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12 Vintage School Supplies You Can Still Buy

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If you're at all like me, the back to school season makes you incredibly nostalgic. Not for actually going back to school, of course, but for all the awesome school supplies you'd buy before hitting class. Thankfully, you can relive your elementary school glory days—and spice up your boring office—by buying these vintage back-to-school staples.

1. Trapper Keeper

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Trapper Keeper was more than just a school supply—it was a status symbol. The unchallenged MVP of school supplies has recently made a comeback: You can buy regular binders, outfit your tablet with a Trapper Keeper-inspired cover, or buy a vintage model on Ebay.

2. Lisa Frank Stuff

Back in the day, girls had to have anything and everything Lisa Frank: Stickers, folders, notebooks, and, yes, Trapper Keepers. Frank doesn’t venture out in public anymore, but you can still buy her stuff, from stickers to calendars to pens, on Amazon, and Lisa Frank-inspired costumes at Urban Outfitters.

3. Yikes Pencils

These pencils were so much better that your typical No. 2: They had personality, coming in many different shapes and patterns. As the 1993 commercial above points out, “you can’t look sharp with dull pencils.” They’re not made anymore (though there is a petition going to bring them back), but you can still find Yikes pencils on Ebay. They’re sure to be conversation starters around the office.

4. Erasermate Pens

It took Paper Mate more than a decade to develop the erasable ink used in Erasermate pens, which hit the U.S. market in 1979. The thrill of being able to write in pen and erase it if you made a mistake was undeniable when you were a kid. (It hardly mattered that most of the time there was some ink left behind even after you’d erased.) These days, of course, we hardly write notes—but when we do, they’re almost illegible. So you can whip these out, erase what you’ve written, and make your handwriting slightly more decipherable.

5. Mr. Sketch Scented Markers

These markers, which debuted in the mid-1960s, were on every kid’s back-to-school wish list. And not just because they were good for coloring: Sniffing these scented markers was a favorite activity—and every kid had their favorite marker, too. (Mine was raspberry.) Though these markers were off the market for a while, they’ve recently been reintroduced for this year’s back-to-school season. Pick some up and use them to give your memos a little something extra.

6. Gelly Roll Pens

The Sakura Color Products Corporation released their Ballsign pens, the first pens to use gel ink, in Japan in 1984. When they brought the pens to the U.S. in 1989, the company changed its product’s name to Gelly Roll, and the pens became a staple on mid-’90s back-to-school lists.

The company began trying to create a gel ink formula that they could use in early 1980. “In the beginning, we failed many times,” Shigeyasu Inoue, an original member of the team, recounts on the Sakura website. “Each time we developed a new prototype, a whole new set of problems would arise. We spent endless hours studying each problem, resolving them one-by-one. There were many ideas---many led to dead-ends. Others had merit, but could only be tried once we resolved other issues. It was a difficult process.” The team got close but still needed one ingredient to crack the formula; they tried everything from anything with the consistency of jelly—including agar, grated yam, and egg whites—before stumbling upon the food additive xanthan gum in a trade journal. They applied for a patent on the ink in 1982, then spent two years developing a pen that could be used with it.

The pens celebrate their 30th anniversary this year; you can get them all, from classic to Moonlight to metallic and beyond, right here.

7. Pencil Grips

These grips were supposed to adjust a child’s grasp so he wrote the right way—or at least make all those hours pressing a pencil to paper more bearable. But they came in so many cool shapes and colors that they made plain old pencils a little more fun. You can get ergonomic grips here and neon triangle grips (which is what I had!) here.

8. Multi-color pens

Why use a boring black or blue pen when you could have a pen that had four or more colors? These pens were prone to jamming back in the day, but current models—which we use here at mental_floss—work much more smoothly.

9. Pencil Toppers

Why did many elementary school girls choose to stick tiny nude trolls on top of their pencils? Who knows, but you can still get them on Etsy or eBay. If you’re not into trolls, there are plenty of other fun pencil toppers, too, like these ones that look like wild animals or these crazy, Koosh-like balls!

10. Pop-A-Point Pencils

Kids never had to sharpen these pencils: When they wore the point down to the nub, they simply pulled it out and inserted it into the back of the pencil, which pushed a new point forward. The new points were super sharp—almost enough to stab yourself! You could get them clear, with patterns, and even scented, and they’re available on Amazon right now.

11. Tiny Erasers

How useful were these super small erasers? I can’t remember, but I do remember that I could never resist buying them at the school store. Now you can get 500 for under $10 on Amazon.

12. Pencil Boxes

Elementary school kids stored all of their many pens and pencils in the iconic Spacemaker pencil box, which had a distinctive bumped top. Unfortunately, they’re not made anymore (although you can find some on eBay and Etsy), but you can still find plenty of options to cover with Lisa Frank stickers that will do the job just fine.

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Artist Makes Colorful Prints From 1990s VHS Tapes

A collection of old VHS tapes offers endless crafting possibilities. You can use them to make bird houses, shelving units, or, if you’re London-based artist Dieter Ashton, screen prints from the physical tape itself.

As Co.Design reports, the recent London College of Communication graduate was originally intrigued by the art on the cover of old VHS and cassette tapes. He planned to digitally edit them as part of a new art project, but later realized that working with the ribbons of tape inside was much more interesting.

To make a print, Ashton unravels the film from cassettes and VHS tapes collected from his parents' home. He lets the strips fall randomly then presses them into tight, tangled arrangements with the screen. The piece is then brought to life with vibrant patterns and colors.

Ashton has started playing with ways to incorporate themes and motifs from the films he's repurposing into his artwork. If the movie behind one of his creations isn’t immediately obvious, you can always refer to its title. His pieces are named after movies like Backdraft, Under Siege, and that direct-to-video Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen classic Passport to Paris.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

Screen print made from an old VHS tape.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images courtesy of Dieter Ashton

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The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball
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In the early 1900s, the thing Joseph Fourestier Simpson desired most was to create something people respected. A career hustler—real estate agent, cash register salesman, and railroad clerk were just a few of the many jobs he held—Simpson longed to invent something he could patent that would have lasting appeal.

A handful of his inventions made minor waves: He perfected an egg crate that could protect shells during bumpy transportation routes, and created a new kind of trunk clasp that kept luggage tightly shut. None of it made him rich, but one invention in particular would at least gain him some national recognition. It was a ramp that could be set up in arcades and amusement parks, a kind of modified form of bowling that allowed players to lob a wooden ball over a bump and into a hole with a pre-assigned point value. He dubbed it Skee-Ball after the skee (ski) hills—and especially the ski jumps—that were then becoming popular in American culture.

Simpson filed for a patent in 1907 and received it in 1908. Later, he would see his Skee-Ball become a popular and pervasive attraction along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in Philadelphia, and across the country. But Simpson wouldn’t see any profit from it. In fact, he'd suffer financial ruin. Even worse, history would become muddled to the point where most people wouldn’t even realize it was Simpson who had invented it.

Historic Images - Lancashire via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Up until recently, it was common for accounts of Skee-Ball’s history to name Princeton University alumnus J. Dickinson Este as the man behind the game. As the story goes, Este was motivated to find an inventive birthday gift for his son in 1909 and decided to craft an alley for a small, handheld ball using lumber he had obtained from his father’s successful wood business, and Skee-Ball was born.

The problem? Virtually none of it appears to be true. According to Thaddeus Cooper and Kevin Kreitman, co-authors of the recently-released Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, Este was the beneficiary of Simpson’s innovation, but not the innovator. The authors cite their five years of research into the game’s origins and a key discovery at New Jersey's Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, where, among other papers, Simpson’s 1908 patent for the machine resides.

“The history has become really muddled, at least on the internet,” Cooper tells Mental Floss. “Este, for one thing, didn’t have a son in 1909. He had twin daughters, much later on.”

Accounts seem to have conflated two different events: Simpson’s invention and Este’s later acquisition of the Skee-Ball business. After Simpson noticed the amusements industry taking off, he invented and patented the device; he and his partners, John Harper and William Nice, started marketing it to potential operators. None of the men were marketers, however, and they were never quite able to adopt the kind of salesmanship nor the resources needed to make Skee-Ball a household term. “It was your typical start-up problem,” Kreitman says. “They had the idea but not the money.”

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Simpson’s pockets ran dry; by 1911, he had even lost his house and was staying with friends. Este, who had been playing and enjoying the game in Philadelphia, rented some space near Princeton and installed a handful of alleys. When he saw that students were tripping over themselves to play, he decided to make a substantial investment—about $30,000 to $50,000 in today’s dollars—in the game. By 1914, he owned all rights and began an aggressive marketing effort using his wealthy family’s connections in the Pennsylvania news media.

“It was aggressive,” Cooper says. “You’d see ads with actual photographs, which was rare for amusement ads at the time. The copy would say something like, ‘Everybody is playing. Where have you been?’”

The hard sell worked. Soon, outlets like The New York Times were taking notice of the Skee-Ball craze spreading from the east coast. Co-ed tournaments sprung up; in Atlantic City, people seemed to be enjoying it a little too much, with the city clamping down on “noisy amusements” operating on Sundays.

Still, Skee-Ball was becoming a hit, thanks in part to a key design change prompted during the Depression. Originally built with a 32- to 36-foot-long ramp, the machines were cleaved in half so operators could fit the alleys into smaller, more affordable venues (10 feet is now the standard length). Not having to launch the ball such a long distance helped attract more kids to the game, who—along with adults—were plunking down an endless stream of nickels so they could get their nine balls and attempt to sink them. Prizes or tickets redeemable for prizes would be awarded to winners.

By this point, Este had exited the amusements business, selling his interest to his partners. By 1935, Skee-Ball was under the Wurlitzer umbrella. The jukebox maker had realized that Simpson’s device was outperforming their music libraries in several locations.

“They thought they would make a killing,” Kreitman tells Mental Floss. “They ramped up production and produced 5000 machines in 1937 alone.”

What Wurlitzer didn’t quite realize was that the machines made in the decades prior were so durable that they rarely needed replacing. “It took them about seven years to sell their stock,” Kreitman says.

Ownership changed again in 1945, when the Philadelphia Toboggan Company purchased Skee-Ball, and didn’t pass to other hands until 1985, when a businessman named Joe Sladek purchased it. Each owner has pursued Skee-Ball as a result of its considerable longevity and appeal, even though some local administrations have occasionally taken issue with the devices and their loose flirtation with gambling.

“I know at some point in Chicago some cops came in and chopped Skee-Ball machines apart with axes, then tossed them out the back door,” Cooper says.

Ryan Basilio via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remarkably, Skee-Ball has remained largely unchanged for the past 110 years. Cooper says that Simpson’s early concept designs strongly resemble today's machines. It’s still a very analog experience: Pitch the ball, and hope you hit a high-scoring target.

In 2016, Skee-Ball changed hands once more, this time to the Bay-Tek company. It’s estimated that more than 125,000 machines are in operation today, with many locations organizing loose tournaments. Brewskee-Ball has made a name for itself as a leading competition league. Players can—and usually do—drink while playing, with winners receiving a cream-colored jacket and trophy as proof of their Skee-Ball prowess. Like roller derby participants, they favor colorful player names like Brewbacca and Monica LewinSkee and play during “skeesons.” (Back in March, Brewbacca was the focus of an ABC News digital feature.)

While some machines dating back to the 1940s are still in operation in a few locations, Cooper says he and Kreitman have yet to come across any of the original models from either Simpson or Este.

Simpson died in 1930, living long enough to see Skee-Ball become a popular pastime but unable to reap the financial rewards he had worked so hard to try and achieve.

“He was 57 when he invented it,” Kreitman says. “He saw the success, but never saw the financial benefits.”

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