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Summer is winding down and children are heading back to school. Here's a look at how classroom desks and students' supplies have changed from the late 1800s to the 2000s.

In the 1890s, most school children took a reader, an arithmetic book, a slate and a pencil and sat at an assigned desk, like the one pictured (sold for $30 at an Atlanta auction), that was bolted to the floor in rows. Today’s students sit at desks that are easy to move around with modern shapes that encourage individual or group learning. Called “collaborative furniture,” the idea is to make it easier for students to work together and with the teacher on projects and problem solving.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, students carried their books with an old-school book carrying strap like the one on the left. It has cloth straps and wooden handles and sells today for about $10 to $20. Twenty-first-century students have many book carriers to choose from. Most popular are backpacks with zipper pockets for everything from books to a water bottle and cell phone. They are lightweight, durable, lockable and washable, and can be carried sling style, cross body, or pulled along with wheels.

In the late 19th century, students, as well as carpenters, farmers and other laborers, used tin boxes that often were containers for tobacco or other products. They were printed with a company’s ad. An empty cookie or tobacco tin like the one pictured (sold for $90 at a New York auction), was “recycled” because it was light, waterproof and free. Lunch boxes evolved with technology and pop culture and today’s kids carry lunches in soft insulated packs that often hold “modular” containers.

Nineteenth-century desks of all types, classroom bells and school books, as well as wood-framed writing slates, old wooden pencil boxes, hand-cranked pencil sharpeners and vintage lunch boxes are all popular with collectors and available at reasonable prices. Find more prices of school-related collectibles in the 2018 edition of Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide.

Wishing all students a safe and happy return to school!

Updated on September 5, 2018. Article originally published on Kovels Komments on August 19, 2015.  

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#4 good ole daysPACindy 2018-09-07 15:52
When I went to school in the fifties, we used wooden pens with detachable tip-split nibs in our penmenship class. The glass ink wells were recessed into the wooden desk tops. You had to press lightly or the tip would tear the paper or leave an ink blot. We played London Bridge is Falling Down, Duck, Duck, Goose, and Drop the Handkerchief, all group games. Everyone walked to and from school, including lunch time, regardless of how far away they lived. We were given the freedom to be responsible for ourselves which we were!
#3 RE: How School Essentials Have Changed in the Last 100 Yearscejwin 2018-09-05 23:12
When I began teaching in the 1960s we still had the fixed to floor seats with ink wells. As time went by the seats were replaced with moveable furniture. It was not a preference of mine since the tables and chairs moved all over the place. It was not an educational plus.
I wonder how damaging the current craze for computers
is going to be when children can no longer write, spell or do simple math.
#2 school in the late 40'sratskye2 2015-08-22 15:03
I recall the 5 cent milk that was brought into class in crates for snack time. It was in little bottles, half pints?
I was able to walk home for lunch, which was an hour, with older children. This was Washington, D.C.
#1 old schooldoordealer 2015-08-19 17:13
I started school in 1936 so I know all thes things. I did have a real lunch box with a thermos.; I had flour paste from home and when it got stinky the other students complained. We had outdoor toilets which were no joy in the winter. There were no phyed classes but we had plenty of exercise at recess and noonhour playing pump pump pull away and jacks. My favorite games was the Witch game which I don't remember very well. I would love to hear if someone else played it. Thanks

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