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The evolution of back-to-school shopping

With parents racing from store to store and children trying to stretch out the final days of their summer vacations, the signs are out that the back-to-school season is coming to a close.

While today, "Back to School" commercials start airing as early as late June and early July, the concept of the shopping season was not always as codified as it is today. Over the last century of Carroll County Times stories and advertisements, one can trace the evolution of what it meant to prepare to go back to school.

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In the 1910s and 1920s there were sporadic descriptions of children going "back to school" but the end of August was not truly labeled as such until the 1930s, when stores began advertising "Back to School sales." Coffman's in Westminster was the first to use the phrase in the Carroll County Times, on Aug. 31, 1931. Their sales included Parker and Waterman Pens from $1.25 to $7.50, desk globes for a quarter, school bags for 25 cents to $5.

In the first "Back to School" advertisement, Coffman's offered up a number of deals for families. For a nickel, a family could purchase 16 wax crayons, school paste, a fountain pen, pencil sharpener or a 200-page notebook, and each family that came in and spent at least 50 cents was given free rulers and book covers.

By 1945, Coffman's pencil sharpeners had increased to $1.50, spiral notebooks ranged from 5 cents to a quarter, crayons had increased to 25 cents and there were no longer any offers for free rulers or book covers.

In 1944, a book bag at Penney's ran a family $1.29. Part of the list of recommended school purchases included a mixture of things familiar to families today, from composition books, pencils, crayons, erasers, rulers, compasses and protractors, to items that have since fallen out of style, like stenographer's notebooks, fountain pens, ink, and typing paper.

In the 1950s, the Westminster Merchants Association began holding an annual Back-to-School Sale and parade. The event featured children marching from the National Guard Armory on Longwell Avenue and marching through town to the State and Carroll theaters, where they would have the chance to watch free movies while their parents shopped at discounted stores.

Kim Diamond and her daughter Abby, 6, look at clothes while back to school shopping at Kohl's in Westminster Saturday, August 19, 2017. Abby is going into first-grade at William Winchester Elementary School.
Kim Diamond and her daughter Abby, 6, look at clothes while back to school shopping at Kohl's in Westminster Saturday, August 19, 2017. Abby is going into first-grade at William Winchester Elementary School. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

It was during the '50s that back-to-school shopping began to take off, with increased Times real estate given not only to the standard supplies, but fun options for children grabbing their new supplies. Character lunch kits with matching vacuum bottles began being sold for $2.79 apiece, with fun themes like Robin Hood, buccaneer, jet patrol and more.

Over-the-shoulder school bags were also designed with child-friendly themes including The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Snow White.

By the '60s, the phrase began to refer to sales throughout the month of August, regardless of the products' relationships to learning. Everything from bicycles to glasses to newspaper subscriptions began being advertised with "Back to School" prices throughout the decade. Adding to the expansion, the participating stores in the Westminster Retail Association's back-to-school event expanded to include businesses like the Carroll Pastry Shop, Colonial Jewelry, Company, The Flower Box and other non-school related organizations.

By 1968, school lists had exploded to include more than 50 items, including rubber bands, school calendars, magic markers, graph paper and more.

Little has changed since the advertisements of the late '60s and early '70s, aside from inflation of prices, new technologies and the popularization of the phrase backpack, which began overtaking book bag in the 1980s.

Today, Americans are expected to spend $29.5 billion on back-to-school spending the second-highest amount in a decade after 2012's $30.3 billion haul, according to the National Retail Federation. Much like in the previous decades, a majority of shoppers — 57.1 percent — plan to shop at department stores, but an ever increasing share — 45.5 percent — plan to do their shopping online.

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