Early-day art supplies created fond childhood memories
August 31, 2011
When I read the comic strip “Family Circus” a few days ago, it struck a chord with me. Dolly said, “Mommy, I need a vanilla folder for school. What flavor is this one?”
When I was in country school back in the 1940s we didn’t have “vanilla” folders, but we had a certain kind of paper that the teacher called “manila,” which sounded the same to small students. I was puzzled about that for a long time. It was cream-colored and of the same texture as the colored construction paper we used for art projects, and I thought the name must be because it was the color of homemade vanilla ice-cream.
As I recall, the “vanilla” paper was used mostly for our own drawings, which we then colored with crayons. The colored construction paper was used to cut shapes for art work, or for covers on booklets we made for the school fair exhibit. We also used it for things like May baskets.
At home, we used the bottom part of round oatmeal boxes for our May baskets, covering them with gift wrap or whatever else we could find around the house. Never did our family buy exotic things like construction paper. We were lucky to get pipe cleaners to use for the basket handles. I’m not sure many kids even make May baskets anymore, but if they do, they likely use store-bought baskets and decorate them with stickers and artificial flowers.
Our art materials at home were pretty primitive. Every kid in our family liked to draw, and we mainly used the backs of advertisement letters and envelopes. Mom saved them for our drawings. She also saved everything we ever brought home from school, and when I found some of my own things in boxes at her house, I could trace my drawing skills from the children with big heads and long sticks for legs on through to the realistic people I drew in my teen years.
My sister Margaret and I used to do about everything together, and that included many of our drawings. We’d tape some pieces of paper together and make a panoramic scene with a lot of people in it. The one I remember most clearly is the Thanksgiving dinner. We had a long table with people eating, and we illustrated all kinds of bad table manners. One man was eating peas with his knife, which we had been told was not proper. A kid was feeding something to a dog under the table. Others were reaching for food, and I think we even had one old man sleeping and snoring z-z-z’s.
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But back to the school art, I’ll never forget being introduced to finger painting. Some unimaginative kids simply drew a picture in the gel with one finger as we made exhibits for the fair. But the teacher had said to try different things, and I used the side of my hand, knuckles, fingertips, and I think even an elbow to make a sweeping abstract design. We used pieces of meat-wrapping paper from the locker plant for these creations. I suppose there’s a special slick art paper for that purpose now.
One other medium we used was colored chalk. How I loved that! We worked on either “vanilla” or white construction paper, and the chalk was perfect for making sunsets and other skyscapes, rubbed with the fingers to smooth and blend it. In the foreground of our scenes we’d have people and buildings. I especially recall making a Dutch scene with a windmill and plenty of tulips.
I think I still have some of my old childhood drawings around somewhere. I suppose when my family goes through my things as I went through my mother’s, the drawings will be tossed. The memories they bring are mine alone. No one else would appreciate them.