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Official Article

Retro School Supplies


Going back to school was a drag for most kids. Once we got word that "School is starting next week", we began squeezing as much lazy freedom into the final weeks of summer as we could. Mornings in front of the TV, afternoons at the pool and hanging out with friends all came with a ticking clock in those remaining days. But one thing that always made the return to the classroom more bearable, was back to school shopping.


Outfitting yourself with the coolest and most colorful gear was the way to make the school day pass more quickly and declare your awesomeness. Favorite cartoon, movie and sports stars could be found from the smallest eraser to your all-encompassing backpack, but making the wrong choice could be a social disaster of epic proportions. Let me put it this way, you did not want to be the 5th grade guy showing up with a Cabbage Patch Kids lunchbox. So what was the right choice to carry your ham and cheese sandwich in? Read on.


There were basically 2 ways to go with the lunchbox thing, unless you were the bland "Brown-Bagger" type. The metal lunchbox was by far the coolest and most impressive option, with exciting graphics printed on every inch and a cool latch that made you feel like your tuna fish and apple slices were a treasure that had to be locked away. Over the years I sported the Masters of the Universe and Marvel Super Heroes varieties, with matching Thermos full of grape juice. This was a solid alternative to the Squeeze-It I really wanted.


You really had your choice of any hot character that year from The A Team to Muppet Babies, but eventually things got cheaper as companies produced single color boxes made out of plastic with a sticker slapped on the front. Hey, a giant M.A.S.K. sticker was still awesome, but I always felt ripped off by the fact that it was only one side of the thing that had pictures on it. Of course with the Hammerman lunchbox, all you wanted was one picture (Yeesh!).


Before selecting your actual school supplies, you needed a killer backpack to carry them in. I don't remember a lot of kids having character themed backpacks in the day, mostly we stuck with your standard Jansport models in a variety of colors. What really made the difference was what you attached to your zipper. Girls would attach dozens of little charms of tennis rackets, soda cans and hair brushes, which always fascinated me. While the boys in my class were putting dog tags, toy guns or those skeleton key chains from vending machines. 


Next up were your folders and 3-ring binder selection. Mead Trapper Keepers were like the Ferrari of school folders for boys. The artwork always seemed to be these 3-D geometric shapes and landscapes that looked like "the future". Though sometimes they offered trippy scenes like a sports car crashing through reality or a first person roller coaster ride. It really was a way to define your identity. So I guess most kids we're dropping acid in the 4th grade? Maybe my logic is off here.


Girls tended to lean toward the Lisa Frank style, with neon colored sea-life and unicorns.  She was like the Betty Crocker of extreme cute animal drawings. All her stuff was seemingly created while huffing nail polish remover. I mean there was girly and then there was Lisa Frank. Aside from the exterior graphics, the security of the velcro flap keeping your spelling test vocabulary list and math worksheets secure was a binding experience among kids of this generation. Everyone knew that as soon as the teacher said, "Take out your homework" 30 seconds of velcro-ripping was about to follow.


When it came to writing tools, no one wanted to be seen with a yellow #2 pencil, but that's exactly what I was stuck with. In my school it was all about mechanical pencils. The coolest kids would pull out their vile of lead and carefully insert it into their mechanical wonder. I always envied the click-click-click that preceded any test taking. But even cooler were the stacking style pencils, where you pushed in "Pencil Lead Bullets" through the top to activate the next sharpened one that was ready to write.


For me the ultimate in enviable school supplies were the "Swiss Army" style pencil cases that 50% of my classmates had. I grew up in a town with a lot of Asian kids and this seemed to be standard issue for the school year. These things were double-sided and had holders for your pencils that popped-up like missile launchers. Plus you could push buttons to make secret compartments for scissors, glue, erasers, mini staplers and even a magnifying glass appear. It was like you were a 5th grade James Bond for crying out loud! I was super jealous and though I frequented some Asian shopping establishments in my day, I never managed to score one throughout all of elementary school.


Once my kids get to school age I'll be very curious to see what the coveted items are during the summer's end shopping spree. I can only imagine by then it will be all about what stylized case you have for your tablet or which color scheme you chose for your Google Glass apparatus. Maybe I'll live out my grade school dreams through my children and equip them with a Japanese pencil case that comes with a laser pointer, calculator, walkie-talkie, every color of highlighter, etc. Yeah, that would be sweet!

So what were the hot items in the classroom for your back to school adventures of days gone by?

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Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 05, 2015 at 05:10 AM

@OldSchool80s Good call! I always associated the standard 4 color pens with my older brother who actually carried them in a pocket protector (he was going to college to be an electrical engineer). But I remember at one point owning a huge shiny purple one that had like 10 colors, which was crazy.

pikachulover Posted on Aug 04, 2015 at 08:36 PM

I just bought one of those multi color pens, a Lisa Frank one. It has a really girly design with kittens and ice cream cones.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 04, 2015 at 03:29 PM

@OldSchool: Oh yeah! I had forgotten all about those pens. Those were so cool back in the day. I had a few of those too. Though the only color that really got much use was black, followed by blue.

OldSchool80s Posted on Aug 04, 2015 at 01:31 PM

Picking out the perfect lunch box was so important in those early years. Then I can remember how much my Trapper Keeper meant to me. I also remember the 4-color pen (that they still make, I think) where you slide down the color that you want to use - black, blue, red, green.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 03, 2015 at 04:07 PM

I wonder how socially scorned they would be if we sent them to school with all the coolest stuff... from when WE were in school? They could tell them it's "retro cool" and classified as memorabilia. Hmmm.

mickyarber Posted on Aug 03, 2015 at 02:39 PM

Such a fun article! This one brings back so many memories. And you're right, your level of school supply directly affected your social standing. Parents never understood that though. To them a folder was a folder. But not to us kids. A plain green folder was surely no where near as cool as a GI Joe folder. You could be kicked out of your friend circle for that kind of social snafu. Once upon a time, all of my friends had new Trapper Keepers, while I showed up with a baby blue colored knock off. That was a tough few months of that school year.

As for the lunch boxes, the metal ones most definitely were superior to their plastic cousins. But at our school, I don't remember what grade, it became cooler to carry your lunch in a paper bag like the high school guys that it did to sport a plastic lunch box like the 1st graders.

So many memories associated with this article. You really picked a great topic to write about. Now when I take my kids back to school shopping this weekend, I'll have this article in mind and remember what it's like to have the off brand Trapper Keeper, and try not to let myself be "that" parent.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 02, 2015 at 04:10 AM

My Trapper Keepers were vaults into my imagination, which also happened to house my schoolwork. I decorated them and filled them up with tons of sketches and comics I drew during study hall.

I never had a really cool backpack. They were always pretty plain looking, with no licensed product on anything on them. Now my folders were a different story. I had lots of different folders featuring cartoon characters to just funky shapes to just plain red or blue. Those too were decorated to fit my desires.

Those pencils with the "bullet" leads were some of my favorites, even if they weren't that practical. I don't think owned any of those until I entered high school though.

I do have a story that pertains to this subject a bit. Once, while I was cleaning out my desk while our teacher (Mr. Will, a bit of a hothead) giving a lesson, I suddenly heard the smack of my pencil box on the top of my desk and saw it shatter into pieces before me. My stuff went everywhere, including one of those compasses with the sharp point on it to hold it in place on the paper. It startled me. Then I saw that it was the teacher who had picked it up off my desk and shattered it. He didn't like that I was cleaning my desk while he was talking. He then said something to the effect of, "And I don't care if you tell your parents about this, it's your fault."

Well, I did tell my mom (my parents were divorced at this time). She was dating a State Highway Patrolman at the time, who was 6'8" tall. He and my mom went to pay him a visit. LOL

The next day, he apologized to me and the class, and purchased me a new box. Yeah. I think he ended up caring that I told a parent.

pikachulover Posted on Aug 01, 2015 at 04:53 AM

@hoju yeah they were once I told a paper moocher "I'm not a tree!" I didn't live that down until the next school year.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 01, 2015 at 01:30 AM

@echidna64 I definitely cut up many a paper shopping bag to protect my text books. Mainly I did this so I could doodle on the outside to customize it.

@pikachulover Glad you finally lived the dream in college. Those lead moochers must have been just as bad as the notebook paper freeloaders.

pikachulover Posted on Jul 31, 2015 at 10:34 PM

Some of the girls at my junior high would have so many key chains on their backpack the zipper tag fell off from all the weight.

Mechanical pencils are great!I prefer those over the wood ones today. Too bad in school all you would seem to attract were lead moochers, or at least I did. Pop-a-point pencils were ok, but once you lost one of the leads the pencil was worthless.

I had always wanted one of those pencil cases as a kid, but never got one. When I was a freshman in college I bought myself one it was probably one of the first pieces of college school supplies I bough myself besides my computer.

echidna64 Posted on Jul 31, 2015 at 07:11 PM

Great memories Hoju! As we speak, I'm putting the curriculum together for my 10th grade students! Did anybody else have to cover your textbooks using brown grocery bags? I had one 4th grade teacher host a textbook cover contest to see who could draw the best design. Mine had a ton of robots drawn on it but I don't think I won anything.

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