The name Sloyd or Slöjd originally meant handy or skillful, and refers to the making of crafts, primarily woodwork but also paper-folding and sewing. Otto Salomon, with the financial support of his uncle August Abrahamson, a wealthy Swedish businessman, started a school for teachers in Nääs (now a part of the Swedish city of Floda) in the 1870s. The school attracted students from throughout the world and was active until around 1960.
Educational Sloyd's purpose was formative in that it was thought that the benefits of handicrafts in general education built the character of the child, encouraging moral behavior, greater intelligence, and industriousness. Sloyd had a noted impact on the early development of manual training, manual arts, industrial education and technical education.
The major points of Sloyd introduction in the United States were Gustaf Larsson's Sloyd Teacher Training School (now the North Bennet Street School) in Boston, and at the Baron DeHirsch Trade School in NYC. Gustaf Larsson wrote a number of books about Sloyd and Sloyd education, and B.B. Hoffmann, principal of the Baron De Hirsch Trade School, also published an important text. Ednah Anne Rich, a graduate of Gustaf Larsson's school in Boston and of the Sloyd Training School at Nääs started Sloyd teacher training in Santa Barbara. In a few years, Sloyd was being taught in hundreds of schools throughout the US.
In “Educational Sloyd,” as devised by Otto Salomon in the 1870s, woodworking projects were designed to build incrementally on the child’s growing skill. This was accomplished by making the projects grow in degree of difficulty over a period of time, through the introduction of complexity of shape and procedures and through the gradual introduction of more difficult woodworking tools. Salomon believed that the teacher should carefully study and know each child. It was said that from the student’s perspective, no project should be any more difficult than the immediately preceding project. Sloyd was taught through the use of series of models, growing in difficulty and complexity that the students were supposed to accurately reproduce without interference from the teacher. Salomon developed "exercises" in the use of various tools leading to proficiency in the making of models. The exercises in the use of various tools were developed through careful study by Salomon, but he also encouraged that model series be adapted and made relevant to the various cultures in which Sloyd was taught. The objects in the model series were designed to be useful to the child and his family, thereby building a relationship of good will and mutual support in the child's education.
"Paper Sloyd," in particular, was intended as a preparation for woodworking and sewing, which were considered more difficult work appropriate for older students. The book "Paper Sloyd for Primary Grades" suggests that the craft's benefits for the student included the following: "Observation is quickened; eyes are trained to see right lines and distances, thus aiding in free-hand drawing and writing; while the hand and wrist muscles, being used for a definite purpose, unconsciously become obedient assistants.
Paper Sloyd consisted of paper folding which resembles the Japanese art of origami, but involves more cutting and gluing. Projects might include folding a case for a comb or whiskbroom, a box for candies or pencils, pinwheels, a "match scratcher," a blotting pad, or a penwiper.
Sloyd differed from other forms of manual training in its adherence to a set of distinct pedagogical principles. These were: that instruction should move from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the more difficult, from the simple to the more complex, from the concrete to the abstract and the products made in sloyd should be practical in nature and build the relationship between home and school. Sloyd, unlike its major rival, "the Russian system" promoted by Victor Della Vos, was designed for general rather than vocational education.
Educational Sloyd as practiced in Sweden started with the use of the knife. The knife was controversial when Sloyd was first introduced in the UK. Educators in London and the other cities of the UK could hardly imagine putting knives in the hands of the juveniles. They developed a rationale for the use of chisels instead. It is important to understand Salomon's purpose in the use of the knife because it illustrates a fundamental premise. During the time of Sloyd’s invention and introduction in rural Sweden, nearly every boy growing up on a farm was already experienced in the use of the knife and knew how to use it without endangering himself or others. Starting with the known and moving toward the unknown was a crucial element of Salomon’s theory. He also believed that beauty of form was more readily available through the use of the knife.
Salomon believed that of all the basic crafts, woodworking best fit general educational purposes. Because most schools would not be able to afford to introduce a wide variety of crafts to their students, the overall needs of education would be best served through woodworking Sloyd. He adhered rigidly to this plan, and it wasn’t until his death that textile and metal sloyd were added to the teacher training at Nääs. It was also clear to Salomon, that mastery of a single craft was more important than a cursory exploration of several crafts that did not offer the student the opportunity of reaching a point of mastery.
Unlike woodworking education of the later years in the US, woodworking Sloyd was introduced in the primary grades for the greatest benefit to the child’s growing intellect. This was in contrast to the Russian system devised by Victor Della Vos, which was intended as a vocational system to help prepare students for employment in industry. The distinctions between the two systems were greater than perceived by many. Both used series of models, but the Russian system used only parts of things rather than finished objects. Salomon's system was based firmly on his study of a long line of educational philosophers like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Commenius and others. Teacher training at Nääs involved extensive lectures in the fundamental theory of education. Salomon believed that teaching was an art in itself, and that woodworking skills were of secondary importance in the teaching of Sloyd. Of various educational theorists, Sloyd is most closely associated with Froebel. "Hand & Eye," an educational journal published in England from about 1890-1902, was dedicated to joint discussion of the principles of "Freobelian education" and Educational Sloyd.
As Salomon was a great believer in physical education, training teachers in games was part of the basic curriculum. In fact, the school at Nääs was the point of introduction of basketball to Europe, with the game being brought to the school by students from the US. Salomon also believed that woodworking was a means for physical development. He drew a distinction between the posture of the carpenter, and the proper posture for use in Sloyd.
Salomon kept up regular correspondence with former students all over the world, spoke in several languages, and delivered his lectures on alternate days in Swedish, English, and German. He was not as good in English – but he practiced in his lessons and conversations during the summer courses. “My English is always better in the autumn”, he said as a joke.
Thousands of teachers from all over the world attended classes at Nääs. Some of the countries, in which Sloyd was successfully introduced were the UK, the US, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, the Scandinavian Countries and many more. Currently, Sloyd is still part of the compulsory school curriculum in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. In Sweden, students choose between wood, metal or textile sloyd, and in Denmark all three subjects are compulsory; and in Norway they are united into one subject called forming.
While Sloyd disappeared from the American educational landscape in the early 1900s, articles have been published by Doug Stowe in Woodwork Magazine, August 2004 and again in August 2005, and by Joe Barry in the Journal of the American Period Furniture Makers, September 2004, Volume IV.