School Supplies Then And Now

Aug 25, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Diana Bulls, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

With the start of school just around the corner, the television has been filled with ads about back-to-school supplies: backpacks, pencils, pens, paper, notebooks, etc. from Target and Staples, haircuts from Super Cuts, school shoes from Famous Footwear, and clothes from Old Navy and JCP, and the list goes on and on. Anyway, it made me think about getting ready for my own schooldays way back in the 1950s.

Getting ready for school in those days meant a new pair of black & white “saddle” shoes, five new dresses (homemade in my case because my Mom sewed everything), new hair ribbons or barrettes, and if you were lucky a brand new lunch box. Mine was brand new in first grade–red plaid with a matching Thermos–I used this through sixth grade.

I should add here that school started later in September because many families and their children were involved with the grape harvest and couldn’t go to school because they were working.

Kindergarten then was not what it is now–no one knew how to read or write, and most kids didn’t even know their addresses let alone numbers and colors! Whatever we needed was handed out when we used it.

1951, first day of kindergarten with my brother Bill

In primary school (first through third grades), everyone was expected to bring a “pencil” box and a small, empty jar–my mother and some other mothers sent extras if they had them. I have no idea how our mothers knew they were supposed to do this. Maybe they received a letter before school started–it was always a mystery to me.

Most kids brought a cardboard or wooden cigar box and a jar that had held some kind of ointment in a previous life.
The jars were usually white milk glass with a black Bakelite lid. The cigar box was always a mystery to me as well. Did every kid’s dad smoke cigars? Mine didn’t. In fact, I can’t remember knowing anyone who smoked cigars, so where did the boxes come from?

Armed with box, jar and lunchbox, we trooped out to the bus stop in front of our house. That’s right, we rode the bus to school, Mom didn’t take us. She didn’t need to meet the teacher because she already knew her. In fact, Mrs. Miller, my second grade teacher even had my Dad in second grade!

Once at school and settled into our classroom, we were each given a fat red pencil (with no eraser), a box of eight fat crayons, a pair of blunt-nosed scissors, a new pink eraser and a glob of white paste to fill up the jar. This was first time most of us had ever seen or smelled that white, elementary school paste, and some kids just couldn’t resist a taste test. That’s something else I remember from elementary school, every class had a paste eater and a kid that ate dirt on the playground!

We were shown where the pencil sharpener was, and we were admonished NOT to overuse the pencil sharpener–certain boys were known to grind their pencils down to stubs.

In fourth grade, we graduated to regular yellow pencils and pointy-end scissors.
That was the year we also learned cursive writing, so we each received a metal pen nib and wooden pen nib holder. We were only given ink when we were actually going to use the pen! In fourth through sixth grades, we also covered all our schoolbooks with homemade paper bag book covers that we were allowed to decorate with crayons.

1954, first day of third grade for me, kindergarten for Bill, and little brother Eddie (3)

In the seventh and eighth grade, we were expected to bring a ballpoint pen with blue ink, a binder filled with paper and a set of dividers, usually five: English, math, history, science, geography/social studies. We were still given pencils, scissors and art supplies as needed. I remember having some “fancy” store-bought book covers that had funny book titles like 101 Ways to Fix Blubber by S. Kimo and Fifty Yards to the Outhouse by Willy Makit; Foreword by Betty Wont.

Everyone had the same kind of binder–they were covered with a light blue fabric and “decorated” in blue ink by the owner. A boy in my class fancied himself in love. On his binder he wrote, in letters two inches high, “Cookie, My Angle Baby.” Unfortunately his misspelled angel.

In the eighth grade, all the boys took woodshop and the girls took home economics. Home Ec was basic cooking skills and basic sewing skills. Each girl had to provide her own sewing kit: sewing scissors, pinking shears, thimble, package of needles, pin cushion and assorted pins, tape measure, seam ripper, bees wax, tailor’s chalk and tracing wheel. All of my supplies fit into a fancy, round fruitcake tin–I still have it, by the way.

By high school, you bought your own notebooks, binders, paper clips, pencils, pens. The school still gave out pencils and paper if necessary, but most everyone had their own. Some classes required extra supplies, like art, biology, band, P.E., or mechanical drawing. In the 1960s, when I was in high school, anything you might need like insect pins, reeds or rental instruments, any kind of art supplies, and gym clothes (including athletic supporters) could be purchased at Howell’s Stationery on the corner of 11th and G Streets. I played tennis in high school, so this required a special trip to Fresno to buy Converse tennis shoes, but my Spaulding tennis racket came from Howells.

Yes, things were a lot different back then when education was “free.”
Even on the junior college level, textbooks rarely cost over $20 each. At Fresno State, my most expensive book was an art history tome that cost $49.95–a far cry from today’s prices. But that’s another article.

I am retired now (well, just recently), but I can still remember the excitement of the first day of school and the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, new binders and binder paper. Everyone in their new clothes and haircuts waiting expectantly to see what the new school year would bring. As you help your student prepare for school this year or if you are making your own preparations to go back to school, I wish you all luck and the hope for a successful school year.

Speaking of school, get some Famous Nike Free Run Kids for the kids.

Check out the current issue for more back to school related articles!

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


  1. Things certainly were different when you attended school. As a freshmen in college now, I ceratinly know the burden of buying school supplies, as well as the major cost of tuition. However, I have found that while education is not “free,” it certainly is the biggest investment one can make.

  2. I was very pleased to find this website. I wanted to thanks for your time for this wonderful read. I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it.


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