Back to School: '90s Edition

It’s that awful time of summer when even though we’re still rocking crop tops and SPF 50, the advertisers of the world seem to think it’s already September. “Back to School” commercials are everywhere, hawking everything from pens and paper to new wardrobes. While I may or may not have been one of those dorky kids who actually got excited by these kinds of commercials (mostly for the promise of a shopping spree), there’s no denying how depressing they are. Especially since I’m too old at this point to justify the fact that I still think of the calendar year as starting in September and ending in August. So instead of worrying about what we’re going to need for Fall 2012, let’s think back on what we would have been buying if it were, say, 1992 and we were the luckiest girls in the entire 2nd grade.

Trapper Keeper

Extremely popular from the 1970s (!) through the 1990s, Trapper Keepers were actually banned at my elementary school for reasons entirely unclear to me. I’m pretty sure I still had one and kept it hidden in my desk, and I know for sure I have two today, one featuring an abstract 80s print and the other a classic Lisa Frank horse (thank you to my BFF Lesley). Trapper Keepers almost always had a theme, whether it was sports, animals, or something branded like a TV show or video game. In the 90s, ones like the picture above, featuring computer-generated images, became part of a special group known as The Designer Series. Honestly, these were all just glorified binders, but they came with groovy folders and plastic rings instead of metal, plus that loud Velcro closure that let everyone know you were positively the coolest kid around.

Sanrio Pencil Case

Okay, they didn’t have to be Sanrio, the eponymous makers of all things Hello Kitty, but they almost always were. These were magical little pencil cases that did so much more than hold things. See the little colored buttons on the left side? Each of those, when pressed, opened a different secret compartment that might be filled with miniature stationery, stickers, little envelopes, tiny pens, and so on. I remember cherishing the contents of my pencil case so much I never, ever wanted to use them, so at the end of each school year, I had a pristine collection of miniature school supplies that had gone completely to waste. Note to young readers: use your school supplies and stickers now! Live for today! It’s worth it!

Yikes! Pencils

These pencils were absolutely wild! Highly unavailable today – and highly sought after by “pencil collectors”, yes these people exist – these were wacky-colored and patterned pencils that had wacky, colorful advertising to go along with them. The commercials implied that owning some Yikes! pencils would transform even the dullest kid into a total cool cat. From what I remember, these weren’t technically considered to be #2 pencils, so I had to switch over to a plain ol’ regular pencil whenever I was taking a standardized test. But there was no better accessory for a Sanrio pencil case than a dozen Yikes! stuffed inside.

Pencil Toppers

While they came in a variety of shapes and sizes, I remember the Troll pencil toppers as being by far the most popular. One of my most sensual experiences in elementary school involved making my Troll pencil topper kiss my crush’s Troll pencil topper. Everyone was jealous. It was pretty special. These were banned in some schools because kids were playing with their pencil toppers instead of paying attention, but I’m pretty sure they had a late 90s resurgence after Cher Horowitz debuted her pink-feathered pen in Clueless.

Lisa Frank Folders

And Lisa Frank pencil cases, Trapper Keepers, erasers, notebooks, book covers… I had them all, and let’s face it, I still do. Lisa Frank memorabilia is readily available to this day in both vintage (eBay, Etsy) and new (the Lisa Frank online store). But its heyday was so obviously in the late 80s and early 90s, when every girl who knew a thing or two was carrying her important private papers around in a folder covered in neon leopards, kissing polar bears, and unicorns tap dancing while riding rainbows under waterfalls.

Scented Markers

Mmm, I can still imagine the scents of these delightful little markers today. Pink (melon) was always my favorite, but I loved using all of them and smelling how delicious my (usually hideous) drawing came out to be. So, they do still make a version of these today, but I have a feeling they are way less popular than they used to be. Is it that schools wanted to stop encouraging kids from, I dunno, sniffing their school supplies? At the very least, Mr. Sketch sent (scent? heh heh) a mixed message, since we were forbidden from sniffing our glue sticks yet positively encouraged to take a big whiff of these supposedly non-toxic “fragrance”-filled markers. Regardless, these are responsible for at least half my elementary school class walking around with rainbow-colored smudges on their noses.

Novelty Erasers

Often but certainly not always in the shape of Keroppi or another Sanrio character, these rubber erasers were utterly collectible, trade-able, and cherish-able. I can still remember the smell and the chewy feel of them. Why were we using pencils and erasing so much when we were little? Do kids today even use pencils? I feel like they totally don’t. Oh, and did I mention that many of these cute little erasers were scented? That’s right, a strawberry would smell like a strawberry and so on. Along those lines, who among us can claim never to have tasted one? There has to be a reason I know exactly how an eraser would feel in my mouth right now, and it’s not from chewing the tops of my Yikes! pencils (heaven forbid).

You guys, I miss using a lunchbox and sharpening my now-nonexistent pencils using a secret pencil sharpening compartment that appeared only when I pressed the pink button on my Spottie Dottie pencil case. At the very least, can we make the switch from laptops to Trapper Keepers? The end of summer isn’t quite as depressing when you’re carrying your back-to-school work around in something with a neon airbrushed sunset on the front.

Images via,,,,,,,


  • Ashley Lynn Cook

    I LOVE THIS! I was looking through this list saying: “YES! OMG YES! I had that too!” 😀 I had a hot pink lunchbox exactly like that yellow one, but it had barbie on it. I ADORED yikes pencils, had a blue haired troll pencil topper, a whole bunch of novelty erasers, but hated using them cause I loved them too much lol, and I can’t even begin to tell you about my love affair with Lisa Frank….I may or may not have recently purchased a Lisa Frank sticker book from Amazon lol XD

    • Ashley Lynn Cook

      Actually, come to think of it, I had those markers too, I had completely forgot about those….mmmm, I think I loved apple one the best :-)

  • Lisa Pearce

    Wow i rmember all of these :) I had sooo many of those novelty erasers lol

  • Ashley Maffioli

    I had all of these things except anything Jem releated (that was 80s!) But really really loved the trapper keeper AND the scented markers. Go 90s!!!!!!

  • Wendy Garza

    Que bien!! Jaja recordé la sensación de el borrador en mi boca y como guardaba mis borradores para que nadie ni yo!! Los usara jaja me encantaban las carpetas de lisa frank y seguro tengo alguna guardada :)! Buen articulo . Saludos!!

  • Melissa Barnett

    I had that exact lunch box! Jem was truly truly outrageous! Dont even get me started on Yikes pencils and pencil toppers!

  • Leandra Medina

    I had ALL of that stuff…especially all of the Jem stuff..I was even Jem for halloween in kindergarten (1988). I can’t tell you how many times I may or may not have a blue smudge on my nose from my favorite color and blueberry scent in second grade.

  • Etta Marie Nicholson

    I was literally just talking to my friend about this yesterday when we were school shopping with some first graders! Seeing those Lisa Frank folders brings back sooo many memories! :’)

  • Stephanie Doran

    Trapper keepers were not allowed at my school either. I used to love my new school supplies. :) Thanks for posting.

  • Chelsea Renee Daigle

    All of it. Perfect.

  • Katharine Fiscus
  • Ashley Cox Parker

    I definitely had that exact pencil case and I loved it! I remember the yikes pencils too!

  • Gricel Dominguez

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    • Gricel Dominguez

      Ack! Trigger thumb went off too soon.

  • Gricel Dominguez

    <3! I still find some of these around the house… comes of having a mother that refuses to throw anything away. I also had the perfect, unused pencil case.

  • Melanie Bourasana

    I still have my scented Mr Sketch markers… 20 years later they still work AND they kept their scent! yummm red cherry ::sniffing one right now::

  • Mariealaena Margret

    I used to love getting and showing off my new school supplies. I still do. It’s probably why I became a teacher.

  • Clare Bamford

    I actually bought a brand new set of Mr. Sketch markers quite recently, just to take me back to the “good ol’ days” of elementary school and they are exactly the same! I had a few troll pencil toppers, and lots of novelty erasers (which I mostly won at the local arcade, also a thing of the past I think). I never had any Lisa Frank stuff or trapper keepers, as my parents refused to buy me any “fancy stuff” for school lol.

  • Stephanie Westley Gerow

    the Lisa Frank gypsy pig folder is hilarious!

  • Jennifer Ann Varnagis

    those scented markers were the best hahaha and of course lisa fank! love this article!<3

  • Anne Mari

    I desperately wanted Trappers in elementary school even though I would have absolutely no use for them. They just looked so teen and hip! Funny, both Trapper Keepers and Trolls were also banned from my school. I guess it’s a worldwide thing?

    Oh God. Lisa Frank stickers were my reasons for living back then. Bookmarking this post as a shopping checklist for my future home office!

  • Megz Stroback

    Love this! I automatically clicked on it cuz I saw Jem but this whole article made me smile and.think about my carefree childhood. Thanks!

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