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The Stories Behind 8 Back-to-School Essentials

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RubyLane.com

Annoy your kids with your newfound school supplies knowledge and they'll actually want to go back to school.

1. The Lunch Box

In the early part of the 20th century, most kids packed their school lunch in an empty cookie, biscuit, or tobacco tin. In 1935, a company called Aladdin tried to create a market for specialized lunch boxes by putting Mickey Mouse on the cover of their tin box. But even The Mouse couldn't convince kids to buy en masse. Aladdin didn't give up, though, and they had their first bonafide lunchtime hit in 1950 when they released the Hopalong Cassidy lunch box to young baby boomers. Available in red or blue, the box and thermos combination featured a crudely drawn picture of the popular TV and radio cowboy on one side.

As lackluster as that sounds, Aladdin sold 600,000 Hopalong lunch boxes in a single year. Hoping to hop in on Hopalong's success, the King of Cowboys, Roy Rogers, asked Aladdin about getting his own lunch box. But Aladdin turned him down, saying one cowboy was enough for them. So Rogers went to American Thermos, who upped the ante by covering the entire box and thermos with a full-color likeness of Rogers, setting a new standard in lunch box design. In 1953 alone, an impressive 2.5 million Roy Rogers lunch boxes were sold. But Roy's lunchtime reign was short-lived, because you can't keep a good mouse down. The Disney School Bus, featuring Mickey and the gang, became the most popular lunch box ever with 9 million units sold after it was released in 1956.

During the lunch box heyday, between 1950 and 1970, around 120 million boxes were sold, featuring cartoon characters, comic book heroes, Barbie, and even The Beatles. But things began to change when concerned moms started crusading against metal boxes, claiming they could be used as weapons on the schoolyard. Thanks to these efforts, the State of Florida banned metal lunch boxes in 1972, forcing the manufacturers to switch to plastic. After the change, sales declined quickly until 1985 when a metal Rambo lunch box for kids became the last of its kind. Today, soft, fabric lunch boxes are all the rage, but they still feature popular characters like Spider-Man, Batman, and, of course, Mickey Mouse. [Muppet Babies lunchbox image courtesy of rubylane.com. Order it now!]

2. Crayola Crayons

Early childhood education started in Europe in the 1820s, but didn't really take a foothold in America until the 1860s and '70s, when kindergartens began springing up all over the country. Even back then, art was considered an important part of a child's education; however most of the art supplies available at the time, like paint or pastels, were very messy in the hands of a five-year old. Wax crayons were recognized as a great solution to this problem, so as many as 300 companies began making them to cash in on the new, lucrative educational market.

However, there was one concern: most of the pigments used to make crayons were highly toxic. So when kids inevitably chewed on their drawing utensil, they wound up getting sick. That is until the Binney and Smith Company developed new, non-toxic pigments as part of their Crayola brand crayons, first released in 1903. The unforgettable name was created by Mrs. Binney when she combined the French word for chalk, craie, with the first part of the word oleaginous, meaning oily, which described the wax used to make the crayons. From their initial offering of eight colors, the line has expanded over the years to include 150 shades, including metallic versions and others with glitter infused into the wax.

And no discussion of crayons is complete without mentioning the classic Sesame Street tour of the Crayola Factory:

3. Elmer's Glue-All

For almost as long as kids have been eating glue, they've been eating Elmer's Glue-All. First released in 1947 by Borden, the dairy company, the glue wasn't a big seller until they added the now-familiar bull logo to the bottle. Over the years, rumors have spread that the bull meant the adhesive was made using animal hooves or hides, but those are just urban legends. In fact, the original Glue-All was made from casein, a milk by-product that Borden had in large supply thanks to their dairy operations.

The bull came to be on the label after Elsie, Borden's famous spokescow, was hired to star in the 1940 film Little Men. Her shooting schedule prevented her from attending the World's Fair that year where she had always been incredibly popular. So, in desperation, Borden found a bull they could use instead, called him Elmer, and said he was Elsie's husband. Elmer was a big hit with Fair-goers, too, so he became the spokesbull for the company's chemical division. His face was added to the glass bottle of Glue-All in 1951, which is when sales finally took off. A year later, the packaging changed to the now-familiar white plastic bottle with the orange dispenser tip and has stayed that way ever since.

4. The Mechanical Pencil

One of the drawbacks of the standard #2 pencil is that you have to sharpen it all the time. But with a mechanical pencil, all you do is click, click, click and you're good to go. It might surprise you to know that this mechanical marvel was first patented way back in 1822 by Sampson Mordan, who called it a "propelling pencil."

Concealed as a small cylinder, the pencil would expand in length as one end was pulled out, revealing the lead from the other side. When finished writing, the owner would simply collapse the pen into its original form, making the useful little device highly portable. They were especially popular with wealthy Victorians who preferred cylinders of silver or gold, the more ornately decorated the better, sometimes working precious stones into the end cap. Even laymen had propelling pencils, though, often cast in the likeness of animals, Egyptian mummies, cannons for the military man, or disguised as everyday items like nails and screws.

Mordan's design was just the start of a whole new industry, with nearly 200 mechanical pencil patents filed throughout the late 1800s, most featuring their own unique way of getting the lead out. The push-button, ratcheting design didn't come along until 1879, but it has stood the test of time and is now the most common type of mechanical pencil on the market.

5. Binder Clips

After your kids finish their first assignment of the school year, a 10-page paper titled, "What I Did Over Summer Vacation," they're going to have to bind all those pages together. Thankfully there are plenty of inventions available to do just that.

They could start with the most recent paper-holding innovation, the binder clip. Developed in 1910 by Louis E. Baltzley, the flexible black metal clip with silver handles has remained unchanged for over 100 years, proving the old adage, "If it ain't broken, don't fix it."

6. 3-Ring Binders

Another option would be a 3-ring binder, invented by German office supply innovator Friedrich Soennecken in 1886. Naturally, he invented the hole punch to go along with the binder, too. He also contributed to the style of penmanship known as "round writing," a predecessor to the cursive handwriting that we all spent hours and hours practicing in elementary school.

7. The Stapler

Of course there's always the stapler, which went through many variations until Henry Heyl patented his design in 1877. The key difference between Heyl's stapler and earlier models was the ability to not only punch the staple through the paper, but to also bend the staple prongs under once it was through, thus securing the pages together in one motion. But with Heyl's design, you still had to feed the staples in one at a time. A spring-loaded magazine was soon developed that could feed the staples into the rest of the mechanism. [Image credit: Daniel Manrique.]

When stationery wholesaler Jack Linksy founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Corporation in the 1930s, few could've imagined that his humble company—later known as Swingline—would change the world of paper-fastening forever. But that's just what he did when he developed the 1937 Swingline Speed Stapler No. 3. According to Linsky's son-in-law Alan Seff, to load a stapling machine before the Swingline came along, "you practically needed a screwdriver and a hammer to put the staples in. He and his engineers devised a patented unit where you just opened the top of the machine, and you'd plunk the staples in." Amazingly enough, the mechanics of the modern stapler have remained virtually unchanged.

8. The Paperclip

Last but not least is the granddaddy of paper binding technologies—the mighty paperclip. Since the late 1860s, there had been a handful of bent-wire clasp designs that used friction to hold papers together. But the curved clip we're all familiar with, known as the "Gem," was first introduced around 1892. No one ever took out an official patent for the design, so there's no definitive record of when it was actually developed.

Because of this hazy history, the invention has been attributed to many different people over the years, perhaps most famously to English sociologist and Charles Darwin-enthusiast Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest." There's also a Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, who designed a series of clips that were successfully patented in 1901, though they were far from the first. However, because patriotic Norwegians wore paperclips on their lapels as a symbol of unity during the Nazi occupation of World War II, the legend of Vaaler's innovation grew as a matter of national pride. Unfortunately, none of his designs were put into production before his patent expired, so neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, can truly be called the inventor of the paperclip.
* * * * *
Do you remember your favorite lunch box from your school days? Is there something unusual on your kid's school supply list this year? Did you have any first-day-of-school traditions? Tell us all about it in the comments below.

This story originally appeared in 2010.

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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

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Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
iStock

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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