Too cool for school: School supplies through the years

August 22, 2019

Getty Images/iStockphoto/RomoloTavani

First-day-of-school outfit. Check. New kicks. Check. New pens, crayons, notebooks. Check, check, check. Children may lament the end of summer but there’s no denying the excitement of getting brand-new school supplies.

Take out your slate, here’s what generations of American schoolchildren used to learn their three Rs.


A writing slate looks like a small blackboard. It was usually made of a hard, flat material, say, a rock called slate. Children used it to practice their handwriting and to do arithmetic. In the 19th century, they used a slate pencil, which was made of soapstone or softer pieces of the slate rock. Talk about nails on a chalkboard!

A big issue with writing slates was that students could not take notes and had to rely mostly on their memory to retain information.

“Your learning would be different back then because you would do a lot of memorization, a lot of repetition,” said Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator of the Division of Cultural and Community Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Surely paper was available, then? They had papyrus in ancient Egypt, did they not? Yes, there was paper, but it was expensive.

“Not every student could afford to have a paper composition book,” Schaefer-Jacobs said.


Paper was very expensive before the Civil War, and it was used sparingly in schools.

Composition books were usually reserved for tests or examinations, Schaefer-Jacobs said. “Maybe you would have one composition book per year or per semester.”

As paper became less expensive, composition books — which were called tablets — started getting developed.


Pencil boxes were called scholar’s companion and were bought in stationery stores or ordered from a catalog. These were usually gifts that a parent, grandparent or favorite aunt or uncle would give to the student at the beginning of the school year or at the end of the year as a reward for being a good student or as a rite of passage if you go from primary school to the next grade, Schaefer-Jacobs said.

Pencil cases were usually made in Germany and transported and sold in the U.S. At about 1915, there were fewer items coming from Germany because of World War I, and more homegrown imagery and materials emerged.


To write on the slate, 19th century school children used slate pencils that you sharpen with a pen knife.

When students started using fountain pens in school, teachers would often have a communal jug of ink that would be used to fill students’ inkwells, Schaefer-Jacobs said.

These “Gelly Roll” pens by Sakura and its counterpart Milky Pop Pastel pens by Pentel were popular with students in the 1990s. The ink of these pens show up on both black and white paper. (Courtesy Sakura of America via Instagram)


One of the things school children had to haul from school to home and vice versa were books. Leather straps were a common thing to have in the 19th century because there was the horse and wagon, Schaefer-Jacobs said. “You have bridles and harnesses, so these were easy to develop.”

The materials of book bags have changed over time, from denim in the 1960s to today’s nylon.

“You would end up with material canvasses, rucksacks. Sometimes people who were in the military would bring home canvas bags, or you would use old feedsacks,” Schaefer-Jacobs said.

Backpack maker JanSport claims on its website that students in the early 1970s walked around campus holding their books in their hands until students at the University of Washington started using JanSport hiking packs in which to carry their books. But outdoor sports company Gerry said that it invented the first “modern nylon backpack” in 1967, Time magazine reported.

Modern backpacks are more than just for carrying books, they now have rooms for water bottles and laptops or tablets and cellphones.


Lunch pails in country schools were not just for food, they could also be used to get water from the well, gather up coal or wood or cow patties to fuel the stove, Schaefer-Jacobs said.

Lunchboxes eventually replaced the lunch pail, and the material of which the lunchboxes were made also evolved, from tin to plastic to nylon lunch bags.


The ultimate school supplies for 80s and 90s school kids, the Trapper Keeper “traps” all your papers, notes, handouts, etc. It came out in 1978, and its inventor, E. Bryant Crutchfield, came up with the concept based on meticulous market research, according to a Mental Floss article.

The Trapper Keeper became a reflection of what was popular at the time and the carrier’s identity. Designs included characters from movies and TV shows, sports cars, sports figures, video games and Lisa Frank designs, among others.

“It was fun to be able to show your personality through the binder that you had,” former director of product innovation at ACCO Brands, which makes the Trapper Keeper, Peter Bartlett told Mental Floss. “You don’t really remember a notebook or the pens and pencils you used. But maybe you remember your (Trapper Keeper).”

The Trapper Keeper’s popularity waned after the 1990s, and many school supplies lists actually ban them. An Inside Higher Ed blog theorizes that the reasons for the ban could be status competition, the sound of Velcro and size. A Washington Post article said that teachers simply find them “too big.”

Alyssa Scenters, associate brand manager for Acco, said that the historical product was unique because it offered a different organizational solution for the student. “It was something they really hadn’t seen before.”

Schaefer-Jacobs said that 50 years from now, it’s likely that National Museum of American History’s Division of Cultural and Community Life’s school supplies collection will include education software.

However, there appears to be a trend to go back to basics.


Scenters said that last year, one of the company’s brands Five Star launched an interactive note-taking product. The interactive notebook looks exactly like a traditional notebook, but it is filled with information that helps students learn and teachers teach.

It’s kind of like a combination of a workbook and textbook, and teachers could create lesson plans around it, Scenters said. Because it is very hands-on, teachers have said that it is helping students retain the information they are learning, she said.


Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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