Though the technologies of today are undoubtedly amazing, some of the school supplies of yesteryear were also pretty fantastic. Here are some of the forgotten school supplies we think schools should add to their supply lists.
1. Lunch Box and Thermos
Though lunch boxes have been around since the 19th century (they were originally used by factory workers), the children’s lunch box craze didn’t start up in earnest until the 1950s. Originally made of tin, and later from plastic, these colorful boxes usually came illustrated with popular superheroes or cartoon characters. Nowadays, kids who opt to bring a home-packed lunch instead of purchasing one from the cafeteria often turn to a brown paper bag or squishy plastic cooler—but we miss the tin boxes of yesteryear.
2. Dip Pens
These may seem less practical than today’s writing utensils—they’re messier and more cumbersome to be sure. But dip pens, which have no internal reservoir of ink, also fostered better penmanship. The process of dipping the pens into an inkwell, and making sure not to smudge or stain paper while writing, ensured that handwriting was more precise.
3. Spirit Duplicators (Dittos)
The predecessor of the copy machine, the Spirit Duplicating Machine (more commonly called the Ditto) was a small, inexpensive printing press invented in 1923 and used by students and teachers through the early 1980s to print everything from school newspapers to tests and worksheets. The machines worked by using a solvent to dissolve the wax on the back of the ditto master during its creation. But many students from the ‘60s fondly remember the distinct aroma, cool feeling, and distinct purple haze of papers fresh off the ditto machine—an experience the students of today are missing out on.
4. Sitting-Out Bags
Sitting-out bags were a strange and short-lived school supply. They accompanied the early 20th century open air school movement—an outdoor education initiative which was started to improve students’ health, specifically to protect against tuberculosis. Sitting out bags were essentially wearable sleeping bags, and could be used by students at open air schools who were taking their lessons in chilly weather.
5. Book Straps
School children in the early 20th century didn’t have backpacks—they just tied their books together with straps or belts, which they could hang casually over one shoulder. Though the straps might not be particularly practical for anyone trying to carry around a huge stack of books and papers, they’re an easy, lightweight option for students with a lighter load.
If the book strap isn’t quite your style, maybe you’d prefer the more professional–looking satchel popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. The bag looked like a soft-cover briefcase, making the students of the ‘60s look a bit like tiny businesspeople.
Stereoscopic technology has existed since the 19th century, but wasn’t marketed as an educational tool until the early 1900s. Starting around 1900, schools began using 3-D stereoscopic images to illustrate points made during lectures. Hundreds of stereoscopic photos were produced and distributed, and brought to life a range of subjects from science and nature to history (some of the earliest stereoscopic photos taken even depicted the American Civil War). Educational films and television have eclipsed the old school device, but stereoscopic images are still a fun visual learning aid—and can still be found at flea markets and thrift shops.
The writing slate was one of the most important school supplies between 1770 and 1900—at a time when paper was expensive, slates, which resembled hand-held chalkboards, provided a reusable writing surface. These days, they’ve been replaced by any number of writing surfaces, which is too bad—what kid wouldn’t love having his own mini-chalkboard to doodle on while listening to a lecture? Not to mention, an erasable slate would cut back on the amount of paper going straight from students’ backpacks to the trash bin.
Along with the slate, the hornbook was one of the most ubiquitous school supplies of the 18th and 19th centuries. A wooden, stone, or leather paddle engraved with the alphabet or other basic educational information, it was such an iconic learning tool, it was even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Among the most ancient school supplies, the abacus was an extremely early counting device—a predecessor to the calculator that dates back at least as far as Ancient Rome. Numerous versions of the abacus have been used throughout history, but the most iconic version consisted of a wooden frame, with a series of large beads on wooden rods. Students (and merchants) counted by moving the beads up or down on the rods. Some versions even had a separate row for decimal points. Though abaci are no longer the dominant means of calculating equations, they’re still used in a few elementary schools, as a visual aid in early mathematics lessons.
11. Slide Rules
Another predecessor to the calculator was the slide rule. Though it looks superficially like a normal ruler, used to measure lengths, the slide rule actually allowed students to multiply and divide numbers quickly. More sophisticated slide rules could even do square roots and more complex trigonometric functions. And best of all, they never ran out of power.
12. Slide Projectors
Not to be confused with the similarly named slide rule, slide projectors allowed teachers to project educational images for the entire class. These could be anything from sophisticated lesson plans, created by educational companies as learning supplements, to photos from a teacher’s most recent vacation.
13. Pencils and Manual Pencil Sharpeners
Traditional pencils may not be completely forgotten, but they’re certainly falling out of use. As are the manual pencil sharpeners that once adorned classroom walls all over the world. The prototype of the pencil was invented back in the 16th century, when a large graphite deposit was discovered in England. The first mechanical pencil sharpener wasn’t invented, meanwhile, until 1847. Early students would’ve had to sharpen their pencils with a knife.
14. Roll-Top Pencil Cases
The roll-top pencil case was a favorite of kids from the ‘60s, but has largely disappeared today. At the time, it was the latest in pencil case technology, with a top that could be pushed back across the top of the box, like a roll-top desk, instead of being lifted up. These days, the cases are sought-after collectibles, and can sell for upwards of $80, which is a pretty impressive price for a plastic pencil box.
15. Spelling Books
As spell-check and online dictionaries become more and more popular, the once-ubiquitous spelling book is disappearing. Which is a shame—not only are spelling books the ultimate spelling bee accoutrement, but back in the day they revolutionized both education and the English language by providing a standard system of spelling to people across the United States. The first widely distributed spelling book was written in 1783 by Noah Webster, who also compiled the American English Dictionary.