Memories of Edison School, 1948-1955

More Childhood Memories of Bridgeport, Connecticut

Provided by John Babina
(Edison 1955, Hall 1956, Notre Dame 1961; and Success Park)

Awhile ago I reflected on my experience at Edison School from 1948 to 1955 (K through 6). I soon realized how many of those memories were linked to the smells, sounds and sights of our grammar school experience. 

See how many of your memories come rushing back when you read these  . . .

Crayola Crayons ( we called them “crans”). They came in a standard box of 8 and I think I remember that in the early grades, our “crans” were oversized. The smell of a new box was unique to “crans”, but hard to describe. It would be like trying to describe the smell of a new car.

The big jar of white paste.  The teacher came around with a huge jar and a wooden ruler. You had to put a piece of paper on your desk and she would dole out a dollop of the stuff with the ruler.  The paste was made from flour and some kids were reported to have eaten it. I never saw that happen and do not recommend you try to eat any paste or glue.  We made our own paste in 6th grade science class with flour and water.  We also tested carrot juice and potato juice as a paste.

How about the dust smell in the radiators when the first seasonal steam heat came on!

There was the thick floor wax that gave the halls and rooms a distinctive odor when you came back from a holiday break.

Pencil box and eraser.  Pencil boxes were popular in the early 50s and they had that new smell at the beginning of the year - as well as the smell of the pink eraser inside.  We also bought these small pink rubber balls for the playground, and they had that smell.  We played stick ball and stoop ball in the school yard with those ubiquitous pink balls (They cost 10 cents). When I come to think of it, all the new rubber products of that time had the same smell: the big red playground ball, your new winter goulashes and the yellow slicker rain coats. It was probably some release agent in the rubber molding process of the 1950s.

The chalk dust that accumulated in the erasers. We considered ourselves lucky if the teacher picked us to go outside to clap the erasers to get rid of the excess chalk dust. We would end up in a cloud of chalk dust and was covered in it. (OSHA would have a field day!). We also clamored to wash the (real) blackboards with this big natural sponge in a metal bucket. It always had a musty smell. 

The ink in the inkwells. As with the paste, the teacher walked around with a big gallon jug of ink and hand pumped the ink into your inkwell with a thin rubber tube.  At that time, ball point pens were just coming out but the city schools still had us use big fat wood scratch pens with removable steel points. We had to dip the pens into the inkwells after writing each line of words. [Hall School had the desks that were screwed to the floor with the bench like flip-up seat in front, hung off the desk in back. When I went to a newly built high school in 1957 (N.D. of Bpt.), they still manufactured the new modern metal and Formica one-piece desks with the obligatory inkwell hole drilled into the tops! This was when ball-point pens had already caught on.]

The heavy heating oil from the tanker truck. In winter, big tanker trucks would come once a week and sit outside the big windows. Since there were no air ducts then, we always had to crack open these huge windows with window poles especially with the excessive heat from an efficient steam pipe system. The heavy bunker C oil they used had a pungent odor.

Perfume. There was always one teacher who used overpowering inexpensive perfume that drove everyone nuts.

New Books.  Like new cars, new text books had a pleasing smell.

And, of course, . . .  . . .  the strong spirits from the mimeographed test question sheets!  Whenever the teacher handed out the test question sheet the whole class would pick up their sheet and sniff the vapor from the overpowering residual spirits left over from the mimeograph process. Today, these mimeograph test sheets with vapors would come with more warning labels than a ladder and the teacher would probably have to wear a protective “bunny suit” just to make the mimeographs.


As for sounds . . . .


Pop-its. When the teacher had to step out for some special reason, the rambunctious boys would fold a piece of paper into a special triangular shaped device. (Girls did not get into trouble back then!) Once folded, the paper was snapped with a quick jerk of the wrist and it made a very loud popping sound. Soon 10 to 15 of us were snapping these things, filling the room with a staccato of loud cracking sounds. The teacher would come back furious and order a punishment of some type, usually writing some repetitive phrase saying we would not do "such and such" stupid thing [100 times]!

The steam heat would come on with a hiss and the repetitive throttling of some valve, followed by the pounding of air trapped in the system. Hisss ticka ticka ticka bang! Hisss ticka ticka ticka bang!

Window weights were hung on hidden chains and counter-balanced the giant double-hung windows. The teacher would open the windows with a pole and the weights and chains would rattle inside the wooden trim window frame and made a distinctive clatter sound, almost like a haunted house. Once in a while the chain would jump a track and the window would be jammed open. The janitor was called to put the chain back on the pulley and he had to dismantle the entire frame to get it back on. This was a great distraction for the class!

The bells are obvious but the fire drill horn was more like a ship’s Klaxon horn. What was really eerie was what would occur if we had one of our Cold War era air raid drills that was organized on a national level. We would hear the ethereal wail of the city’s air raid sirens, soon followed by a special ringing sequence of the school’s fire Klaxon horn. This signaled an air raid drill. We had to file into he basement past the huge rumbling steam boilers and sit cross-legged along the walls with our heads down in our laps, and cover our heads with our hands.

Pointers. Teachers would rap (tap tap tap) the long pointer on the desk to bring order to the class. Once in awhile the rubber tip would fly off the end and the class would chuckle.

Crank windup phonographs were still being used in the late 1940’s and we listened to various songs and talking books that came on the records. This was the beginning of the "audio visual" craze that was going to revolutionize education. They had this corny strip film projector composed of various stills. The teacher advanced each still frame by hand after a short related spiel on each record cut. Each spiel was followed by a tone and voice cue - the cue reminded her to advance the strip to the next frame.

If we went to the auditorium to see a film, the big 16mm projectors were in the center of the room, in the middle of the kids. We would watch these films with the protectors constantly going whirrrrr – ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka . . . If they miscued the beginning of the film and the big "dead roll" numbers flashed on the screen, the kids would count down the big numbers flashing on the screen, in unison, in a loud voice; 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, . . . . .

The wall clocks were special. They were electro-mechanical and driven by a huge grandfather pendulum clock in the principal’s office. Each minute, the grandfather clock sent a synchronizing pulse to all the clocks in the school and they would go "clunk - chick" in unison as they stepped to the next minute. For some reason the minute hand had a double motion process to advance to the next minute, thus the clunk-chick. When we took a test in silence, the clocks had about the same impact as Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Pit and the Pendulum". It was like the death countdown at your own academic execution! Clunk-chick Clunk- chick. The fleeting test-time minutes now seemed to pass like seconds!

The principal’s clock also drove a huge punched paper tape that rang all the bells at the appropriate times. Fifty years ago, this was real high tech! But what was really funny was if the clocks got out of sync because of a power failure, or it was the season to change the clocks. They did the calibration during the school day. All the clocks started to rapidly advance forward, clunk-chick clunk-chick clunk-chick, and it drove the teachers crazy.

How about the times when the big roll-up maps or the shades on the windows would suddenly fly up out of control and wrap around . . . wacka-wacka-wacka-wacka, That was always good for a big laugh.

Each room had a piano and a teacher had to know how to play to get out of teacher’s college. (Before our time, the colleges were called “normal schools”.) We would sing all the American classics, (And yes, we did sing Stephen Foster songs, which I understand are now banned.) I also remember the recitals in the auditorium with the kids singing along with the piano.

One sound we did not have . . . there was no PA systems in the city schools. Special messages were always sent around with notes and students were recruited as runners.

Mimeograph. I remember the chunk chunk chunk of the hand-cranked mimeograph machine as it made test question copies or flyers to take home.

The happy din of our voices in the school yard, as we played during recess.

Rote - the chanting of the times tables were fun and interesting. It taught discipline, improved your memory and created a sense of teamwork. I understand that rote has now been abandoned as dull and boring! We also pledged the flag, sang "My Country ‘Tis of Thee", and recited the Lord’s prayer (In public school, no less!)

And don’t forget the tension of the dead silence at the end of the year as the last report card were handed out. Each student slowly peeked inside for those fateful words on the back of his or her report card . . . " _______ was promoted to the 4th grade!" (In those days, kids could fail and be kept back by the school!)

Our favorite sound? - - The teacher reading Dr. Seuss!

I saved the most notorious sound for last . . . the screech of hard chalk on the blackboards!  It sent chills up your spine, a shudder, and then made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end! The invention of soft chalk brought this awful classroom trauma to an end.




Fake Teeth . . . The giant teeth model and big tooth brush. - - The teacher would use it as a visual to teach us how to brush our teeth!

Telephone dial head . . . In the early fifties the phone company went from 5 digits (say 44050) to letter prefixes such as Edison 44050 or ED-44050. They went to letters because the phone company though the average person could not remember 7 numbers in a row! To teach us how to dial the new phone numbers, the phone company took 1930s style telephone wall unit dial heads and made desk top units out of them. They came in a suitcase and the teacher would put one on each kid’s desk.  We would practice how to dial the new 2 letter and 5 number exchanges! (Today, it’s the kids who teach us how to run computers!)

Lavatory pass . . . A giant wooden tablet that hung on a rope . . .  you wore it around your neck.

The big wooden-cased classroom Regulator clock.

Janitor replacing glass . . . If a window pane was broken, the janitor had a special gizmo he hung out the window like a hooking scaffold. He hung over the side . . . 3 stories up!  Nothing got done in class until he was finished with his glazing job!

Frosty the snowman . . .  A small plastic snow man statue sat on the record turntable spindle and spun around while the record played “Frosty the Snow Man”. The statue had facets of mirrors around the bottom. The mirrors picked up various small Frosty images off the record label, and made a dancing snowman appear in the facets in kaleidoscopic fashion.

Huge canvas maps . . .  They hung in multi levels over the blackboard.  (I remember all the communist countries on our map were tinted red!)

The occasional use of colored chalk for special reasons was a big hit in our black and white visual world. Routine use of yellow chalk came out when I was in high school.

Chalk holder used for drawing multiple lines -- A wooden gizmo with spring chalk holders that was used to make music score lines in one sweep of the hand

Big glass globe-covered incandescent lamps -- We had these huge lights that hung on chains -– they were better on your eyes than fluorescents and were augmented by giant double-hung windows that let in daylight. And of course . . . the window pole. The classroom ceilings were 12 feet high!

Stairwells with banisters to slide on!

Giant pencils and big thick ink scratch pens – and the hand cranked pencil sharpener.

Pencil boxes with themes on them – Howdy Doody was big!

Transoms over the classroom doors that really opened!

Cloakrooms  Remember the rows of brass hooks and shelves for the brown bag snack . . . the ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (We walked home for the noon lunch.  Mom was there!)

Playground cinders   No pavement on our playground – we had cinders . . . .If you fell you got the cinders in your cut. Out came mercurochrome!

The big bean bag was a hit for playtime.

Yellow rain slickers and big black goulashes . . . and we had mittens

Patrol boys with the white sash style belt with PAL logo shaped badge

The lunch box (sometimes decorated) – and the old washed out glass jelly jars used for milk with mom’s jury rigged waxed paper seals tightened into the lids to prevent leaks (no thermos bottles for us)

Red & green cellophane pop corn balls during Christmas season

Paper chains of red and green paper

The boys playing with sports trading cards.  The girls played with jacks or jumped Hopscotch.

Play clay was big at play time in the early grades – it was real clay!

The big red rubber playground ball for playing dodge ball.

Civil defense and Radiation logo signs for the basement fallout shelter

In 1955 we all got dog tags so they could identify our bodies after the “Russians dropped the A bomb”!

Girls with pig tails

Dresses – buck shoes – polo shirts – dungarees – sneakers (no logos on clothes except for “LEE” on our “dungarees” and Keds on our “sneakers”.) Bright colored shoe laces.  Pegged pants.  Oops, dungarees were not allowed –- even in public school!

The leather jackets and combat boots worn by the “hoods”.

Crew cut and zip haircuts . .  they cost 75 cents and had to last all summer. (mustache wax was used to hold up the short crew cut hair straight up in the front) Don’t forget the “DA” haircut.

Little candy pieces stuck on paper strips and ribbon candy

Waxed bottles of this awful red juice – we would bite off the tops and drink the juice (Was it red dye #2 taken off the market as carcinogenic?) – fake lips and wax mustache.

Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy – Mary Janes – candy cigarettes – licorice sticks – cracker jacks

Hostess cupcakes – these yellow cupcakes with cream inside were the big snack hit!

Strip film projector the teacher had to hand crank – audio visual was going to revolutionize the world of education!

Palmer Method script letter placards over the top of the blackboard (and the blackboards were real black slate!)

In the playground - The boys played “buck buck, how many fingers up” and “jump the brook”

Buck buck was a weird game where one team stood in a long linked line with there backs down – the other team would jump on top, one at a time – and then guess how many fingers the captain of the other team had extended – if they guess right they would reverse the teams –  it did not make much sense – but it was a team oriented event!

Jump the brook was just two sticks laid on the ground that everyone jumped over – then the sticks were moved apart, farther and farther, until there was one winner left who could make the long jump.

Flash cards for learning math tables, fractions and decimals.

Dr. Seuss books

The giant globe

16mm movies in the auditorium

The huge steam boiler in the basement that made the building shake . . . and the pipes clang and hiss . . . (the janitor had a matchbook collection that covered every square inch of the boiler room walls.)

Cherry and star stickers stuck on outstanding papers

Archie & Superman “funny books” – they were going to “rot our minds”!

Theme paper cutouts for holidays taped to the window panes . . .  Christmas trees, stars, snow flakes, pumpkins, witches, bunnies, etc.

The principal’s paddle –- She would slowly pull it out of her drawer (like pulling a sword from a scabbard) in front of mischievous kids to make the point – I only saw it once!

Early transistor radios (mid 50s). . . snuck into the classroom to pick up “daytime” World Series games! (Sometimes in a cut out book!)

The new fangled “IBM punch cards” for taking tests – do not fold, spindle or mutilate – use only the special pencil provided – do not mark outside the box!

35 to 40 kids to a class – the baby boom was on!

What was missing?  No parking lots – the street held the few cars for the staff who drove.  No giant administration office filled with staff. There was one principal and one secretary – that was it – and the principal may even have taught one or two courses a week!

 . . .  the dreaded blue exam booklet!

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