An item I found at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago and the corresponding opening of local schools for the fall session reminded me of so many years ago, about 65 of them, when I was in elementary school.

The item was a vintage Chicago Apsco wall (or desk) mounted mechanical pencil sharpener. Some, including me at times, call such a device a pencil trimmer, but more on that later.

Most in my generation remember using such a sharpener for our No. 2 yellow pencils, both as a necessity and also as an opportunity to get out of our desk and saunter to the front of the room to wherever it was attached to the wall or the teacher’s old oak desk.

It was somewhat akin to the fun of going to the big unabridged dictionary on the stand at the front of the room when the teacher said, “Look it up” in response to someone asking the meaning of a word in the reading assignment.

These devices consisted of a crank handle which turned gears with spiral blades rotating at angles to sharpen the pencil. The trimmings dropped into an attached oval-shaped container which could be removed for emptying but usually wasn’t until it was packed tightly full. They worked well, producing a nice, clean sharp point.

I said that in some circles these little machines were called pencil trimmers, but I guess that in my case “trimming” would be more how we sharpened a pencil at home where there was no machine to do it. We used a sharp pocket knife to trim it, which did a pretty good job if you were careful and patient.

One errant cut meant starting over — and/or a nicked finger.

Some kids had what was called a pencil box, a little plastic container about the length of a pencil with a sliding plastic top which also served as a ruler. Some of them included a small non-mechanical pencil sharpener built into the end of the sliding top but no reservoir to catch the shavings, unless you pushed back the sliding top and let them fall in the box.

Other back-to-school memories wouldn’t be complete without thoughts of the lined writing paper which helped when trying to properly form letters of words, snub-nosed scissors and a bottle of glue which was dispensed by pressing the angled and slotted rubber top of the


For those who could afford them, such supplies — and books, too — were carried in book satchels. These were not unlike backpacks except they were not carried on one’s back as they usually are by today’s students. They were carried by a handle.

Today, teachers and students use dry erase boards and video screens, but we remember the big black or green chalk boards mounted to the wall across the front of the room, boards which had to be periodically cleaned.

At the top of the board were mounted boards with the letters of the alphabet in block and cursive fonts printed on them and, especially in middle and high school, the pull-down maps.

I imagine some of these items are still around today in some shape or form but most likely, for sharpeners, electrically operated. It’s just a trip down memory lane when I turn the handle on this old pencil trimmer — er, sharpener.