Back in the 1950s — considered the Dark Ages by kids in school today — “back to school” was a short but distinct season, just like winter or summer. In so many ways, it was like being in another galaxy compared to the hurry-up activities associated with a new school term today.
Home was the town of Findlay, Ohio, a county seat that had around 25,000 residents when I was in elementary school.
One glaring difference between my school years and those today was that regardless of whether the school year finished at the end of May or sometime in June, school always started the day after Labor Day. For many of us, preparations began around the first of August.
My mother, a teacher, was not a skilled seamstress. She had nonetheless figured out that even hiring someone to sew back-to-school clothes for both of us was usually cheaper than buying them at the local department stores. There was no Walmart, no Big K, and only a shopping center with a JCPenney store after I became a teenager.
However, dressmakers don’t make shoes. So every fall and every spring, my parents took me to Fenstermaker’s shoe store for two pairs of shoes. In the fall, it was one pair for school and one for church. This was also the occasion to get the yearly pair of snow boots. When warmer weather rolled around, it was a special pair of shoes for Easter and tennis shoes for the summer. Who could forget that awful machine that took radiologic images of our feet inside the shoes?
New school clothes meant a winter coat, a couple of dresses, skirts, blouses, and sweaters. The school board only permitted girls to wear pants on the last day of school. Those in junior or senior high headed to Patterson’s department store to purchase awful blue Moore gym suits with elastic legs. We bought underwear (always white) and socks and tights at Patterson’s or LaSalle’s, another department store.
There was one basic place to go to get school supplies: Findlay Print. The procedure was for mothers to call the store every day starting in early August to find out when basic supplies like rulers, pencils, paper book covers (if you opted not to make them from brown paper grocery sacks), and three-ring notebooks were available.
Once the store gave the nod, off we went and bought a minimal amount of things. By the time I reached fifth or sixth grade, some of the teachers started leaving lists of required supplies with Findlay Print. Some wanted green lined writing paper. Others insisted on goldenrod. Before those years, we received purple lists made on a ditto machine the first day of school and trekked back to the store for the rest of the required supplies.
Does this sound dull? It probably does to today’s youngsters. However, I remember back-to-school time as exciting due to the anticipation of new books and a new teacher and wondering who among my friends would be in my class.
There were lots of rules so many years ago — no gum, food, or other drinks at school, for example — but somehow, it was an easier, more defined time. We knew what to expect. And it would have been very unusual to see a family scurrying around a store for the last-minute purchases from nearly empty shelves so common in August today.