Try Your Best to Pass This 1953 School Supplies Quiz


By: Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: RichVintage / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

1953 was a busy year. Eisenhower was sworn in. Watson and Crick took credit for the discovery of DNA. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. With the discovery that Soviet spies had stolen the secrets to nuclear technology, the Cold War was ramping up like never before. Technology was beginning to change, and the Space Race was only a few years away.

As with today, students in 1953 were expected to master, sometimes with brute force memorization, specific sets of skills and information deemed essential to adult professional life at the time. Of course, this point of view was heavily influenced in America by the fact that the American economy was booming. This was both because it had been so built up during the Second World War, but also because its competitors in Japan and Europe had been bombed to smithereens, and China had not yet emerged as an industrial power.

1953 was a transitional year, where the skills of Baby Boomers were shaped for the future imagined by their parents. This future assumed a certain type of office worker, a certain type of manual laborer and nearly half of the population at home, taking care of children and the household. Would you even recognize school supplies from this time, let alone know their names?

A strange substance used early in school in 1953 but also in place of milk in cereal ads. What is it?

Elmer's Glue may be best recognized by the bull on the logo, officially named Elmer. This paper glue or paste was widely used in schools from the moment Borden began marketing the products with the bull logo in 1951. The main advantage of Elmer's Glue over products like rubber cement is that Elmer's Glue wasn't toxic when eaten, and it was eaten.


When spelling was in question, to what would the wise 1953 student turn?

Though spelling books are hardly ever used anymore, 1953 saw their use. Essentially, spelling books were designed to allow spell-checking but not bother with definitions, to save space. These handy devices helped many a student working on their term paper or spelling bee.


Designed to keep one's food a pleasant temperature, you don't see these around much anymore, at least in schools. What was this handy supply?

The thermos was a revelation. A simple container by all appearances, the thermos had a vacuum space in its walls, meaning that anything within it had nowhere to radiate heat or absorb it from. As a result, hot drinks stayed hot and cold ones stayed cold, even Mom's tomato soup.


Lines, holes and cheapness define this paper. What kind of paper might it be?

Loose-leaf paper (so named because sheets are not bound together like unattached leaves) was a staple of school. Useful for a variety of subjects, these papers, punched with holes to fit in binders, were cheap enough to be disposable but tough enough to last. A classic school supply.


Home Economics had some unusual items required in 1953. Which of the following was one of them?

Home economics has largely disappeared from American classrooms, but it actually had a lot to offer. Leaving aside the nonsense about how women belonged in the kitchen, it taught skills anyone would find handy, like how to cook, determine a household budget or plan for a party. Indeed, many men would benefit from such skills.


No math test could be taken without one of these unless you were a genius! What is it?

The number 2 pencil has gone through a lot over the years but remains one of the indispensable tools of the student even after all this time. Soft enough to easily leave dark marks, it was not so soft as to smear all over the page, like a 6B.


This product was reserved for the older students but could still prove disastrous if mishandled. What was it?

Rubber cement is a brilliant invention that allows one to fix two objects together on a temporary basis, such as two pieces of paper. The downside is that the solvents that keep it in a liquid form aren't something one wants little children exposed to. Many a class project in 1953 involved the use of rubber cement.


This was a tool used by teachers to show students the world, and it was as close as 1953 could come to virtual reality. What do you think it is?

Stereoscopes were the three-dimensional photography of the 1950s and remain popular among collectors. Much like a 3D movie or virtual reality, these devices created depth perception by isolating two images taken eye-width apart, meaning that by looking at two images, it appeared as though one saw a real scene.


This older kind of pen meant filling it was easy, though one wouldn't want to climb aboard a flight with it. What was it called?

The piston-filling fountain pen used a screw-type mechanism to operate a piston within the pen that would use vacuum pressure to pull ink into the pen slowly. This was convenient, but because the ink supply could not be locked off, it had a habit of leaking with sudden changes in air pressure.


This ink was often used with dip pens and brushes in school and remains an art school staple. What is it?

India ink is a permanent ink that is profoundly black when applied, but it has a drawback. The only downside to India ink is that, due to its viscosity and pH, it doesn't work at all in fountain pens, thus necessitating fountain pen ink.


Tough, rough and colorful. What kind of paper do you think meets that description?

Construction paper was one of the more peculiar of school supplies. Colorful, it was not great for drawing on, as it had a rough texture and ink would often feather on its surface. Still, there was no other paper that worked as well for collage making or paper airplanes of size.


A kind of pen made it possible to travel with an elegant pen by plane or carry one without fear of leaking. What was it called?

The vacuum-filling fountain pen became a mass-market item in the 1940s, with examples like the Sheaffer Touchdown. Still in use today, the vacuum mechanism works by creating a void in one section of the pen as the filling mechanism is manipulated. When that vacuum reaches its zenith, a valve is released, and so long as the nib is in ink, it sucks the ink suddenly into the reservoir. Because the reservoir can be locked off, the pen does not leak on airplanes.


This type of ink flows freely and was thus used by many a student because it obviated the need to constantly have an inkwell at the ready. What is it?

Fountain pen ink was a staple of school in 1953, as the fountain pen was still in use in many a penmanship class, if not elsewhere. Fountain pen ink is barely caustic, meaning that so long as the pen's storage isn't made of metal, it can withstand it and will not clog the feed as India ink would.


Used to carry the bulk of one's things to school, this handy item isn't seen much anymore. What was it?

Before the ubiquity of the backpack, there was the book strap. Essentially a belt designed to wrap around textbooks, book straps allowed students to carry their books to school in such a way as to be completely destroyed by rain.


This tool was very useful for performing math functions. What was it?

Abaci were once a staple of math classes, despite being one of the most ancient tools in math. Though there are many kinds of abaci, the abacus most are familiar with consists of a series of metal or wooden bars with colored beads on them. This tool was useful for counting and other basic functions.


This convenience made travel easier, and it meant fountain pens were really only for signing letters. What was it?

Ballpoint pens could leak, but they were far less likely to do so than fountain pens, and they had the added convenience of working well with carbon paper, which made paperwork much easier. Due to these, the fountain pen was often relegated to signing letters.


There were no Xerox machines in 1953, which made this paper handy. What is it?

Carbon paper, the reason for the expression "carbon copy," was a staple of life in 1953, not just in school but in the workplace as well. Carbon paper allowed one to duplicate a document, either typed or hand-written, though it worked best with ballpoint pens and typewriters.


One school supply is the root of the expression "ditto." What do you think it is called?

Spirit duplicators were a major fixture in schools in 1953. A necessary tool for producing school newspapers, newsletters, etc., spirit duplicators used a solvent (as suggested by the word "spirit") to dissolve wax from the back of the master page (called a "ditto master") to print the image on many pages.


Used in drafting classes, this kind of pen was useful for creating clear lines of a precise width. What was it?

The rapidograph is a kind of pen used by draftsmen that operates in an unusual manner. While fountain pens use capillary action to move the ink down the feed, a rapidograph has a feed consisting of a pin in a tube. When the pin is depressed, it releases a uniform amount of ink, meaning a set of rapidographs would each produce lines of different widths. This was handy for architecture students or illustrators.


Useful in many a craft project or school presentation, this material didn't last very long once in use. What was it?

Masking tape is a bit like painter's tape and a bit like scotch tape. As it's opaque and prone to drying out if left on something for too long, masking tape was meant as a temporary and sturdy means of binding things together, be they cardboard projects or magazine cutouts.


No math class could be complete without this handy tool. What do you think this is?

Whether used for graphs or just as paper for doing long division, graph paper was an essential tool of the math student. More often than not, however, they ended up being used to play tic-tac-toe.


This type of pen was on its way out by the 1950s but remained something one would encounter in school. What kind of pen was it?

Dip pens are the forerunners of the fountain pen. Similar in design, they have metal nibs with a hole that holds ink, dispensing it with capillary action to the page. As the name would suggest, they require frequent dipping ink to remain in use.


Writing would be a mess without this stiff paper product. What do you think it is?

An ink blotter could be used in a number of ways, but its essential purpose remained the same: absorbing excess ink. Ink blotters are wooden tools not unlike rubber stamps in shape, which can be covered in blotter paper and rocked back and forth across a signature or other offending wet spot.


For complex math functions, this tool was indispensable. Which of these do you think we mean?

Of course there weren't scientific calculators in 1953! The slide rule wasn't exactly a rival to its later replacement, but it allowed students to calculate more complex math than an abacus by allowing for multiplication, etc.


These sharp metal objects was used in classes that still exist today but have a very different way of teaching than in 1953. Which do you think they are?

Biology classes don't spend a lot of time immobilizing insects so they can be impaled and displayed like the school projects of Vlad The Impaler, but in 1953, it was the done thing. While still prized by collectors, somewhere along the line parents decided the insect collection was either weird or cruel, and at least as part of classwork, they were canceled.


No shop class would be complete without this handy school supply. What do you think it was?

Invented during the Second World War, WD-40 is one of the most useful degreasers on the planet. Yes, you read that right; WD-40 is not a lubricant. WD-40 dissolves grease, allowing it to be cleaned from machines. Since grease can absorb dirt and clog up machines, WD-40 can act as a lubricant insofar as it gets the clog out, but it exposes the metal to corrosion and needs to be followed with oil.


Duplicating an image from a photograph or comic book could be done with this paper. What would that happen to be?

Tracing paper is essentially a chemically treated bond paper, which becomes transparent enough to see through a bit. With this quality, tracing paper can be used to copy the contours of an image from a magazine or photograph, as would be required in many an art class.


A strange glass object allowed students to peer into the microscopic world by isolating a specific thing. What was it?

Old-fashioned microscopes, using slides and diopters to view what could not be seen with the naked eye, allowed students to see the unseen world as never before, teaching scientific lessons from firsthand experience. The slide was the two pieces of glass that held the object to be magnified by the microscope's lens array.


No 1953 visual presentation was complete without one of these items, though they have long since been replaced with PowerPoint. What is it?

The humble slide projector was a unique tool for a unique function. In 1953, if one wanted to put on a slide show, one needed to photograph the slides on special film, which when developed would not turn into a negative, allowing it to be projected onto any white surface. Slide projectors even had a clicker!


This magazine was a staple of 1953 America for students. What magazine was it?

"Boys Life" had already been around for over 35 years when 1953 rolled around. Created by and for the Boy Scouts of America, "Boys' Life" was the essential magazine for the knot-tying, fishing, campfire-building merit-badge hunter.


An essential of shop classes everywhere, this piece of protective gear was, weirdly, one size fits all without adjustability. What is it?

Aprons protected clothes against tearing and had space to hold tools. Smocks kept paint away, and eye protectors could be adjusted with a band in the back, but not work gloves. Still sold today, work gloves didn't really come in sizes back then, but they kept one from being burned or cut when handling tools.


When learning secretarial skills, students needed a way to correct mistakes cheaply and quickly. What tool would they have used in 1953?

Have you ever wondered why typewriter paper was so heavy, compared to the kind of printing paper used in computer printers? The reason is simple: erasers made for use on typewriters didn't work like pencil erasers, gently coaxing the pencil out with a minimum of damage to the paper. Instead, typewriter erasers were hard rubber and worked by ripping off the top layers of paper (and ink, in the process).


This essential storage tool could be used for anything, and in 1953, they were easy to source. What were they?

One might assume cigar boxes were for cigars, but oh no! In an early example of "upcycling," Americans would often store things in empty cigar boxes. Cigar boxes were made of fairly sturdy wood, and they had a lovely smell because they smelled of tobacco that had not yet been smoked. A perfect storage option for pens, toys or notes.


A staple of school life, students would often bring these to school to temporarily bind papers together to keep things organized. Of what do we speak?

Paper clips were the answer for students who needed to bind several items together on a temporary basis. The best part was that since paper clips were reusable, students could get several uses out of one without spending more money!


Perhaps one of the most traumatic of objects, this surface isn't remembered for itself but for what horrors it contained. Which school supply do you think this is?

While the horrors of the undersides of desks are well known, they weren't really school supplies. The wax-filled tray into which one would place an animal for dissection (or even vivisection) was a school supply, one which anyone forced to cut apart an animal will remember well, if not for happy reasons.


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