Inside the Collection

Back to school- Nicky’s 1971 school case

Brown suitcase with childrens stickers stuck on the inside - Status fibre school case made by Consolidated Plastics Industries
2011/32/1 Status fibre school case made by Consolidated Plastics Industries Pty Ltd, Sydney. Gift of Nicky Balmer, 2011. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

All over Australia thousands of new backpacks are being slung over shoulders as students begin or go back to school. Backpacks were used from about the mid-1980s as health professionals worried about the damage to children’s spines caused by heavy school cases. These were made of composite fibre, or if you were really lucky you had a tough Globite one made of vulcanised fibre. The Globite school case is such an iconic symbol yellow ones served as goody bags for the audience attending the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Last year I acquired a school case, not a Globite, we’ve got a couple of those already. You must be thinking there are thousands of old school bags tucked away in cupboards and garages storing mementos. I know some-one who still has his tiny cardboard Kindergarten school case from 60 years ago. He keeps bits and pieces of electric fittings in it. But Nicky’s school case, the one I acquired, is special. It’s empty now but contains a wealth of stories and shared memories triggered by its Dymo name tape label, treasured stickers and childish handwriting on the inside name label. The bag evokes such a strong feeling of school you can almost smell the remains of an old banana. It provides a wonderful snapshot of attending primary school in Sydney in the 1970s added to by contemporary photos provided by Nicky and the memories she has written of her primary school days-

“This suitcase is the first case I owned as I had a larger one when I left Infants School and moved to Primary School. I would have owned the larger one until I changed schools in third class, in the last term, and went to Queenwood. Everyone at Queenwood took a grey vinyl bag with a red Q on the side.

This suitcase has a Norco sticker on the outside which I think was given away as a dairy promotion. In infants school we still received free milk at morning tea so it might have been associated with that but I can’t remember. I still remember the little glass milk bottles with the foil lids. They were stored in trays in a concrete box/shelf at the entrance to the school. I can still remember how it tasted when it went off in the sun.

Inside the interior of the case, the smiley face stickers are cut out from left over sticky backed plastic that my Mum used to line the drawers of my new desk which Dad made about that time. The stickers of the little girl and Santa were from a packet Mum had purchased as Christmas gift tags. I thought they were very special and hoarded them for a long time before I could bring myself to use them.

I don’t really remember what I used to carry in the case. I don’t remember having homework or having to bring my own pencils. I know I took cotton hankies with cartoon pictures on them because I can remember the horror when one dropped out of my uniform and went down the toilet.

Initially, I would have had a toothbrush too as Dad forced me to take one in Kindy to brush my teeth with at lunch time. I don’t think that lasted long, so then for the rest of my school life I would be forced on the way to school to eat either a carrot or a piece of celery.

The case must have carried my lunch, but the only thing I can remember at that age is sitting on the bench to each lunch under the trees, unwrapping a vegemite sandwich and realising I was fed up with always having them. Mum always used white bread and cut them into three fingers, cutting off the side crust but leaving the top. I also think they were wrapped in miles of glad wrap. I don’t think I owned a lunch box.

At some stage in primary school, I can also remember Mum using a white plastic sandwich bag printed with pictures of cartoon animals or monsters on the side, and as it was the days before zip lock they had a little turn over at the top. I had to make sure I brought them home again so Mum could keep re-using them.

I don’t think I bought lunch from the tuck shop very often. I remember the first time I did, I ordered a meat pie and sauce and a finger bun with pink icing. It was a scary experience as at four and a half I didn’t have the skills to eat tidily and remember being covered in food and crying.

I vividly remember drinking from the bubblers at school but I can also remember occasionally having cordial in a round plastic drink bottle with a little cup lid.

In third class I can remember the mortification of pureed apple leaking all over the interior of the suitcase.

I probably carried a grey school jumper and possibly my yellow plastic raincoat. There would not have been a hat as I never wore a hat to school for sun protection.

I certainly carried toys to school in the case too and I remember a time when I played a lot in the girl’s toilets and pushed paper boats around the floors. The boats were made from folded newspaper.

Nicky with her Mum off to school in 1971, photo taken in of a suburban house
Nicky with her Mum off to school in 1971. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

To get to school it was a 10 minute walk which I did with my Mother or sometimes I was picked up by my friend’s father Mr Bower, and Rebecca and I would go to school together. By high school the smell of my morning celery in the car was enough to turn Rebecca off celery for life.

At some stage after I stopped using the case I turned it into a closet to hang my Barbie doll clothes. Dad made loops to hold the hangers and glued them to the top of the case inside. The Barbies stayed in the case until last week (2007) when I gave them to my daughter.”

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

5 responses to “Back to school- Nicky’s 1971 school case

  • Ahhh the memories.  The number of photographs I have of the two of us going to school together, with our schoolcases.  And I am “still” repelled by the smell of celery!!

  • I think I have a tough one which I’m pleased to learn is vulcanized! I always thought it was something now illegal like asbestos, it’s so strong. It was my dads port in 1935 when he started school and then became his toolkit in 1946 carrying 10ish kilos since as it my toolkit now.. I’d love to get some work done on it but can’t seem to find anyone with the parts or inclination.

  • Nice to read about your story. My sister will be turning 50 on 17/11/2020 and I she use to carry a similar suitcase when she was in Primary School. She also wore a very fashionable business suit which included a pleated woollen skirt, with a matching vest and jacket. As well as a white cotton blouse. We all thought she would be in business when she was older.

  • Wow! I too had a cardboard Kindergarten/schoolcase almost identical except a different colour(blue/grey). I am 57 now and have passed it on to my daughter. It evokes memories of an entirely different era when the world was a relatively safe, happy place and climate change wasn’t an issue. We were resourceful back then in the 60s/70s as items weren’t plentiful. We utilised what we had until they virtually fell apart and repairs were a necessity. I wish I could travel back in time when the world was a magical place full of adventures and opportunities unlimited to the imagination.

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