Totally Tubular School Supply Must-Haves, Then & Now


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For parents who grew up in the 1980s, we know that school supplies were more than just utilitarian pencils and notebooks. Back in the day, what you brought to school was all about self-expression. Thanks to the popularity of shows like Stranger Things and the return of ’80s-inspired fashions, the 1980s are hot and trending again. How do all of the nostalgia-triggering school supplies from the Eighties compare to today’s high-tech school staples? Read on to see some totally tubular school supply must-haves, then and now.

margotwood via Flickr

Then: Metal Lunch Boxes Featuring ’80s TV Characters

Whether you were a die-hard Knight Rider fan or you thought Alf was out of this world, toting an Aladdin lunchbox festooned with characters from your favorite TV show was an absolute must for the in-the-know 1980s grade schooler. Bonus points if your lunchbox contained Lunchables, which were first introduced by Oscar Mayer in 1988.

Lion Bento Box
Melissa via Flickr

Now: Artfully Crafted Bento Box Lunches

Nowadays, instead of packing ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our kids, parents concoct elaborate, Instagram-ready school lunches that wouldn’t be caught dead in an unphotogenic character lunchbox. There are plenty of modern bento boxes to choose from, and each can serve as the perfect designer container for your kiddo’s perfectly configured designer lunch.

Sony Walkman Sports
Grant Hutchinson via Flickr

Then: Sony Walkman Sports

Decades before the iPod was even a glimmer of an idea in the eyes of engineers and designers at Apple, the original portable music device was the Sony Walkman. For 1980s kids, our preferred version was the school-bus-yellow Sony Walkman Sports, which featured the at-the-time-totally-innovative ability to play back cassette tapes in two directions, a.k.a., auto reverse, as well as the ability to tune into AM and FM radio stations. Before earbuds became fixtures in the ears of students all across the world, the Walkman Sports yellow-corded headphones were already too cool for school.

Amazon Fire Kids Edition Tablet
Amazon Fire Kids Edition Tablet via Amazon

Now: Amazon Fire Kids Edition Tablet

The new Amazon Fire Kids Edition tablet is a school essential for any student who wants the perfect all-in-one mobile media device. Amazon Fire Kids Edition tablet comes with one year of FreeTime Unlimited at no additional cost, which includes thousands of content titles—everything from apps, e-books, movies, and music—for children ages three to 12 years old. Plus, easy-to-use parental controls give parents the ability to create screen-time limits, set educational goals, and easily filter content. Best of all, the Amazon Fire Kids Edition tablet comes with a two-year, worry-free guarantee: if it breaks, return it and they’ll replace it for free. Red Tricycle readers can save 20% on a new Amazon Fire Kids Edition tablet by using the code REDTRI at checkout!

Jennifer Boyer via Flickr

Then: Trapper Keeper Notebooks

When Mead Corporation introduced the original Trapper Keeper notebook in the late 1970s, it was an immediate hit among elementary through high school students across the country. Unlike clumsy, open-ended, three-ring binders, the Trapper Keeper kept school papers organized in pocket folders known as “Trappers,” all neatly tucked behind a Velcro-sealed flap. In addition to being easily portable, Trapper Keeper notebooks were fashion accessories that featured funky and on-trend designs. For 1980s kids, we’ll never forget the ripping sound of Velcro whenever we opened our Trapper Keeper notebooks in class.

Case-it Mighty Zip Binder
Case-it Mighty Zip Binder via Amazon

Now: Case-it Mighty Zip Binders

The Case-it Mighty Zip Binder, a contemporary version of 1980s Trapper Keeper notebook, takes a few design cues from the original—such as interior pocket folders and organizational pouches—then kicks it up a notch. Instead of a Velcro-closure, Case-it binders feature a gusseted zipper, plus a built-in handle and detachable shoulder strap. There’s even an option to create your own design or customize binders on the official Case-it website.

Lisa Frank Folders
ironypoisoning via Flickr

Then: Lisa Frank-Designed School Accessories

Few products from the 1980s were as iconic, ubiquitous, and immediately recognizable as Lisa Frank-designed school supplies, which featured a pastiche of super-colorful and often psychedelic illustrations. Many trendy 1980s kids proudly brought to school Lisa Frank folders, pencil cases, Trapper Keepers, and, of course, stickers. The vibrant and adorable designs were so wildly popular that Lisa Frank products grossed more than $60 million annually in sales at its peak.

Emoji Plushies
Emoji Plush Pillows via Amazon

Now: Emojis

Whether they’re used in text messages, featured on stickers or brought to life as huggable plushies, emojis are literally everywhere these days. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for any kid to get through a school day without texting or sharing at least one emoji. First created at the turn of the millennium, i.e., 1999, the once-humble emoji has since taken on a life of its own. Part visual language and part secret code, emojis are easily the most-recognizable and most-used design aesthetic for today’s generation of students.

Vintage Erasermate Pen Commercial via YouTube

Then: Erasermate Erasable Pens

Lots of 1980s kids will remember the precise moment when we were first introduced to the miracle of the erasable pen. Previously, the erasability of writing or drawing on paper was relegated exclusively to pencils. When Papermate launched the Erasermate pen, which featured ink that could be neatly erased with an ordinary eraser, everything we ever knew about the permanence of pen ink was forever changed. With the tagline, “Writes like a ballpoint, erases like a pencil,” the Erasermate pen was a game-changer, transforming the way we deal with pen-ink mistakes

Zen Board via Amazon

Now: Zen Board

The next best thing to drawing or writing with erasable ink, Zen Board lets artists and writers create something that intentionally isn’t meant to last. Using a brush dipped in plain water, paint or write onto the artist board, then watch the image slowly disappear as the water dries. While the Zen Board is marketed as a tool for relaxation and meditation, it’s a fun, eco-friendly, and non-toxic way for creative students to express themselves—if only for a fleeting moment.

—Kipp Jarecke-Cheng


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