. In addition, for many, flipping through a stack of flashcards and slowly getting more and more “right” is a fun form of self-competition that makes studying less of a chore. When you finally flip through the whole stack without missing an answer, it’s hard not to grin.