No matter what generation you’re from, part of back-to-school shopping involved convincing your parents you need the newest, trendiest school supplies (and promising you won’t lose or break them). Year after year — decade after decade — this bartering has become a fall tradition that parents and grandparents likely remember performing themselves. Thanks to mass-produced school supplies and a few well-placed TV commercials, some things never change. From metal lunch boxes to slide rules to Trapper Keepers (!), check out these decade-defining school supplies that were once on everyone’s wish-list and the major upgrades their modern-day equivalents have been given.
1950s: Branded Metal Lunchbox Sets
Tin lunchboxes weren’t at all new in the 1950s — by that time, children had been lugging metal boxes in a variety of shapes between home and school for nearly 70 years. But what transformed plain tin boxes into the now-collectible pails was the 1950’s most influential tech advancement: television. Plastering TV show characters and celebrity heartthrobs onto damage-proof lunch pails gave kids a way to make friends based on shared interests (or establish their too-cool social status). It also was a major money-maker for lunchbox manufacturers. Aladdin Industries, a lamp producer turned thermos and lunchbox maker, was the first brand to attempt a character-decorated carryall in 1950. Its lunch box featuring TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy sold more than 600,000 boxes in one year.
By the 1980s, metal lunch boxes gave way to backpack-friendly plastic and soft-side cases that followed school regulations (some school districts banned the metal boxes, citing their use as weapons). While harder to find, metal lunch boxes are still available; Thermos brand keeps a few reproduction tin lunch boxes in its lineup, like this Mickey Mouse and Friends box, which Thermos touts as "100% PVC free and 100% soaked in nostalgia."
Modern Update: What’s today’s hot lunchtime item? It’s called a bento box. These divided metal or plastic lunch boxes, a cultural staple in Japan, often feature nesting compartments that organize meals in a way that’s easy to tote and unpack while maintaining sleek, eco-friendly criteria. Plus, they come in a variety of colors and are always an easy Instagram or Pinterest inspo search away.
1960s: Slide Rules
Slide rules became exponentially known in pop culture as the tool of math and science nerds, but they were used for centuries before their popularity peaked in the 1960s. Originally created in the 1600s by minister and math scholar William Oughtred, slide rules made it easy to quickly solve complex math problems, like calculating square roots or arbitrary powers. The ruler-sized computing devices were so common that some students of the '60s carried them around in belt-loop cases. But slide rules weren’t used just in high school math classes — the handy math tool deserves some credit for helping NASA researchers crunch the numbers that made the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing a success.
Unfortunately for belt-loop case makers everywhere, the demise of the slide rule happened pretty quickly after Hewlett-Packard introduced its first electronic calculator in 1972. In the years since, slide rules have disappeared from math classrooms (though digitized versions still exist on the web), replaced with infamously expensive and complex graphing calculators, which first appeared in 1985.
Modern Update: With so many students walking around with smartphones in their pockets, why are they still using tech that predates the internet? Excellent question. Yale math student Eli Luberoff set out to solve the problem, and in 2011 he launched Desmos, a no-cost, app-based graphing calculator that may just be the next math class computing upgrade.
1970s: Mr. Sketch Markers
Art projects of the 1970s were not complete unless your finished drawing had a sweet, artificial fruit smell thanks to Mr. Sketch markers. The chunky, chisel-tipped markers were first created in 1965 and became art class staples by the 1970s. Produced by Newell Rubbermaid (the same company that makes Sharpies), the popularity of Mr. Sketch waned through the 1990s but the markers have remained on shelves. In 2014, Mr. Sketch’s fruit-scented markers were revamped and its first TV commercial in nearly 20 years aired.
Modern Update: Some art supplies like markers and construction paper never go out of style. After schools went remote in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems began creating a number of fun how-to drawing videos for students in partnership with the Kennedy Center. He taught elementary art students how to doodle animals like pigs and pigeons, and soon other free, remote-learning art classes began popping up online, like those from the Art Institute of Chicago, Disney, and PBS.
1980s: Trapper Keepers
Selecting a Trapper Keeper was a major task for back-to-school shoppers of the 1980s. By renaming folders as “Trappers” and introducing a snap-closing binder system (the “Trapper Keeper”), office supply company Mead’s years-long development of a new organizing system made it harder to lose your homework. After first selling out in a small Kansas test market, Trapper Keepers created a national craze for personalized school organization, despite only coming in three designs and three solid colors initially.
Trapper Keepers remained popular through the '90s, but soon many teachers and schools banned the binders thanks to the handy multiplication tables included inside that could be used on tests, or because of the disruptively loud ripping sound of the Velcro closures on some later versions. The original Trapper Keeper faded out, but it inspired a generation of large, zipper-style binders — though none hold quite the same status as the expertly named Trapper Keeper.
Modern Update: As more students move to online, virtual work, tablet cases and covers have become the newest way to protect digital homework (Mead caught on and attempted a 2014 comeback with Trapper Keeper tablet cases, but they didn’t last long). Sites like Society6 and RedBubble have laptop and tablet cases available featuring the work of independent artists, so no one need worry about showing up on the first day with the same pink zebra stripe case as the student next to them.
1990s: Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)
Although smartphones and organizing apps are now the go-to for keeping up on group project deadlines, it took some time for tech companies of the ‘90s to convince shoppers they needed a digital, pocket-sized organizer. Personal digital assistants hit the market around 1993 with Apple’s Newton MessagePad, though PalmPilot and other tech giants of the time would go on to release their own competing versions. While the technology was new and flashy, it had some setbacks: A stylus was needed to peg in every letter since there was no keyboard, storage space was tiny, and the devices were expensive.
As PDAs evolved through the '90s, lower-end models (some with tiny screens and keyboards) were branded and marketed as digital diaries and journals for tweens and teens, perfect for keeping track of middle school crushes.
Modern Update: The obvious upgrade from the PDA days is the ubiquitous smartphone, which today’s students use to keep track of their academic and social lives. But for environmentally conscious teens who still have to take physical notes in class, the Rocketbook Smart Reusable Notebook solves the PDA’s writing problem — take a full day or week’s worth of notes on the 16 pages, scan and upload to the cloud, and then wipe the pages clean. No excess paper is wasted, and all of their study material is easily available on their phone or computer.
Apple is a top tech giant now, partially thanks to sales of its iMac computer in the early 2000s.
The candy-colored, transparent-plastic desktop computers, originally released in 1998, came in five colors and were so popular that Apple sold 5 million by 2001. They were bulky, but schools and parents snapped them up because they needed only minimal setup — perfect for students and teachers who were new to computing. Later models were marketed as “educational Macs” (dubbed eMacs), which created the link between Apple products and school computer labs.
Modern Update: During a time when many students are starting the 2020 school year at home thanks to the pandemic, those bulky iMacs have been replaced with slimmed-down, sped up laptops and tablets (made by Apple and other brands). The focus on e-learning has skyrocketed the popularity of Chromebooks thanks to their small size, durability, and low cost — something schools consider when distributing the devices to students. And when everyone’s staying home, having a way to connect with friends and teachers is the most necessary — and enduring — back-to-school item of all.