The Stories Behind 8 Back-to-School Essentials
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.
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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.