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Omaha Magazine

Pencils, Paste, Phonetics: Pencils, Paste, Phonetics A Zoom Through School Supply Aisles of the Past

Sep 30, 2020 11:39AM ● By Jeff Lacey
illustration of Jetsons lunch box

Illustration by Derek Joy

The seasonal aisle of grocery stores in late July and early August features a cardboard kiosk leaved with fliers from local elementary schools that detail the requisite school supplies for each grade. The same store might also display a few of those supplies, mercilessly searched and disheveled.

These are sure signs of back-to-school shopping. However, the quest for perfect back-to-school supplies is not a new phenomenon. Who remembers these back-to-school items from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s?

Big Chief writing tablets

These were a common classroom staple item in the 1950s and 1960s. Produced by the Western Tablet Co. in St. Joseph, Missouri, the tablets consisted of lined newsprint paper bound in a red card stock cover depicting a Native American in full headdress. Although politically incorrect, these were especially used in elementary schools across America, but were eventually eclipsed by the rise of the spiral notebook. 

Metal lunch boxes with thermoses

Those who were not interested in eating the cafeteria’s mystery meat had the option of bringing their own lunch, often including a sandwich made of plastic-wrapped cheese, processed meat, and yellow mustard; an individual can of gelatinous chocolate pudding; a piece of fruit; and soup or a drink in a plastic thermos that fit perfectly into one-third of the box. While the contents may have been conformist, the boxes themselves were key—and now, sometimes pricey. A lunchbox featuring cartoon space family The Jetsons made in 1963 can sell for upward of $1500 online, while the more popular Walt Disney school bus can be bought for around $50.

Mucilage in a rubber-nippled bottle

While not as delicious as paste, this dark amber adhesive was also nontoxic.  Mucilage, a naturally occurring plant exudate, also offered the user the chance to pick the crusty crystals from the thin-lipped rubber applicator after extended use. LePage’s Mucilage, in a clear bottle, was the most commonly used brand.


While not intended as food, this product was ubiquitous in 1950s and 1960s elementary schools. Packaged in bulk, and served to students on paper towels or scraps of paper, adhesive paste was a staple of classrooms because it was a fairly effective adhesive and, importantly, nontoxic. Paste was often mint-scented, and therefore, to the curious grade-schooler, irresistible.

Phonetic word wheels

Paper wheels held together with brads have gone the way of the calculator, but from the 1950s through the 1970s, students learned spelling, vocabulary, word recognition, and more by aligning the outer wheel containing consonants and consonant combinations with the inner wheel containing syllables. Str-ange.

Slide top pencil case

These were all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike pencil boxes of earlier decades, often made of wood, these were made of that fantastic material called plastic, two-toned, and the top slid back and disappeared into the bottom half, making it easier to grab a writing tool than from wooden pencil boxes, which tended to expand and contract with weather, meaning good luck trying to extract a pencil from it during the humid Nebraska days in September. Vintage plastic pencil boxes range from $25-$50 online.

Song flutes (also known as recorders)

The Fitchhorn Song Flute says right on the box “Always in tune,” but anyone who survived late elementary school knows that is false advertising. Often a precursor to band, these cheap plastic flutes were used during music class to irritate the teacher adjacent to the music room and instill pride and bad hearing in parents who listened to their kids perform “Jingle Bells” at the school’s annual Christmas performance.

Steno tablets

The odds are good that if you went to high school in the 1950s or 1960s, you might have taken a shorthand class, which often required a yellow-paged steno tablet. These were used to practice shorthand, a system of abbreviated writing that allowed the recorder to write as fast as a person spoke, and was commonly taught in American high schools.  There were different types of shorthand, including Gregg Shorthand and Pittman Shorthand, and were considered valuable skills for professions like journalists, secretaries, and law enforcement officers.

Vacuum-mounted pencil sharpeners

Do you recall ever wrestling with the lever on a vacuum-mounted pencil sharpener? The Boston pencil company, which started in 1899, sold hundreds of thousands of these sharpeners during their existence, and was eventually bought by the Xacto company. A vacuum-mounted pencil sharpener is still available online for around $20 for those up to the challenge of getting it to stick.

Writing utensils of yore

The ACT, SAT, and other tests helped popularize No. 2 pencils, these days by far the mostly commonly produced pencils in the United States, but they weren’t always. In the 1930s, it was discovered that the Scantron machines used to score the SATs were unable to read the scratches from the harder lead of a No. 1 pencil, or the smudges from the softer lead of a No. 3.  While it’s easy to grab a package of No. 2 lead pencils at the local school-supply store, those in need of a softer or harder lead often wind up paying higher prices at the art supply store. Those who learned how to write in cursive prior to the late 1970s likely learned the Palmer method of handwriting as scribed by an approved Palmer method fountain pen. 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the October 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.