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The Stories Behind 8 Back-to-School Essentials

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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.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
iStock

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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11 Thrilling Facts About Dial M for Murder
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In 1953 Alfred Hitchcock was looking for a new project after a film he’d been developing fell through. Sensing a need to go back to his safe space of murderous thrillers, he opted to adapt a stage play that had already proved to be a hit on British television. Though he had no particular attachment to the project, Dial M for Murder would ultimately become one of Hitchcock’s best-known—and best-loved—classics.

From the film’s use of 3D to the debut of Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s filmography to a pivotal murder sequence that made the director lose weight from stress, here are 11 facts about Dial M for Murder.

1. IT’S BASED ON A STAGE PLAY.

Dial M for Murder is, in terms of locations and number of characters, a relatively sparse film that barely leaves its primary set. This is because it was based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, which premiered as a BBC TV special in 1952 and later opened at London’s Westminster Theater and, eventually, Broadway. After seeing the BBC production, producer Sir Alexander Korda purchased the rights to make the film version, and later sold them to Warner Bros. for $75,000.

2. ALFRED HITCHCOCK THOUGHT HE WAS “COASTING” WHEN HE MADE THE FILM.

By 1953, when Dial M for Murder arrived at Warner Bros., Hitchcock was developing a project called The Bramble Bush, the story of a man who steals another man’s passport, only to find out that the original owner is wanted for murder. Hitchcock wrestled with the story for a while, but was never satisfied with it. When Dial M for Murder landed at the studio, Hitchcock knew the play had been a hit, and opted to direct it. As he later told fellow director François Truffaut, he found the film to be “coasting, playing it safe,” as he was already known as a thriller filmmaker.

3. IT’S HITCHCOCK’S ONLY 3D FILM.

In the early 1950s, the 3D movie craze was raging, and Warner Bros. was eager to pair it with the fame of Hitchcock. So, the director was ordered to use the process on Dial M for Murder. This meant Hitchcock had to work with the giant cameras necessary for the process, but there was also a trade-off that makes the film fascinating—even in 2D. In order to make the film look appropriately interesting in 3D, Hitchcock added a pit into the floor of the set, so the camera could move at lower angles and captures objects like lamps in the foreground. As a result, the film looks like no other Hitchcock ever shot, particularly for the infamous scissors murder that’s the film's thrilling centerpiece. Unfortunately, by the time Dial M for Murder was released in 1954, the 3D fad was dying out, so the film was shown in 2D at most screenings.

4. IT WAS HITCHCOCK’S FIRST FILM WITH GRACE KELLY.

Of all of the iconic blonde stars Hitchcock cast in his films, the most famous is almost undoubtedly Grace Kelly, the actress-turned-princess who first joined him for this film. Hitchcock once described Kelly as a "rare thing in movies ... fit for any leading-lady part,” and it was said he had the easiest working relationship with her of any star. They worked so well together that they went on to make two more films, Rear Window in 1954 and To Catch a Thief in 1955.

5. IT TAKES PLACE ALMOST ENTIRELY INDOORS.

Because Dial M for Murder is based on a stage play, the original script had very little in the way of outdoor set pieces. Hitchcock wanted to keep it that way, as he later explained to Truffaut:

“I’ve got a theory on the way they make pictures based on stage plays; they did it with silent pictures, too. Many filmmakers would take a stage play and say, ‘I’m going to make this into a film.’ Then they would begin to ‘open it up.’ In other words, on the stage it was all confined to one set, and the idea was to do something that would take it away from the confined stage setting.”

Hitchcock wanted to keep the confinement intact, so almost all of the action in the film takes place indoors, largely in the Wendices' apartment. This adds to the intimacy and tension.

6. HITCHCOCK PERSONALLY CHOSE EVERY PROP.

Hitchcock was always known as a meticulous director obsessed with detail, but on Dial M for Murder he was particularly detail-oriented, in part because the 3D cameras were going to capture objects in a way his other films hadn’t. As a result, he selected all of the objects in the Wendice apartment himself, and even had a giant false telephone dial made for the famous “M” close-up in the title sequence.

7. KELLY’S WARDROBE GROWS DARKER ON PURPOSE.

Grace Kelly in 'Dial M for Murder' (1954)
Warner Home Video

Hitchcock’s exacting eye also led to an elaborate “color experiment” to portray the psychological condition of Kelly’s character. As the film begins, the colors she wears are all very bright, suggesting a happy life in which she doesn’t suspect anything is wrong. As the film grows darker for her, to the point that she’s framed for murder, the wardrobe grows darker and “more somber,” as Hitchcock put it.

8. KELLY WON A PARTICULAR WARDROBE ARGUMENT.

For the scene in which Swann (Anthony Dawson) attempts to murder Margot (Kelly) by strangling her (until she manages to stab him with a pair of scissors), Hitchcock had another exacting wardrobe request. He had an elegant velvet robe made for Kelly, hoping to create interesting textural effects as the lights and shadows played off the fabric while she fought for her life. Kelly reasoned that, since Margot was alone in the apartment (as far as she knew) and was only getting out of bed to answer the phone, she wouldn’t bother to put on a robe.

“I said I wouldn't put on anything at all, that I'd just get up and go to the phone in my nightgown. And [Hitchcock] admitted that was better, and that's the way it was done,” Kelly later recalled.

9. HITCHCOCK WAS SO NERVOUS ABOUT THE PIVOTAL SCENE THAT HE LOST WEIGHT.

Dial M for Murder was shot in just 36 days, but the director took special care with one scene in particular: the murder sequence in which Margot stabs Swann with the scissors. Not only was it a key scene in the film, but it was also a moment that required particular care to make the 3D effects work. Hitchcock agonized over the scene to such a degree that he apparently lost 20 pounds during filming.

"This is nicely done but there wasn't enough gleam to the scissors, and a murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without the hollandaise sauce—tasteless,” he reportedly said after one take.

10. HITCHCOCK MAKES HIS CAMEO IN A PHOTOGRAPH.

Hitchcock became known throughout his career for making cameos in his films, ranging from the very subtle (you can see his silhouette in neon outside the window in Rope) to the more elaborate (missing the bus in the opening sequence of North by Northwest). In Dial M for Murder, his cameo falls somewhere in between. He appears in a class reunion photo in the Wendice apartment, seated at a banquet table among other men.

11. IT’S BEEN REMADE FOUR TIMES.

Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in 'A Perfect Murder' (1998)
Warner Bros.

Dial M for Murder was a film adaptation of a stage play that had also already been adapted for television in Britain, and it proved popular enough that four more adaptations followed. In 1958, NBC broadcast a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, in which both Anthony Dawson and John Williams returned to play Swann and Chief Inspector Hubbard, respectively. A 1967 ABC television production of the play co-starred Laurence Harvey and Diane Cilento. A television movie starring Angie Dickinson and Christopher Plummer was produced in 1981, and in 1998 the play served as the inspiration for the film A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.

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