relics and artifacts from the not too distant past

October 17, 2012 |  Category:   art + design life remembering

I was at a birthday party held at a place in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard called Construction Kids and while watching the kids build objects out of pieces of scrap wood, I found these old graphic design tools hanging on the wall. Unlike the bins of supplies and building tools in the room that were in regular use, these rusted drawing tools were hung as a display. I know it seems so obvious, but sometimes it’s not until you see these objects arranged like artifacts that you realize just how many of these tools that we used to use every single day are obsolete. It’s not like I ever declared “it’s time to retire the T Square!”, but it did make me think about the fact that there is a whole world of objects, tools and art supplies that the girls might never even know about.


It seems really unimaginable now that newspapers and magazines were all physically laid out by hand in the form of boards and strips of paper back in olden times. It even seems crazy when I think about the fact that this was happening in my lifetime. One of my first jobs out of college was in the publishing industry in mid 90s Portland and for a year and a half, I cut strips of paper to be laid out on boards with wax that were then sent to a printer every week. I don’t think it was until I moved back to NY in late 96 that my jobs went all computer, though we were still making paper prototypes for clients and assembling them with an x-acto knife and rubber cement. I still use my x-acto knife and metal straight edge ruler all the time. They must be at least 15 years old, but I do sometimes think about those art supplies that I haven’t touched since: letraset transfer letters, the Staedtler drafting tools, Shaedler rules, my plexi triangle, the green ellipse templates. You can see many of these objects at The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies for those of you who might be too young to remember what any of these things are. Some of those tools I’ve kept in an old art box (I know I still have my calligraphy pens and I still have unopened packages of kneaded erasers), but most of the stuff has been lost over time in various moves across states.
Sometimes I miss those days. You worked with your hands a lot, physically cutting and gluing things, getting dirty, shaking canisters of film for developing, swishing paper that you just exposed to film in trays with rubber tipped thongs for developing, using actual tools that you held in your hands. It was art, it was messy. And it’s not just art and design, but music too – physically splicing audio tape to make loops, patching cords to make samples. We even made our own stereo speakers in school one year (so much math involved in speaker building and tuning). There’s still a huge interest in analog audio, but I feel like a lot of those old art supplies are relics now, gone like the rotary phone and those big volumes of Encyclopedias that we used as kids (let’s add the Yellow Pages and the fax machine to that list soon, please).
Maybe that’s why I stood in front of that wall at Construction Kids for so long, just kind of taking in the gravity of what those retired relics stood for. Things change all the time and we need to adapt. It’s true with everything, isn’t it? Technology, life, expectations, dreams, goal, even relationships with people…

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  • dolittledesign October 17, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Yes, we need to adapt…often not a choice.

  • Catherine October 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    It feels like you’ve been hinting at something for a number of posts now… whatever is going on I hope you are all OK.

  • Jenna October 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    @Catherine we’ll be ok, thanks! Just learning to adapt to all of life’s changes and twists, that is all.

  • Sally B October 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    I love this! I earned a design degree in 1979 and used so many of these tools. I had the best time going to the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies and browsing thru all the “toys”. I still have many of these items believe it or not. I think the last time I really used them was about 20 years ago but am now in the middle of a potential project that may require me to dig them out, dust them off, and try again. All because I have no skills with the latest drafting technology!
    I just love these “toys” and really like the thought of displaying them somehow.
    As always, thanks for the post!

  • Jane October 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Oh man, I’ve been feeling this way! I’m a library school student (yeah….doing it for the love, not the practicality…>.<), and most our instructors end sentences with "of course, it's all online now"….they don't even print the Encyclopaedia Britannica any more :( I used to spend countless hours just lying on the floor, flipping through those pages, firing my curiosity. I'm not even in my 30s yet, and I already feel like my past belongs in a museum….!!

  • Jenna October 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    @Jane It really is amazing how much more leg work it took to research anything back then. You had to look it up in the encyclopedias, go to the library. So much information now in an instant – and we expect it delivered fast too.

  • Jennifer O. October 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I think it’s amazing that the tools I use everyday – knitting needles, embroidery and sewing supplies – haven’t changed that much over time. A display like that of sewing supplies would look pretty similar to what we use everyday.

  • sylvï October 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    i have had similar thoughts in my mind lately. we have lots of old tools which belonged to my great grandfather, who was a carpenter. i keep thinking about his handiwork, but also that those tools of his were hand made by someone who used other tools… etc etc… i keep wondering, are we about to break a very ancient chain here?

    there is something unbeatable in the handmade look, the imperfections make it perfect & humane.

  • Sora October 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Do you remember rapidograph pens? They were so messy. Or all of the marker comps that made us actually sketch out ideas? I don’t miss the days of shooting stats or running linotronics (which is what I did right out of college for an ad agency) b/c I was horrible at paste-up and made all sorts of mistakes every time I had to cut a rubilith. So, I actually welcomed the computer. But, I do see your point about using our hands and the freedom of cutting and pasting especially when comping up ideas. It was more fun. Thanks for the memories!

  • Loren October 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    I pursued my major with the intent that drawing would still be relevant to it even though the computer was slowly creeping in. By the time I finished my four years receiving a BFA in Medical Illustration, carbon dust and air brushing were a thing of the past and digital art and animation were in. I finished undergrad feeling as though I were stuck between worlds and realized though relevant and important, I didn’t enjoy making art the “new” way and have found my passion in something entirely different.

  • Jenna October 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    @Loren interesting story. The things I learned in grad school 12 years ago is irrelevant now as well – the technology side of things that is. I would hope that in school, the foundations of theory, learning to synthesize ideas, collaborating and networking are the skills that you retain. The tools are merely the means to express our ideas, I guess. At least that is how I try to look at it.

  • Naomi October 17, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Love this post. I remember the panic I’d have when I’d run out of a press-type letter (usually a vowel) while doing a project:)

  • kin October 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    jenna, i work part-time at an art supply store in ontario, and have this conversation so frequently with the older crowd who comes in for their time-tested and true supplies which have slowly been discontinued or replaced (letraset letters and rapidiograph pens are super common requests). in many cases there is no alternative offered other than the digital. one precious quality tool will stop arriving from the warehouse and when the customer asks how they’re supposed to do their work the way they’ve perfected doing it all their life, all we can do is shrug. at the same time, i do recognize a lot of the tools you’ve mentioned here from our shelves (staedtler drafting tools, plexi triangles, green ellipse templates, and always kneadable erasers)! a lot of drafting students are still required to learn how to do everything the ‘old-fashioned’ way before transferring their skills to the computer.

  • Summer October 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Such a great post! I just turned 30, and I have those feelings about a lot of things. I think people around my age will be the last to remember what life was like “before the internet” (I too wore out the encyclopedias as a kid, and I learned to type on a typewriter).

    I posted last week about an incident I encountered where two girls – in their mid-20’s, college graduates – not only didn’t know that business phones have different “lines,” but that you can hang up the receiver when it’s on hold and it won’t hang up the call.

    Yesterday, my friend was training a girl and he told her to fax something. She said it wouldn’t work and made a funny noise. It was not a jam she was referring to, it was the dial up noise. (However, I’m with you; why are fax machines still around? I work with one company that informed me they only accept faxed requests. I was just trying to call it in, and they asked if that was a problem. I said, “Um, it’s a problem because it’s 2012. I suppose I can do that though…)

    SN: I had a new college freshman (born in 1994 !!!) tell me, “Oh man, I can’t IMAGINE going through high school without my iphone!” So adorable.

    Phew, okay, that’s all my geriatric stories today.

  • caroline October 19, 2012 at 12:50 am

    old graphic tools brings back memories for me as well. my dad worked as a layout designer for a newspaper company and I remember seeing all of his tools when I use to visit him as a kid. I remember thinking they were so “adult” and cool. my favorite was that squeaky, wax-like roller and all those sharp pens in 100s of colors.

  • Selkie October 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I use kneaded erasers all the time in my drawing classes: they are unparalleled in working off stress in young and old: quietly kneading, warming, stretching. They helps kids listen, though are more distracting than small pieces of fabric to hold…
    I am 61, and my 24 yr old Timberframer son uses alot of the heavy squares/templates/rules.