Tag Archives: 80s school supplies

Hi, my name is Shawn and I’m a mechanical pencil nerd…

A couple weeks ago I shared my love for the vintage Mead Trapper Keeper folder system.  Well, writing that post reminded me that I also wanted to expose my slightly geekier side by talking a little bit about my nerdy mechanical pencil memories.  Though I’d hesitate to say that I enjoyed my time in elementary, middle and high school, I can say without a doubt that I loved “gearing up” for the new school year with all new supplies.  Of all this stuff, folders, figural erasers, writing instruments, and lunch boxes, my all time favorite school supply had to be mechanical pencils.

I was given my first “mechanical” pencil (using air quotes because these barely qualify) by my sister as a hand-me-down.  It was a strawberry-scented push pencil (I wrote about these a few years ago) that no longer had a berry scent and was missing some of the pencil tip nibs, so I had to stuff little wads of paper inside the barrel to get the pencil to work.  A little later on I remember getting my hands on a new one, Transformers branded that was light purple and covered in little Megatrons and Decepticon logos.  I was constantly losing the nibs though (they made great darts for my rubber-band slingshot), and had to make the leap to something a little more utilitarian for actual writing.  My mom bought me a package of Papermate Sharpwriters, those ugly yellow pencils where you’d twist the point to advance the lead inside…



Though the bland “useful” design kept me from wanting to tear it apart and play with it, I never really liked these Sharpwriters because the tips aren’t tight (by design) and therefore they’re a little awkward to write with.  Well, even though I didn’t want to play with it, as you can see in the picture above, I do have a predilection for taking these kinds of things apart, though as a kid it was so that I could try and figure out a way to make it feel a little more solid.  I remember that I was supremely frustrated when I discovered that once you remove the tip, the pencil is basically dead.  These are ultimately the most disposable mechanical pencils anyway, but after breaking it trying to fix it I knew I was going to begging my mom for something better and studier.  So sometime during the 2nd grade I got my hands on my first Pentel Sharplet-2…


This is truly where my mechanical pencil fetish began.  How can I adequately explain this discovery?  I think what really got me hooked on these Pentel pencils was the bright colors and the fact that they were built to be somewhat dismantled.  You could unscrew the tip to get to the lead-advancing mechanism inside, as well as remove the eraser cover to get at or replace both the erasers and lead.  It didn’t take me very long to find a couple colors I really liked that I could swap out the tips and eraser caps to make my own designer pencil creations.  In fact I seem to remember a bunch of kids in my class doing this and personalizing their pencils…



These Sharplet-2’s were a revelation and a lot of fun, but as far as I know they were only available with two lead sizes, 0.5 and 0.7.  During elementary school 0.5 was what I loved because the lead was thin enough to always feel sharp and ready.  But by the time I got to middle and high school, I was yearning for something a little more versatile.  For one, the erasers were so thin that they’d wear out really quick and before I knew it all I had was the little aluminum eraser holder on the end.  Again, I’d have to wad up a piece of paper to keep the extra lead from falling out when the cap was off.  So by the time I entered the 5th grade I was upgrading yet again, this time to my favorite mechanical pencil, the Quicker Clicker!


Though I’m certain there are “better” pencils on the market, once I received my first few quicker clickers I was done searching.  Design, color, customizability, multiple lead sizes, these suckers had it all.  Not only that, but for the first time I had access to pencils that had super cool translucent plastic barrels, and much wider, more useful erasers.  The overall design of the quicker clicker, with its lead advancing button right at your finger tip, better erasers, and availability in a 0.9 lead thickness made then super useful for drawing (which I had taken up around that time.)  Also, I always thought the eraser cap looked a whole heck of a lot like Megatron’s head, which reminded me of my old push-pencil, so these sort of felt like a good replacement.


The 0.9 lead was a bit softer and would dull like a regular wooden pencil tip which made it really versatile for sketching and being able to vary the line width and contrast of the pencil work.  From 1987 until today, the Quicker Clickers have been my pencil of choice, with only a few road bumps along the way…


I’m not sure when they changed, but sometime after the year 2000, Pentel decided to alter the design of the Quicker Clickers to add a rubberized grip around the front of the barrel (around the lead advance button), as well as changing out the tip a bit.  It’s not a huge deal, but part of me had become so accustomed to the feel of the non-rubberized grip that this addition actually affected my drawing for awhile.  Though I’m a pencil nerd, and this change did bug me, I tend to obsess a little over using the same pencil. I guess it’s sort of like ballplayers wearing the same jockstrap during a good season (or career if you’re Cal Ripken, Jr.), so when Pentel switched to the new design I never thought to stock up on some back-up pencils in the older style.  Well, in the ensuing years the value of vintage Quicker Clickers (without the rubber grip) has skyrocketed.  A 0.9 lead QC in the original solid red or brown can cost as much as $50 on eBay!  As for the more standard translucent 0.5 lead versions in blue and smoke are almost non-existent on the secondary market.  Apparently though, recently a few boxes of old overstock 0.5 translucent smoke pencils have made their way onto eBay and you can get a package for around $10 to $15.  It’s still much higher than a mechanical pencil should cost, but it’s a lot better than what the standard vintage pencil scalpers are asking.


I couldn’t write about my favorite pencils without bringing up their constant companions, the Pentel Clic Erasers…


As most pencil nerds will attest, the idea of using the included eraser on the pencils is sort of frowned upon.  The eraser is more of a last ditch, backup incase your eraser of choice is misplaced or used up.  Besides, though you could adjust the eraser on the Quicker Clickers as it wore down (by pulling out the eraser and the little metal clasp that surrounds it and then pulling it up and snapping it back in), it made the eraser unstable and a little fugly.  For me, the eraser of choice has always been the Pentel Clic because it was long and for all intents and purposes it’s the mechanical pencil of erasers.  The material of the eraser is great for drawing too, soft enough to not tear up the paper, yet sturdy enough to erase most pencil lines (unless you’re a heavy-handed penciler.)

So that’s my nerdly little secret obsession, 30 year old mechanical pencils.  Anyone out there also a closet pencil nerd?  If so, what’s your favorite brand, color or lead thickness?  Anyone ever drop some serious money to re-buy a pencil from your youth, or is that just me…?


Of Trapper Keepers and childhood identity…

Life presents us with a lot of opportunities to experience a right of passage, and the first one I remember taking an active hand in was when I turned 10 years-old in 1987. Not only was I finally breaking into double digits on the birthday cake, but it was also mid-summer and around the time my mom would start thinking about all the crap I’d need for the next year at school. I was entering the 5th grade, becoming one of the head honchos of the elementary school, and for the first time I wanted to have a say in what sort of junk I’d need. Clothes-wise, there was no question that the wardrobe had to include a bunch of surf and skate shirts (preferably T&C and featuring Thrilla Gorilla, but I also dug Op, Powell Peralta, and Billabong), baggy shorts featuring loud prints (usually Maui brand if I recall), and Airwalk shoes (I ended up with a pair that were covered in purple and black bats.) The lunchbox? G.I. Joe. Backpack? Nope, this was the year I ditched the bag (for god knows what reason.) All these decisions seemed important, but the most important one was finally graduating away from a handful of flimsy pocket folders to the one school supply item I coveted over any other, the Mead Trapper Keeper…


My sister had been using Trapper Keepers for a few years at this point, and though I’d wanted one earlier, my mom didn’t think I’d need it. This year though, I had a plan. Having broken my wrist a few weeks earlier in a front-yard no-holds-barred neighborhood wrestling match, I knew it would be difficult to carry my books and folders with my clunky cast. I’d already practiced my fumbling act with the previous year’s folders and a couple of encyclopedia volumes for a bit before I decided to put it on for my mom at the store. My argument was that the coveted all-in-one binder would make it so much easier for me between classes. Of course no mom who knew her son would buy that kind of act, but regardless, with the 5th grade looming (my final year in elementary school), I somehow convinced my mother that it was imperative that I had one. Flipping through the designs in the Woolworths, none of them were really speaking to me until I stumbled on the one above. By 1987 loud, obnoxious color schemes were becoming the norm in advertising and clothing, and something about the secondary color combination of orange, green, and purple really caught my eye. After pulling the binder off the shelf I was hit with the below design and I was in love. What could be cooler than sunglasses, palm trees and a Lamborghini? In 1987, nothing.


My original Trapper Keeper managed to last me a good three years before falling apart at the seams. I’m pretty sure I had a couple others before the end of high school, but this first one was the “one”. I’ve been keeping an eye out for a replacement to pop up on eBay for years now, but I never found one that I was happy with. They were either too beat up from years of use, or priced in the range where only Scrooge McDuck could afford them. But then recently I managed to find this one and the stars just sort of aligned. Not only was it the design I wanted, but it was also brand new, old store stock that never found its way into the hands of a loving kid. It still had its original label on the back, though a little worse for ware due to storage issues. I couldn’t resist, and now I finally have another one…


Something else that was kind of cool about getting a hold of a brand new Trapper Keeper, was that I got a chance to be irritated with removing the above label just as much as from when I was a kid. There are two little metal tacks that punch though the back of the binder and hold the note pad clip in place inside. The label is held in place by these tacks, but because it’s made of a light weight paperboard, it doesn’t easily come off. You have to rip at it, and inevitably there is always some leftover label under the tacks that is impossible to remove. I hated this design flaw then, and even more now!


When you stop and think about it, it’s not like these binders were all that revolutionary. Sure, they had folders that would lock into the rings, and there was a clip for a pad of paper in the back, but that’s about it. At the end of the day there was just something super appealing about the overall, all-in-one design that was intoxicating. By the time in the mid to late 80s when Mead starting covering the folders with all sorts of outrageous airbrushed graphics, these binders became the equivalent of how we use internet avatars these days. You picked the folder that best represented “you”. Heck, I can distinctly remember referring to other students who I didn’t know by what their Trapper Keeper looked like. I don’t know, at the time they just seemed important.


Though I was addicted to my TK back in the day, there were a couple of things that I had completely forgotten about over the years. For one, I didn’t remember just how awkward the 3-ring binder clip mechanism was. There’s a colored tap at the bottom of the binder that you pull down to slide open the rings. Not nearly as secure as your standard binder clips, and containing way too many parts made out of plastic to really last the test of time, this was sort of a weirdly deflating revelation. Looking back on it, I wonder if this was a clever purposeful design flourish meant to break so that kids would have to buy a new Trapper Keeper each year…

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I’d also forgotten about the interesting design of the interior subject folders. Not only were the pockets designed into the long sides (so that loose papers wouldn’t fall out of the top of the Trapper Keeper), but each folder also featured rulers, and a crap load of metric conversions and math tidbits. I’m also a fan of these color-schemes, in particular the pink lemonade of the folder to the left…

The one last thing I wanted to point out represents probably the most visceral memories people have for Trapper Keepers, the patented Velcro ripping noise you heard when opening the main flap. After opening up the package and pulling this out to show my wife, she immediately ripped it from my hands and proceeded to open and close it repeatedly, to which we both replied with a satisfied sigh. Sounds like some of the best memories from school.


So, what did your Trapper Keeper look like?