Williams column: The ‘Nifty Notebook’ sure was cool

  • Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013 12:08 a.m.

Fads of all types come and go, which is what makes them “fads” instead of “constants.” Some of them have to do with clothing, hair styles, or types of makeup. Others  are centered around toys of play. I remember a certain Mattel western-style cap pistol that to me was the “thing,” because, in addition to shooting caps, it also shot plastic bullets. That particular pistol was short-lived as a fad, however, being one of those items about which our mothers gave the time-honored warning (much more graphic than any label put there by  the manufacturer): “You could put your eye out with something like that!”

Being a retired social worker, I remember the fads of social work theory and the constantly associated and changing state forms that accompanied each of those fads. As my late wife was an elementary school teacher, I also remember the always-changing theories as to what would optimize learning in the classroom, each becoming the most current educational “fad.”

What I am leading up to here is a fad that had to do with a certain type of notebook in which some of us kept our paper at Granite Quarry School in the early 1960s. We all called that particular style of notebook “cool,” but its brand name  (as per advertised) included the word “Nifty,” in this case, an adjective acting as a proper noun in the naming of a notebook.

At that time, the “Nifty Notebook” looked like the next step in notebook evolution. It appeared slimmer than the regular three-ring binder, and its paper was secured at the top of the page rather than at the side. This necessitated the purchase of its own particular style and brand of notebook paper (capitalism working at its best).

When I got my Nifty Notebook, I relished its “coolness.” The word “cool” was already a staple of speech of the 1950s, primarily due, I think,  to its usage by the “beatnik” Maynard G. Krebs on the old TV show, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (he also used the word “Daddy-o,” but that word itself seemed to be trying too hard in an attempt at “coolness,” its active usage remaining in the 1950s, lingering afterwards only as a lingual fossil on sound film of the movies and television shows of the day.

To me, the feature of this notebook which really made it cool (and “nifty”) was its built-in pencil box. The box was of a thin, rectangular shape and made of plastic, but what really made it unusual was its method of closure: magnetism. We were learning about the earth’s magnetic poles and had seen artists’ conceptions in our school science book of those invisible, magnetic lines of force, so those of us with the Nifty Notebook were able to feel the power of magnetism up close and personal on a daily basis.

The academic bar magnets with which we had experimented in school were marked “N” on one end and “S” on the other. We learned in science what we had already begun to find out from our early grade-school crushes at Granite Quarry School: “Likes sometimes repel” and “Opposites sometimes attract!”

If book bags weren’t zipped properly, loose pencils and erasers would fall out, but when my Nifty Notebook’s  pencil box was “slammed” shut with the same  power that traps a solar flare’s projected particles far above polar skies to make the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (that power and trapping, of course, on a much greater scale), I could be sure of my pencils’ safe storage.

At the science museum where I work, we have hands-on activities involving magnets, but back then, every time the Nifty Notebook user took out his pencil then returned it to that special box, he had a very practical “hands-on” experience with the power of magnetism.

The Nifty Notebook proved to be a fad and didn’t last long. I can’t recall the reason for its extinction; perhaps its style of paper was too different from that to which both teachers and students had become accustomed. The Nifty Notebook was a dead-end like the Neanderthal, but perhaps even  moreso than he, because some scientists are now saying that many of us carry 1 percent to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA (upon saying  this, the room suddenly feels a little stuffy, and I have the need to wipe my brow, or at least, just to feel it).

The English language is changing so much nowadays that words become “archaic” at a faster rate than before. The word “nifty” chronologically preceded the word “cool,” sounding like a more straight-laced version of it from an earlier and simpler time probably filled with “art deco” objects. “Nifty” seems to have died out, but the  1950s beatnik word is still being used by kids (and even some old men) to this day. 

The very last time that I recall hearing the word “nifty” used in a sentence was at Granite Quarry School, when one of us displayed and proudly exclaimed the name of his new and novel notebook. (“Novel Notebook” would have also made a good, and equally catchy name.) Even then, his classmates did not borrow his notebook’s “given” name (with added mark of exclamation) to describe what they thought about it, but instead, used that other, much more popular word that is most always an adjective (except , of course, when used in relation to names of certain air-conditioning products and the names of related repair companies). That word has been, and still is, “cool.” And If you say, “Ah, but what about the proper names “Kool-Aid” and “Kool-Pops?” my reply would be that both cases don’t count, as the replacing of the letter “C” with the letter “K” makes that word appear to have derived from someplace just east of the River Rhine.

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