Back to School – A Glimpse at How It Was

1950’s…. As Labor Day approached, excitement overtook every household while children readied for the first day back to school. Those of us who lived in and near the south side of San Antonio in the ‘50s should remember the Back to School signs that encouraged moms to shop at Sears on S.W. Military Dr. That was the place to go! New shoes, new clothes, school supplies….all could be found at Sears, whether one lived near a Sears & Roebuck Store or not. Note, too, that shopping did not take place on Sundays. (The Texas Blue Law was repealed in 1961.) In addition, there was a Sears catalogue in every home – and sometimes strategically placed outside the home!
In addition, there was the Spiegel’s catalogue, another staple in many homes. Supplementing those wonderful school clothes many of our mothers sewed for us, we girls of the ‘50s diligently studied the Spiegel’s catalogue, dog-earring pages here and there of dresses we just had to have. Now, mind you, for girls, it was dresses, only dresses. Not skirts and blouses in those childhood days – how on earth would blouses stay tucked for an active little girl – and, heaven forbid, not ever, ever pants! Girls absolutely did not wear pants to school, or to the store, or to the doctor’s office, or even to a football game for that matter. We wore dresses! (Not until the early ‘70s were pants allowed in the classroom or on campuses by girl students or lady teachers.)

Above is an example of a leather satchel of the sort that used to be carried by school children.

Gathering those school supplies for that first day of school was so exciting. Looking back, I’m not quite sure where they came from. Perhaps there was a list. Probably not. Mothers just knew what their children needed. It was a simple, short list of items that somehow just showed up for that first day of school. For the primary grade children, the list consisted of a Big Chief Tablet, pencils (some say Cocoa Cola pencils), Elmer’s glue (or White Paste), blunt-nose scissors, crayons, and a new lunch box. One more item, which surely was on display somewhere if not in a catalogue, was a satchel for children to carry their books and supplies. That coveted satchel looked somewhat like a saddle bag. To my delight, my mother bought one for me in second grade! But, to clarify, this was not a backpack!
In contrast, today, parents have to struggle for hours in strategic shopping to satisfy the school supply lists posted online and at such stores as Target, Walmart, and Office Max…. The lists are staggering. One parent said she bought everything at Target only to discover that some items were cheaper at Walmart. So, she backtracked to make exchanges; yet, she easily spent $75 on each of her two children! And critical on the list is a backpack. Sadly, in some schools today, the backpack has to be clear.
Let us further reminisce. One nostalgic relic of the past is the crossing guard manikin. For those children who lived in the city or towns, there were no crossing guard ladies; instead, there were child-size school crossing manikins, like the Buttercrust girl, positioned in street intersections to warn drivers to look for children crossing the street.
Our classrooms of the ‘50s and ‘60s – not to mention those in decades earlier – had no air conditioning. How did we ever survive! The windows were opened, and sometimes we had fans. But we did have heating, which was either gas or propane, replacing coal heating in the late ‘40s. In primary classrooms during wintertime, our coats were hung in the cloak closet, which often wafted of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches from lunch boxes also stored there.
Studies of that era included learning the three basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. We also had art – hence, the need for crayons – and some science – remember the ant case? But, the best part of school was recess, twice a day: monkey bars, jump rope, Red Rover, tag, swings…. It was during the recess period that all children were reminded to go to the restroom so they didn’t have to interrupt class. And the playtime ended with throngs of parched children gathered around the multiple-unit water fountain.

A Big Chief tablet.

There were other respites from mundane classroom studies, like – wait for it – sharpening one’s pencil! Oh, what a delight! But, we had to show such a need was warranted – a sadly dull pencil point – and, we were strictly admonished not to over sharpen. But, that’s not all. If one was the “chosen student” for the week, he or she got to empty the pencil sharpener! Or, better yet, to go outside and dust the chalk board erasers against a tree. (I can still see the rectangular dust marks on the bark.)
But, woe to the child who misbehaved, like talking when the teacher said not to or shooting a spit-wad – boys, of course; never girls – or pinching or hitting another child. That delinquent might have to stand in the corner for untold hours – well, minutes, actually. Or, such a miscreant might have had to forfeit recess to write a hundred times such an affirmation – albeit a backwards one – as “I will not hit Sally at recess….” I’ve even heard that in some classrooms there was such a thing as a “dunce hat” to be donned when one made a particularly bad error. I’m not sure what egregious mistake could have warranted such a punishment, but I am quite sure that such a punishment would not happen today! Nor would “licks” be administered in the hallway as was once a common practice.