90s vs now: How Back to School supplies have evolved in the last 20 years

It’s Back To School season, and with it comes a lot of shopping for supplies, dorm room goodies, and tech, of course. While some things haven’t changed, like the need to load up on heavy textbooks and make sure you’ve got a reliable pencil, technology has substantially changed a lot of the things we use.

Some back to school items have evolved in leaps and bounds since the 90s, while others have become outright relics. We’ve gathered up some of the most iconic items for students and classrooms in the 90s and thrown their age into sharp relief against their modern-day counterparts. 

Trapper Keeper vs iPad

In the 90s, one of the easiest ways to keep all your school stuff together and organized was a Trapper Keeper. You could put files and folders, notebooks, calendar books, and plenty more in there, and then close it all up so nothing fell out and got lost. South Park even imagined the Trapper Keeper getting a lot more technologically advanced back in the 90s.

Now, you’d be likely to get a lot more mileage out of an iPad. The tablet can store all your notes, calendars, and school documents right in its internal storage. And, it almost goes without saying that an iPad can do a whole heck of a lot more than just store stuff. The new iPad supports the Apple Pencil, so you don’t even need a proper pencil and notebook. Ironically enough, Mead still makes Trapper Keepers, with some models designed as tablet cases.

A new book vs a full library Kindle

You might have kicked off the new school years in the 90s with a hot new book, something to start you on your way toward your reading goals. You may have even paired it with a fancy bookmark so you could keep track of your progress and take pride in it. Maybe it was Harry Potter, or perhaps it was Redwall (any other fans?). In any case, you probably snagged a book to keep with you in your backpack.

Enter the modern day, and sure you can still go back to school with a new book to read, but technology offers a lot more. Grab a Kindle or any other eReader, and you can walk around with that same new book and whole library of other books. All of that will fit right into your backpack, or maybe even your pocket. Now imagine fitting a Harry Potter book into your pocket, let alone the whole series.

Game Boy Pocket vs Nintendo Switch

Remember when the few cellphones you saw had super basic, colorless displays? Well, so did portable video games. At least in the 90s electronics were getting smaller, as was so well demonstrated with the Game Boy Pocket. It was a much more handy gaming device to take with you on the go and enjoy during your breaks between classes in the 90s.

Now, you can pack up a Nintendo Switch and take it to school. The HD screen has more colors than a Game Boy Pocket or even a Game Boy Color could have dreamt of, and the screen alone is nearly the size of the whole Game Boy Pocket. You start factoring in the kind of games and online functionality that the Nintendo Switch offers, and you might start to feel bad for folks who played Game Boy between classes.

A 90s backpack vs a modern backpack

Remember the backpack of the 90s, with its one big pouch to store all of your school stuff? Maybe it had a second small pocket for pens, pencils, and other small supplies. If you were lucky, you might have even gotten one with a sleeve for a water bottle or the cool rubber waffling inside the arm straps for comfort. Wow, what a backpack that was.

Now you’ll find backpacks with special pockets for laptops, tablets, smartphones, and all the usual sections for your books, pens, pencils, and school supplies. It’s not surprising to have water bottle sleeves, special routing for headphones cables to come out of your bag, or even ports for USB charging. Some backpacks will even build in batteries so you can charge your phone and computer on the go.

Calculator watch vs Apple Watch

Though calculator watches may have been more of a fad in the ‘80s, plenty of people looking to do a little quick math during the school year could turn to the trusty, portable device. Casio had its fair share of these calculator watches, and they wouldn’t have been hard for students to pick up at the start of a new school year. They would have been just as good as pick for parent’s who weren’t satisfied with their kid’s math grades

Now, 20 years later, telling the time and crunching numbers isn’t nearly impressive enough for a watch. The Apple Watch 3 can text your friends, call your parents, remind you when your next class is, keep track of your health, and yes, do a little math. Although it can’t do your homework for you, neither could an old-school calculator watch, so maybe we’ll all have to just wait another 20 years.

Texas Instruments TI-83 vs TI-Nspire CX Handheld

If you were going hard into math in the 90s, you probably wouldn’t have gone too far without a trusty Texas Instruments graphing calculator. In the late 90s, that would have meant the TI-83 or the upgraded TI-83 Plus should have been high on the shopping list for back-to-school purchases. These calculators were good for a bit of complex math, and if loaded up right, good for a bit of gaming as well.

Even today, a TI-83 Plus would be a fine calculator to pick up for the new school year. That is, until you compare it to the TI-Nspire CX Handheld. With the 320x240 resolution display and 16-bit color, it would be hard to look back. And, Texas Instruments notes that the newer calculator is useful in far more classes than the TI-83 Plus, and it’s permitted on the same major tests.

A bicycle vs a better bicycle

To make sure you got to class on time in the 90s, you’d probably want to get a nice bicycle. Back then, you had your pick of bikes you’d pedal with your feet and pretty much just bikes you’d pedal with your feet. There’s nothing wrong with getting a little bit of exercise on your way to and from school, but things have gotten a lot easier since then.

Now, you can pick up an battery-powered bicycle that’ll make your commute a breeze. Some use their electric motors to offer pedal assist, making it nearly effortless to get your bike up to top speeds. Others go all in on the electric motor, foregoing pedals entirely, to just let you sit back and let the bike do all the work. And, if a bike isn’t your style, there’s no shortage of electric skateboards to terrorize the campus quads.

A TV with VHS player vs Smart TV

Going off to college in the 90s, you may have been lucky enough to have your parents give you your own TV, complete with a VHS player built right in. It didn’t get much more convenient than that. You could easily move onto campus with your TV or take it to a friend’s dorm room if they had the better sofa for movie nights.

Now, we’ve come to expect a lot more from our TVs. For one, it would be just as easy (except for the shipping) to find a big-screen, flat-panel TV at a price similar to little box of a TV you’d have found in the 90s. And now, being able to play one type of media isn’t a strong selling point for a TV. Smart TVs can pull in movies and shows from all the popular streaming services, so you don’t even need to keep around a collection of Blu-rays, DVDs, or dusty old VHS tapes.

Lunchables vs Blue Apron

When it came time for lunch in the 90s, nothing made it as easy to have a fun meal and feel like a chef as Lunchables did. OK, so maybe crackers, cheese, and deli meats don’t really add up to much of a proper meal, but the little pizzas weren’t half bad. And, many of the Lunchables were nicely rounded out with a side snack and a drink.

Take the idea of a container with everything you need to put together a meal and bring it into the modern day, and you’ve got Blue Apron or any of the myriad other meal box services. Although you won’t be putting together your Blue Apron meal in 30 seconds flat, you’ll be making much more exciting meals. And, you’ll be a lot more liable to impress your friends by cooking a Blue Apron meal than by assembling Lunchables. 

Your gym teacher’s crazy rainbow parachute vs Augmented Reality?

Let’s face it, we all miss that crazy rainbow parachute all of your gym teachers had in the 90s. While this might not have been something you’d have bought for yourself with the rest of your school supplies, it was still an important staple for 90s schooling. You could put balls on it and have them all go flying, or your whole class could raise the parachute aloft and try to all hurry underneath before it came down.

Nowadays, some teachers still have he crazy rainbow parachute, but students’ sense of adventure is likely to be filled by something like augmented reality (AR). Students can hold up a phone, and instantly see other worlds colliding with their own classroom. If you took an anatomy class using AR today, you’d be able to get your own Magic Schoolbus moments with the ability to put your device inside the body and see its various organs. This is the 2018 version of hiding underneath a colorful parachute – and requires a little less imagination.

Mark Knapp

Over the last several years, Mark has been tasked as a writer, an editor, and a manager, interacting with published content from all angles. He is intimately familiar with the editorial process from the inception of an article idea, through the iterative process, past publishing, and down the road into performance analysis.